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Berlusconi crisis hits nuclear revival

November 22, 2010

By Guy Dinmore in Rome, Published: November 22 2010  

Umberto Veronesi

An octogenarian cancer surgeon controversially chosen by Silvio Berlusconi to lead the relaunch of Italy’s nuclear industry says he did not really want the job and that his appointment may yet be stalled by the possible collapse of the prime minister’s centre-right government.

With Italy the only member of the G8 without nuclear power, restoring the country’s industry after a 23-year moratorium was a major policy platform in Mr Berlusconi’s 2008 election campaign. But paralysis within the government caused by corruption scandals and internal rifts has set the timetable back.

The appointment of Umberto Veronesi triggered widespread criticism on the grounds of his age – he will be 85 later this month – and the fact that he is a cancer surgeon and not a nuclear expert.

A key step to start the process was the nomination of the head of a new Nuclear Safety Agency but the cabinet’s choice this month of Umberto Veronesi triggered widespread criticism on the grounds of his age – he will be 85 later this month – and the fact that he is a cancer surgeon and not a nuclear expert. Two other officials named to the board also have no nuclear expertise.

“I was not so willing to do it, but they asked me,” Dr Veronesi said. “But it was hard to say no.”

He also points out that his confirmation by parliament could yet be stalled or derailed with both chambers tied up with addressing more important business ahead of votes of no confidence in Mr Berlusconi’s government that are due to be held on December 14.

Mr Berlusconi has a slim majority in the senate but risks losing his majority in the lower house.

Despite his lack of nuclear expertise, Dr Veronesi has two strong factors in his favour when it comes to persuading a sceptical Italian public to accept the return of nuclear power after voting in 1987 to dismantle the country’s four existing reactors in the wake of the Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine.

First Dr Veronesi is one of Italy’s most respected scientists for his pioneering work in treating breast cancer as well as his campaigns to protect people from cancer risks in industry, such as from asbestos and chemicals. As a former health minister and still a senator for the opposition Democratic party, he does not risk being labelled a government stooge.

“They chose me for my credibility as a scientist and as someone from the opposition,” he said, also pointing out that he was once a strong opponent of nuclear power.

If confirmed then Dr Veronesi’s first task will be to set up the agency on a limited budget with a staff of some 100 to be taken from a limited pool of nuclear scientists.

Once formed the Nuclear Safety Agency is to decide how many reactors Italy needs, whether to choose competing types offered by France’s EDF and Westinghouse of the US and, probably most controversial of all, where to put them.

The government has stripped Italy’s regional governments of their powers of veto over choice of location, but Dr Veronesi admitted that political realities mean he needed to have local governors on his side.

Observers said this probably means that Lazio, the central region surrounding Rome, is a prime candidate, as it is already home to two mothballed nuclear plants and its administration is led by Mr Berlusconi’s People of Liberty party.

The current timetable envisages construction starting in 2013. Enel, the state-controlled utility which has set up a nuclear joint venture with EDF, believes new reactors can come on stream by 2020, but Dr Veronesi hoped construction can be quicker.

Italy must also decide on a solution for its nuclear waste, an issue that has never been resolved since decommissioning. Dr Veronesi believes the answer could lie outside the country as European nuclear agencies seek to identify a maximum of three sites for common use.

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