On Saturday, I was in Naples to talk at a seminar on the case for nuclear power. The most striking – and worrying – thing for me was that one of the other speakers argued that nuclear power was desirable, but not for climate reasons. I am not allowed to identify him, as the seminar was under the Chatham House rule, but I can say that he is a senior and influential figure in Italy. He said that there is no such thing as human-induced climate change, that sea levels have always risen and fallen (which is true, but does not mean that they will not rise substantially due to human activity), that there’s nothing wrong with carbon dioxide because humans breath it out (which is a stupid argument: CO2 is not poisonous but the concentration in the atmosphere is rising due to the burning of fossil fuels, and a higher concentration means that more heat is trapped rather than going back into space). He then said that Italy should build nuclear power stations because they provide a cheaper source of electricity than anything else. He obviously hasn’t read much history.
When I was last in Italy for work, I spoke at a press conference, again on nuclear power, and a journalist asked whether I would support nuclear power if there was no such thing as climate change. That was an easy question to answer. No. However, I haven’t been asked a question like that anywhere else for the last five years. I know that these two incidents may not represent anything substantial about opinion in Italy, but they are, nevertheless, causes for concern.
Italy has decided to build new nuclear power stations. Its previous ones were closed following a referendum in 1987. However, Berlusconi’s government has said that no new referendum on nuclear is necessary. Sweden voted to close its nuclear power stations in 1980, though they have not in fact done so. In 2009, the Swedish government announced that it too would allow new nuclear construction – again, no new referendum. Referenda are not ideal and do not necessarily lead to desirable outcomes, as the Swiss referendum decision to ban minarets last year showed. They should ideally only be used on constitutional issues. Policy decisions should be taken by politicians – that’s what democracy is for. But to reverse a referendum decision without holding a further referendum is difficult to justify. The Swedish referendum was the year after the Three Mile Island incident; the Italian one the year after Chernobyl. Given Swedish concern about climate change and Italian concern about energy security (they have no significant fossil fuel reserves), nuclear referenda would now be winnable in both countries. They should be held.