As the official turnout was announced, people cheered and clapped and a few even claimed tears.

Spontaneously, people started bouncing up and down, and a wave spread through the crowd.

That Italian voters would reject the resumption of the country's nuclear power programme was never in doubt. The worry for many was how many people would come out to vote.

A number of parties urged people to stay at home, the prime minister himself didn't vote, preferring to spend Sunday and Monday, the two voting days, at the beach and at the office.

He was hoping the votes would fail to pass the barrier of 50 per cent plus one of the electorate voting. Only when that figure was achieved does the result becoming legally binding.

He failed. The official turnout - 57.2 per cent, the highest in an Italian referendum in almost 20 years.

Valerio Rossi Albertini is perhaps an unlikely character to find in the yes campaign - voting for an end to nuclear power. His is after all, one of Italy's best known nuclear physicists and a senior figure in the national research council.

But his vote was cast with the future in mind.

Germany has rejected nuclear power and is looking at alternative energy. If we restart our programme now and concentrate on nuclear it will be 15 to 20 years before we produce one kilowatt and other countries will be well ahead in developing and using alternatives," he said.

Yet he accepts that the vote rejecting nuclear was not because of the worry of being left behind, but the concern in a country that struggles to clear its streets of trash, where earthquakes are not an uncommon occurrence, that disposing of nuclear waste and dealing with a Japan size disaster was too much of a risk to take.

The nuclear option was just one of four issues on the ballot. As Britain debated the role of the Church in politics, the Catholic Church in Italy led the charge against two proposals to privatise local water companies. Many priests said water was a gift from God and shouldn't be used to produce profits for companies and corporations.

It was a message that struck a chord with voters who rejected the idea.

And then there was the vote on the controversial law which allows politicians to avoid court cases if they can prove they are carrying out government business.  Facing four court cases, one for sex with a minor and three for abuse of power, critics called this a law for Berlusconi himself. The country’s constitutional court had all but scrapped the law, but the people also wanted their say and voted to remove the so called "legitimate impediment" defence which has kept the prime minister from a few court appointments.

When he was told the results, Berlusconi said he accepted the decision, and then went shopping for a necklace.

It was the man regarded as a master political communicator sending a message he was untroubled by such a comprehensive defeat.

But the clean sweep in the referenda and an appalling performance for his party in last month's local elections have left many wondering if Berlusconi is past his sell-by date. His government partners will be worried that his unpopularity could drag them down at the next election, and his own party will be wondering if he remains an asset or a liability.

Silvio Berlusconi is an astute and clever politician. That reputation follows him around. But it is his reputation as a survivor that will be tested most in the months to come.