Nuclear power fuels debate in Italy. Public reaction brings down government, forces plant to convert from nuclear fuel

Nuclear power has been at the center of a political firestorm in Italy. Heated debates over the closure, reopening, and reclosure of one uncompleted nuclear plant north of Rome have brought down a number of local governments and, in March, the national government.

But over the course of the last month, nuclear power here has been reduced from casus belli (cause of war) to mere cause celebre.

For Italy, this transformation marks the first step in the country's struggle to recover its political balance. For other countries grappling with the issue, the Italians may have set an important precedent.

Italy's newly formed government this week informed the beleaguered state power company that the controversial, and still uncompleted, nuclear power plant at Montalto di Castro, 60 miles north of the capital, would be converted to use a conventional fuel source.

The announcement culminated a five-month circus that began last November when Italian voters, in a nonbinding referendum, overwhelmingly voted to halt nuclear-power development. Soon thereafter, the Montalto construction was halted over questions of plant safety.

In March, the then-Prime Minister Giovanni Goria again gave the green light to construction crews, only to face the fierce objections of the Socialist Party, one member of the five-party coalition known here as the Pentacolori (five colors). Socialist opposition led to the Goria resignation on March 11. A new government (another variation of the Pentacolori) was not formed until two weeks ago - by Mr. Goria's fellow Christian Democrat, Ciriaco de Mita.

The decision to convert the 70-percent finished Montalto plant to conventional power - either coal or natural gas - was the De Mita government's first act in power. Ironically, the decree was made by reappointed Industry Minister Adolfo Battaglia, the same minister who had presided over Montalto's reopening as a nuclear facility a month earlier.

The announcement has not been popular in business circles. Confindustria, the national federation of industrialists, warned the ministry Monday that conversion of the Montalto plant could cost the already deeply indebted state $3.25 billion, and that the resulting lower megawattage could lead to blackouts at the turn of the century.

The government appears to have had little choice in the matter, however, not so much for reasons inherent to the nuclear debate but because of the frailty of the Italian political system. Analysts here say that if the De Mita government - Italy's 48th postwar coalition - fails to get out of the starting blocks, party bosses could be forced to reassess their political alliances and even consider a recipe including the Communists, which despite being the country's second largest party, have been excluded from the government since the war.

Preventing such a turn of events is one thing that the Christian Democrats and the Socialists agree on.

While the Rome government's solution to the Montalto controversy may be politically expedient, it could nevertheless point the way for other countries mired in the pros and cons of the nuclear-power issue, analysts here say.

The decision here included a proviso that leaves the door open for reconversion of the Montalto plant back to nuclear power - after no less that seven or eight years - should ``technical, economic, and environmental'' safeguards be forthcoming.

The De Mita government's Montalto decree hardly clears the air here. It faces labor militancy in many sectors, and the 3,800 union members from Montalto have been particularly vocal in demanding lost wages and assurances of job security.

One indication of their seriousness came in late March, when 2,000 of them had to be dispersed with tear gas after blocking a main coastal highway and the Rome-Genoa railway line. A few days later thousands of union members - Christian Democrats, socialists, and Communists alike - marched in sympathy through the capital's central Piazza Venezia, where they met a few hundred riot-geared policemen without incident.

Environmental groups here are not satisfied either. They and many other Italians - as indicated by the November referendum - still have a clear memory of the Chernobyl disaster two years ago.

Despite the recent government action here, a mass antinuclear demonstration was held last Saturday in Rome to commemorate the second anniversary of the Soviet accident and warn against further expansion of Italy's nuclear program.

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