Sunday, May 8, 2011

Nuclear Italy

Italy, unlike bordering France, does not at present have active nuclear power plants. The country under the (ahem) leadership of Silvio Berlusconi was set to reconsider the matter when all hell broke loose in Japan, whereupon the populace had an understandable change of heart. In typical Italo-Byzantine political style, they are now arguing about what to do, with a referendum on the matter that may or may not take place in the first half of June.

Because the abrupt shift away from support of nuclear energy occurred following Fukushima, some have maintained that present opposition is due to an emotional reaction, irrationality and even hysteria. One can't deny that there have been instances of a number of people behaving irrationally in a number of countries e.g. desperately seeking potassium iodide to counteract supposed radiation exposure. But I am of the opinion that emotions are not necessarily a misleading guide in decision-making, and that none of us is a disembodied intellect. An analogy: if you were in a panic following a mild heart attack and decided to finally clean up your act (and arteries), this would actually be the right decision, and it would be an adaptive decision. And it just might prevent the Big One and save your life. I wouldn't call this hysteria, I'd call it finally coming to your senses.

The pro-nuclear faction, including renowned oncologist and head of the Italian equivalent of the Nuclear Regulatory Agency, Umberto Veronesi, is making great use of the opposition-is-due-to-irrationality-and-misinformation argument. Unfortunately for them, many of the big scientific guns such as physicists Carlo Rubbia (a Nobel prizewinner) and Giorgio Parisi are more or less opposed to nuclear energy, showing that there is no ready consensus even amongst scientists. And other prominent Italians such as famed singer-songwriter Gino Paoli and Oscar-winning composer Ennio Morricone have come out against the nuclear option. People such as Paoli and Morricone show that opposition is often principled and deeply felt, with serious, mature motivations.

Indeed the problem of the use of nuclear energy is not merely a scientific problem and thus should not only be the province of technocrats. The entire history of nuclear power has been characterized by knowledge gained (painfully) after the fact, and by lack of transparency. I was in Italy in 1986 when the Chernobyl disaster occurred, and I can assure you they did not know how the meltdown in Ukraine would affect Italy beforehand (it did- I still remember restrictions to consumption of milk and leafy greens, for instance).

Enormous interests, economic, political and military, are involved; and as we know, power corrupts. It will corrupt even more in a country already riddled with corruption (and inefficiency), where they haven't even been able to solve the problem of regular waste after years and years. How will they handle the disposal of nuclear waste? Especially if one considers the presence in Italy of thriving organized crime and the likely role that it may play in the matter.