VENICE — It seemed incredible when drama rolled off the screen and onto the streets at Venice during its recent film festival. People played loud music, beat drums, blew trumpets and clashed cymbals to protest the government’s decision to locate a nuclear reactor just 20 kilometers away from this ancient and exquisitely beautiful city on the Adriatic Sea.

Despite massive public opposition to Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s decision to build four nuclear power plants, Rome is going ahead with the plan. After the Chernobyl disaster, two-thirds of Italians had voted in a 1987 referendum to ban nuclear energy in their country.

The Italian plants will be located next to some of the more popular tourist beaches, including one just 20 km from Venice.

Originally inhabited in the fifth century by refugees from Padua, Altino and other nearby regions who were fleeing constant invasions by Germans and Huns, Venice eventually grew into a great center of art and commerce. During the Middle Ages and Renaissance, Venice was a staging area for the Crusades and the Battle of Lepanto. After the 13th century, the city became renowned for its trade in silk, grain and spices.

William Shakespeare wrote a whole play, “The Merchant of Venice,” about the city’s business, spinning romance and avarice around the lives and fortunes of a Christian trader and a Jewish moneylender. Also known for its brilliant artistic movement during the Renaissance, Venice played a significant role in the history of symphonic and operatic music.

It is this Venice that now stands threatened by what Venetians fear is a possible nuclear catastrophe. Italy has chosen to adopt Areva’s infamous EPR (European pressurized reactor) design, which is not yet operational anywhere in the world. The prototypes now being built in Finland and France have already generated reports of safety concerns, apart from huge cost overruns and schedule delays.

Greenpeace says Italy doesn’t need nuclear power because energy from far more efficient and renewable programs will provide three times more power than these nuclear plants by 2020.

During the Venice film festival, which attracted 10,000 visitors, including 3,000 journalists from all over the world, Greenpeace activists made a 2,000 square-meter anti-nuclear sign on the island of Lido, just off mainland Venice.

As much as Venetians and other Italians worry about nuclear accidents, so too does India, which is now planning to increase use of such energy. With the memory of Bhopal still fresh — as many as 10,000 people died there in 1984 after inhaling toxic gas leaking from a Union Carbide pesticide plant — Indians are wary of such calamities.

India’s new Nuclear Liability Law, enacted only after much wrangling in Parliament, will continue to remain an irritant. Although New Delhi has made it clear that it will not consider further amendments to the law, American suppliers are unhappy over a clause that links liability to original defects and those that surface later on.

Some days ago, U.S. State Department spokesperson P.J. Crowley, in his first reported reaction to the law, said, “We will look to the Indian government for what changes can be made.” He noted that Indian business was also concerned about “specific aspects” of the legislation.

Curiously, though, French and Russian companies, which are also set to construct nuclear power plants in India, have not raised these concerns — notwithstanding that Russia has seen two terrible nuclear accidents: at Chernobyl in 1986 after which up to 350,000 people had to be resettled, and at the Mayak nuclear plant (Ural area) in 1957 when more than 200 people died and about 10,000 people had to be shifted to safer areas.

Aware of these industrial disasters, Venetians hope that Berlusconi and his team will see reason and say no to the nuclear plants.

Gautaman Bhaskaran is a Chennai, India-based journalist.

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