Italy is a nuclear-free zone. Its armed forces never had a nuclear bomb to ban and energy companies have not been allowed to generate power with atomic technology since a 1987 referendum banned its use.

All of which sounds very wholesome, but would not be much use if there were to be a Chernobyl-like accident in one of Italys nuclear neighbours. Radioactive clouds dont stop at passport control. Naturally, the experts say the industry is safe. But, with France and others operating atomic plants across the Alps, you could say Italy is running nuclear risks without getting any nuclear benefits. Its a situation that has led some to suggest the Bel Paese should hook a U-turn and at least get something out of the deal.

Premier Silvio Berlusconi is one of them. Last month he called for calm reflection over the decision to scrap nuclear power and hinted he might reverse it if re-elected in 2006.

Berlusconi and other nuclear supporters including some on the other side of the political spectrum claim the country simply cannot meet its energy needs without atomic power. The national grid imports around 16 per cent of its electricity from France, where nuclear power is the main source of energy. This has created a paradox where Italy can no longer produce nuclear energy but continues to buy and consume it.

According to Berlusconi, nuclear power is a clean, reliable, cheap source of power and Italy is now paying the penalty for abandoning the field. He argues that prices are 20-30 per cent higher here than in other parts of Europe as a result something which also puts the nations industry at a competitive disadvantage with respect to foreign rivals.

Going nuclear would enable Italy to regain energy self-sufficiency too. This should help avoid repeats of the September 2003 blackout, when virtually the whole country was left in the dark after a storm knocked out a power line in Switzerland.

The premier has even suggested to much scoffing from green groups that a return to nuclear power would help Italy become friendlier to the environment. Dumping it has led the country to rely on coal, oil and natural gas to generate electricity. All three of these sources produce greenhouse gases when burned, contributing to global warming. Italy must slash its use of these sources to meet the climate change emission standards set by the Kyoto Protocol. Nuclear power is a possible solution as, for all its faults, it does not produce greenhouse gases.

Finally, nuclear supporters argue that the 1987 referendums outcome was conditioned by the fact that it was held only a year after the explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the former USSR, when the disasters fallout was still being felt both literally and figuratively. If it were held today, they say, the result would be different.

Unsurprisingly, environmental associations are not convinced and reacted with outrage when Berlusconi reopened the debate. Aside from safety issues and health concerns for people living near the power stations, the Green party argues that nuclear power is also an expensive option in the long term. This is because of the damage caused by radioactive waste and the enormous costs involved in processing it. In fact, even now controversies flare up from time to time over storage and disposal of nuclear waste produced before 1987. Activists insist that the only sustainable solution is to invest in renewable sources and reduce energy consumption. The World Wide Fund for Nature estimates that the introduction of energy-saving measures would enable Italy to slash consumption by more than 40 per cent over the next 20 years.

We challenge Berlusconi to a new referendum over nuclear power in Italy. Lets see who wants a nuclear plant next to his or her house, said Green party leader Alfonso Pecoraro Scanio. Berlusconi should stop talking about absurd things and think about Italys real problems, which regard developing clean energy, starting with solar and hydrogen energy His words are part of a strategy to favour the nuclear business lobby.

Before 1987, Italy was a leader in the atomic sector. It was among the first countries in the world to use nuclear technology for civil purposes in the late 1940s. In fact, during the 1950s and 1960s, Italy was the worlds third biggest producer of atomic energy, after the United States and Britain.

ENEL, Italys main power-generation company, recently returned to the sector via overseas ventures. It has just bought a controlling stake in Slovakias Slovensk Elektrrne, which runs two nuclear plants in the towns of Mochovce and Bohunice. ENEL plans to form an alliance with lectricit de France (EdF), involving the French state-owned energy giants nuclear activities as well. Sogin, the company tasked with decommissioning nuclear infrastructure after the referendum, also won a contract last year to provide technical assistance at a nuclear plant in Kola, Russia.

Both firms will no doubt be delighted that the issue is back on the agenda and if Berlusconi gets a second mandate they may be able to get a slice of the atomic-energy action a bit closer to home.