ROME — Italy said Thursday it would begin building nuclear power stations to reduce dependence on oil and gas, scrapping a 1987 decision by referendum that rejected atomic energy.
"During the term of this parliament we will lay the first stone for the construction in our country of a group of new-generation nuclear power stations," Economic Development Minister Claudia Scajola told the Italian employers' federation Confindustria.
"We can no longer avoid an action plan for a return to nuclear power," he said, recalling a campaign pledge by Italy's newly named right-wing prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, to take such a step.
A decision to renounce nuclear power generation and to close the country's four nuclear plants was taken by referendum in 1987 following the nuclear disaster in Chernobyl, Ukraine on April 26, 1986.
But according to Confindustria head Emma Marcegaglia the time has now come "to invest in nuclear energy" as the country has become too dependent on foreign energy sources.
Following the Confindustria meeting Fulvio Conti, head of Italy's principal power group Enel, said his company was "technically ready" to take part in the initiative, the Ansa news agency reported.
"It's a good start on the part of the government, which confirms the need to diversify (energy) sources and to invest in infrastructure," he said. The Italian government, either directly or indirectly, has a 30 percent stake in Enel.
Conti last month said it would likely take "seven to 10 years for a new nuclear generator to come online."
Italy has suffered occasional power shortages in recent years, due in part to problems with its electrical grid distribution network.
In September 2003 the entire country was hit by a power cut because of problems with the supply of electricity bought from Switzerland.
Like other countries in Europe, Italy buys electricity at peak periods from neighbours, including France where most electricity is generated by nuclear means.
Speaking in April at an International Energy Forum in Rome, Conti said Italy --- which generates around 60 percent of its energy from gas -- was "too dependent" on gas imports.
Furthermore, because it lacked the necessary infrastructure, such as gas pipelines and liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminals, it was in an even weaker position that other countries.
Italy's position was "even more fragile ... because we are falling short of infrastructure capacity. We lack new gas pipelines or new LNGs," he said.
In March 2007, Enel joined Russia's nuclear energy agency Rosatom to work on nuclear energy projects in central and eastern Europe.
The two groups pledged to consider joint participation in energy networks, cooperation in the production of machinery for the nuclear energy industry and mutual asset swaps.
Last month Berlusconi was elected to office, replacing a centre-left administration headed by former EU Commission President Romano Prodi whose coalition included groups strongly opposed to n uclear power.
In July, 2006, Prodi told a Group of Eight (G8) summit that although Italy was prepared to support new research into nuclear energy, it was opposed to building new nuclear plants on its territory.