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"We probably have to say goodbye to nuclear energy." That's how Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi summarized the results of the country's referendum on nuclear power even before the polls had closed. The first projections showed that over 90% of the voters oppose the reintroduction of nuclear power, an overwhelming victory for Italy's antinuclear movement.
Berlusconi's government had tried to stop the referendum through elaborate legislative maneuvering, arguing that the post-Fukushima atmosphere was "too emotional" to put the issue up for a vote. But a few weeks ago, Italy's Supreme Court of Cassation ruled that the referendum should go forward, although with some changes to the originally proposed text.
A key question was whether voter turnout would exceed 50%, the threshold for the referendum to be binding. Berlusconi's government had tried to discourage turnout, and the prime minister's own TV channels had downplayed its significance. Nonetheless, an estimated 57% of eligible voters showed up.
The fight over the referendum itself has had an odd effect on its meaning, however. Italians didn't vote up or down on the construction of new reactors, explains Roberto Vacca, a retired professor of system engineering at the University of Rome and an expert on Italian science policy. As a result of the legal wrangling of the past few months, the question actually put to the voters was whether they wanted to abrogate a law passed on 26 May—and introduced by Berlusconi—which postponed the new nuclear strategy by a year. Voters said yes, which means Parliament will have to rethink its energy policy anew, says Vacca.
But as Berlusconi's words indicated, the vote's political significance is clear--which is why it was welcomed by environmental groups. "This result is even more relevant if we take into account all the maneuvers of the government to block the referendum in whatever way possible until the last moment, the polling day," a statement issued today by Greenpeace said.