ITALY, which last week decided to embrace nuclear power two decades after a public referendum banned nuclear power and deactivated all its reactors, could be just the first of several European countries to reverse its stance on nuclear power, a leading industry group has said.
Ian Hore-Lacey, spokesman for the London-based World Nuclear Association, said: "Italy has had the most dramatic, the most public turnaround, but the sentiments against nuclear are reversing very quickly all across Europe."
When asked which nations were likely to join Britain and France as major producers of nuclear power, he replied: "Holland, Belgium, Sweden, Germany and more."
With oil now at record high prices, countries throughout the developed world are now looking at the nuclear option.
The developing world is also looking at nuclear power, with Iran the most high-profile proponent. However, with many other countries crippled by energy costs and needing a short-term fix, the nuclear option is increasingly attractive. Despite having the perfect conditions to harness wind and solar power, South Africa, which is suffering from acute electricity shortages, has just asked American and French companies to tender to build a second nuclear plant.
Yet it is in Europe that nuclear power is being most urgently considered. The continent turned its back on nuclear power in the 1980s in the wake of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, but political and economic conditions are markedly different now. Oil was under $50 a barrel then, global warming was a fringe science and climate change had not been linked to manmade emissions.
Although economic considerations and global warming are driving the debate, energy security is also an issue never far from the surface. Few European countries have their own energy reserves and are completely reliant on imports. As well as escalating prices for oil and gas, plus the political upheaval in the Middle East, Europe watched in horror in 2006 as Russia's President Vladimir Putin cut off the natural gas supply to Ukraine in a price dispute, leaving it in darkness.
Although Europe is committed to harnessing wind and solar energy, so far the problems to doing so have proved insurmountable. Solar power is problematic in northern Europe, while dense populations in many parts of the continent make it difficult to find suitable sites for wind farms.
Even biofuel, once touted as a possible panacea, has gone out of fashion as its unsustainable impact on the environment and food prices has become apparent.
Once the most-scorned form of energy, the rehabilitation of nuclear power was underscored in January when John Hutton, Labour's Minister for Business, grouped it with "other low-carbon sources of energy" like biofuels. It was barely mentioned in the Government action plan on energy three years earlier.
There is now a determination to tackle the issue head on throughout the continent. With nuclear plants taking up to 20 years from conception to becoming operational, European nations are now having to answer some very difficult questions. The dilemma of Italy, as the biggest importer of oil and gas, are the most pressing: there is no chance of reactivating sites or building new ones within the next five years.
"By the end of this legislature, we will put down the foundation stone for the construction in our country of a group of new-generation nuclear plants," said Claudio Scajola, Italy's minister of economic development. "An action plan to go back to nuclear power cannot be delayed anymore. Only nuclear plants safely produce energy on a vast scale with competitive costs, respecting the environment."
Environmental groups in Italy attacked any plan to bring back nuclear power. Giuseppe Onufrio, a director of Greenpeace Italy, called the announcement "a declaration of war", and pointed out that there are still 235 tonnes of contaminated nuclear waste stored at the decommissioned plants, and no sites for new waste to be stored.
Emma Bonino, an opposition politician and vice-president of the Italian Senate, said building nuclear plants made no economic sense because they would not be ready for at least 20 years.
Enel, Italy's leading energy provider, announced this year that it would close its oil-fired power plants because the fuel had become too costly. Italians pay the highest energy prices in Europe. Enel has been building coal plants to fill the void left by oil. Coal plants are cheaper but create relatively high levels of carbon emissions.
Enel, which operates power plants in several European countries, already has at least one nuclear plant, in Bulgaria, and has been researching so-called fourth-generation nuclear reactors, which are intended to be safer and to minimise waste and the use of natural resources.