It’s been a rough northern spring for Silvio Berlusconi, tried by the ongoing refugee crisis at Lampedusa; the infamous caso Rubi; the collapse in his political and business partnership with Muammar Gaddafi and the loss of his city of birth, Milan, in mayoral elections — even after he warned that the city would turn into "an Italian Stalingrad" and a "Islamic Gypsyopolis ruled by the hammer and sickle".
Yet none of these may turn out to be what tips his political future. Italians who’ve left Italy to settle elsewhere in the EU flew home this weekend to vote in a series of referenda, brought on by the centre left and intended to test the power of the Berlusconi machine. They were voting on the future of nuclear power in Italy, on water privatisation and on government business being adequate grounds to delay the trials of officials. This last confirmed that il Cavaliere is not immune from the several judicial investigations being pursued by Milan magistrates.
The clear victory of the anti-nuclear movement and by proxy the centre left in the polls is a signal that Italians have had enough of Berlusconi. "NOW RESIGN," was Berlusconi opponent La Repubblica’s banner headline as the results of the referenda came in. On the other hand, il Giornale, owned by the Berlusconi family, stressed that "Berlusconi accepts the result" of the referenda.
Independent daily il Fatto Quotidiano’s infographic of the referenda results shows the scale of the left’s victory: a turn-out of around 57 per cent, and a 95 per cent vote in favour of the proposals put up by centre left parties and non-governmental organisations.
That’s a clear defeat for the Italian PM, who had been exhorting his supporters not to vote.
After the first day of the two-day poll, turnout was so high that recriminations began early. Northern League chief and government number two Umberto Bossi was already sharpening his knives on Sunday, claiming that "Berlusconi has lost the ability to communicate in public" on Italian news agency TMI.
Most prominent of the referenda themes was whether or not Italy should reintroduce nuclear energy — almost exactly three months to the day after the Fukushima nuclear accident, and with alarming reports still emerging about what actually occurred in northern Japan in the aftermath of March’s huge earthquake and tsunami.
Austrian centre right paper Die Presse tells the story behind the Italian nuclear referendum: after being re-elected in 2008, Berlusconi decided to re-introduce nuclear in Italy as a solution to high energy prices (the industry was shut down after Chernobyl in the 1980s). After Fukushima, he apparently changed his mind, announcing a one year moratorium on the reintroduction of the technology — only to have this exposed as a tactical decision, after reports emerged that he told Nicolas Sarkozy he didn’t want to have the referendum held after Fukushima at all. However, in view of the overwhelming referendum results, an Italian nuclear energy industry now seems completely off the table. Il Tempo reported that Berlusconi said "goodbye to the nuclear option," even before the last of the referendum votes had been counted.
The Italian vote comes just days after the Swiss parliament reconfirmed an earlier decision to quit nuclear energy. The clear vote came after most of the country’s parties voted against keeping nuclear technology, says the Swiss paper of record, the Neuer Zürchner Zeitung. The Swiss exit from nuclear will be slower than the German opt-out — scheduled for 2022 — with 2034 the date set for the final stage of the phase out, says the paper.
New research indicates that the German decision to stop using nuclear will hardly effect either energy prices or greenhouse output. Munich’s Süddeutsche Zeitung reports on a study by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and the University of Leipzig, which found that the German economy will scarcely be affected by the 2022 opt-out — and that greenhouse emissions won’t rise either, provided Germany switches to gas rather than coal plants.
The results of the Potsdam study contradict the pessimistic warnings of German power companies. News weekly Der Spiegel cites power company CEO Jürgen Großmann’s grim prediction of the "deindustrialisation" of Germany due to Angela Merkel’s decision to close Germany’s nuclear power plants. The magazine says the latest warning follows earlier complaints that the central European country was now an "eco-dictatorship" because of the conservative-liberal coalition government’s decision to opt out of the technology.
The European debate about nuclear coincided with the emergence of more reports from Japan about the continuing impact of the Fukushima reactor disaster on the environment in the region around the reactor. Madrid’s El País reveals the impact of the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown three months on: Japan, the most indebted nation on the planet, will have to spend billions of yen and the next 10 years rebuilding from the March catastrophe. The paper says Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan’s days are "numbered," after his mismanagement of the aftermath.
That mismanagement includes the failure of the Japanese government to adequately inform the world of what happened at Fukushima, continues El País, pointing out that only last Monday Kan sent a report to the International Atomic Agency Energy admitting that there had been meltdowns at reactors one, two and three at Fukushima and that "possibly, the cases in which the reactor core was confined had ruptured".
It’s not the only recent alarming admission by the Japanese government: Belgian daily De Morgen says the radioactive chemical strontium, which can cause leukaemia, has now been detected at "11 separate sites" around Fukushima — although it adds that the OAEA says its "unlikely" that there’s any risk to human health for now.
Meanwhile, the scale used to measure nuclear accidents may have to be revised after Fukushima due to the severity of the accident, says Portugal’s Público. The daily says the OECD’s nuclear energy branch is considering whether the "tools currently used to inform the public, in a manner clear and transparent, about the severity of a nuclear accident" are adequate. The highest category currently available to nuclear agencies on a scale set up after Chernobyl was seven. Fukushima and Chernobyl both attained this highest classification. As Europe moves away from nuclear, the scale of severity might need to be readjusted.
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