ROME - Italy announced Thursday that within five years it planned to resume building nuclear energy plants, two decades after a public referendum resoundingly banned nuclear power and deactivated all its reactors.
"By the end of this legislature we will put down the foundation stone for the construction in our country of a group of new-generation nuclear plants," said Claudio Scajola, minister of economic development. "An action plan to go back to nuclear power can not be delayed anymore."
The change for Italy is a striking sign of the times, reflecting growing concern in many European countries over the skyrocketing price of oil and energy security, as well as the warming effects of carbon emissions from fossil fuels. All have combined to make this once-scorned form of energy far more palatable.
"Italy has had the most dramatic, the most public turnaround, but the sentiments against nuclear are reversing very quickly all across Europe - Holland, Belgium, Sweden, Germany and more," said Ian Hore-Lacey, spokesman for the World Nuclear Association, an industry group based in London.
Nuclear power's rehabilitation was underscored earlier this year when John Hutton, British Business Secretary, grouped it with "other low-carbon sources of energy" like biofuels. It had barely been mentioned in the government's action plan on energy three years earlier.
Echoing the sentiment on Thursday, Mr. Scajola said: "Only nuclear plants safely produce energy on a vast scale with competitive costs, respecting the environment."
A number of European countries have banned or restricted nuclear power over the last 20 years, including Italy, which closed all its plants. Germany and Belgium have long prohibited the building of new reactors, although operating ones were allowed to run their natural lifespan. France was one of the few countries that continued relying heavily on nuclear power.
Environmental groups in Italy immediately attacked any plan to bring back nuclear power. Giuseppe Onufrio, a director of Greenpeace Italy, called it "a declaration of war."
Emma Bonino, an opposition politician who is vice president of the Italian Senate, said that it made no economic sense to build nuclear plants because they would not be ready for 20 years or longer.
"We should be investing more in solar and wind," she said. "We should be moving much more quickly to improve energy efficiency, of buildings, for example. That's something Italy has never done anything with."
But conditions were very different in the 1980s, when European countries turned away from nuclear power: Oil cost under $50 a barrel, global warming was a fringe science and climate change had not been linked to man-made emissions. Perhaps more important for the public psyche, Europe's nuclear bans and restrictions were almost all enacted in the years after the 1986 Chernobyl disaster in the Soviet Union.
The equation has changed: Today, with oil approaching $150 a barrel, most European countries, which generally have no oil and gas resources of their own, have been forced by finances to consider new forms of energy - and fast. New nuclear plants take 20 years to build. Also, instead of Chernobyl, Europeans have more recently watched in horror as Russian president Vladamir Putin cut off the natural gas supply to Ukraine in a price dispute, leaving that country in darkness.
New green technologies, like solar power, wind and biofuel, have not yet been scaled up to the point where they can form the backbone of a country's energy strategy, and it is not clear that they will ever achieve that success.
Italy is the largest net energy importer in Europe, but nearly all European countries rely heavily on imported energy - particularly oil and gas.
ENEL, Italy's leading energy provider, announced this year it would close its oil-fire power plants because the fuel had become unaffordable. Italians pay the highest energy prices in Europe. ENEL has been building new coal plants to fill the void left by oil, a move that created controversy in itself: coal plants are cheaper but create relatively high levels of carbon emissions, even using the type of new "clean coal" technology that ENEL had planned.
A few European countries, like Germany and Poland, could likewise fall back on their abundant coal reserves if they turned away from oil and gas - but most of the coal mined in both countries is low grade and highly polluting.
After today's government announcement opening Italy to nuclear power ENEL's managing director, Fulvio Conti, said "We are ready." But he added that "new regulation and strong agreement on the plan within the country" would be needed.
ENEL, which operates power plants in a number of European countries already has at least one nuclear plant, in Bulgaria, and has been researching so called 4th generation nuclear reactors. Italy old reactors still exist, but are too outdated to be re-opened and new ones would have to be built.
The Italian government laid out few specifics plan to back its announcement and in calls to the ministry, officials said they were still studying issues like exactly what kind of plants could be built and, whether a new referendum would be legally required to re-open Italy to nuclear power.
Indeed, Marzia Marzioli, who leads a citizens' campaign against new coal plants in Italy, said nuclear was equally repellent. "As with coal, nuclear energy is the exact opposite of what we would like for Italy.
"It is a choice that doesn't consider the alternatives," such as solar power, she said.
To build nuclear plants, Italy would almost certainly have to improve its system of dealing with nuclear waste. Two hundred and thirty five tons of nuclear fuels are still being stored in the old plants that were shut down years ago.
Ms. Bonino said she was concerned that Italy would be unable to safely process nuclear waste from new reactors and also that fuel could be supplied to rogue states trying to acquire nuclear capability. "I think this plan is being offered to satisfy the business community but I worry that security and waste are issues," she said.
Daniele Pinto contributed reporting.