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US seeks role in Italian nuclear industry

September 23, 2009

By Guy Dinmore in Rome Published: September 23 2009

Italy will hold talks with the Obama administration and Westinghouse next week on opening its nuclear power market to US technology following concerns raised by Washington that the revival of the Italian nuclear industry after a two-decade moratorium will be dominated by France’s EDF.

Italian and US officials said Claudio Scajola, minister for economic development, and Steven Chu, US energy secretary, would sign an agreement in Washington next Tuesday on research and development of nuclear technology and issue a joint declaration on industrial co-operation in nuclear power.

Mr Scajola will then visit the Beaver Valley nuclear plant built by Westinghouse in Pennsylvania which started operating in 1976. Japan’s Toshiba bought Westinghouse in 2006.

Italians voted in 1987, a year after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in Ukraine, to decommission existing nuclear power plants. The centre-right government led by Silvio Berlusconi came to office last year with a promise to relaunch the industry.

An agreement between Enel, Italy’s main power utility, and France’s EDF to study the construction of at least four nuclear plants using the French Areva-designed European pressurised reactor led to complaints by the US – as well as some Italian companies – that the French and Italian governments were intent on creating a nuclear duopoly through their two state-controlled companies.

Edison, Italy’s second largest electricity generator with a 17 per cent contribution to national production, confirmed on Wednesday it was interested in investing up to €4bn to acquire a stake in the nuclear power plants proposed by Enel and EDF. Edison’s largest shareholders include EDF and a group of Italian utilities.

Italian ministers have since clarified that future nuclear development could include other technologies, including that of Westinghouse-Toshiba. Ansaldo Nucleare, a unit of Finmeccanica, the Italian state-controlled defence conglomerate, is seen as a possible partner for Westinghouse.

Giuseppe Zampini, head of Ansaldo’s energy division, is due to accompany the minister on the visit to the Westinghouse plant, fuelling speculation in the Italian press of a possible consortium between the two companies.

Franco Frattini, Italy’s foreign minister, told the Financial Times that Mr Scajola would explain Italy’s nuclear strategy and discuss cooperation with US technology.

He said the minister would also soon present proposed locations for the power plants, a contentious issue in Italy where regional authorities fear that their veto power over such projects will be stripped away by the central government.

The centre-right government plans to start building the first nuclear power station by 2013, although problems left over from Italy’s obsolete programme – including nuclear waste, some of which was imported from the US – have not yet been resolved.

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