18 years after they stopped a radioactive waste dump coming to their region, locals find their land targeted once again
By Linda Pentz Gunter
The brigand songs hadn’t started yet, although there were faint early flickers and crackles coming from a small camp fire. Lights glimmered from inside a distant tent as our escort led us through crowds milling nearby, briefly allowing a television reporter a hurried interview, his deadline already long gone by.
It slowly began to dawn on us then, as we were ushered to sit at a table beneath a hand-painted banner proclaiming “No to Nuclear Waste” that this was a press conference. The rows of seats in front of us were filled to capacity. There was a quick introduction and then we were handed microphones and urged to talk.
We were in Scanzano Jonico in Basilicata, possibly Italy’s least-known Southern province. Valentina, a Greenpeace Italy colleague, and I had driven from Rome, after testifying about nuclear waste before the Italian Parliament (I had been there to deliver, in Italian, the translated testimonies of Kevin Kamps, then with NIRS, and IEER’s Arjun Makhijani).
But Basilicata is also the setting for some unexpected triumphs. The first, ironically under Mussolini’s watch, transformed what had been a mosquito-infested unlivable swamp into a market garden, famous for wines, organic farming and eco-tourism. Its beaches began to compete for holiday makers. The earlier mass exodus, which had populated mainly Argentina with exiled Lucani, as those from Basilicata call themselves, had stopped.
The second happened between November 13 and 27, 2003, just weeks before we arrived. An unprecedented and dramatic 15 days of protest had unfolded in Scanzano Jonico, culminating in the defeat of a plan by the Italian government, then led by Silvio Berlusconi, to dump all of Italy’s high-level radioactive waste at a single site at Terza Cavone, a few kilometers from Scanzano, in salt rock at a site just 200 meters from the shoreline.
The dump decision had been taken at night, without local consultation, the news deliberately buried in the papers, eclipsed by a headline-garnering suicide bombing that had killed 18 Italian service members at the Nasiriyah Carabinieri barracks in Iraq during that ill-waged war.
But the Lucani noticed the announcement right away. The news struck “like a lightning bolt” Tonino Colucci of the local World Wildlife Fund chapter told me later as we walked into that surprise press conference.
Before the ink was even dry, they had set up a base camp at Terza Cavone — where we were now. They had rallied people from all walks of life to protest, occupy stations, and block highways. The whole region declared itself a nuclear-free zone. Berlusconi’s own members of parliament in the area opposed the deal. By November 23, the ranks of protesters had swelled to 100,000. After fifteen days, the radioactive waste dump was canceled.
And that vigilance persists today as, once again, the Italian government has fingered Basilicata as a place “ideally suited” to a high-level radioactive waste dump. The protesters haven’t gone away, remaining on guard against just such a day when they might once again be targeted.
Only this time, Basilicata is not alone.
The news first broke in January 2021, that Sogin — the Italian state-owned company responsible for reactor decommissioning and radioactive waste management —had released a map identifying 67 potential sites in five zones that it considered suitable for a high-level radioactive waste repository. The selected sites included 17 in Basilicata and neighboring Puglia. Fifty more, in Piedmont, Tuscany-Lazio, Sardinia and Sicily, comprised the rest.
Italy’s high-level radioactive wastes are the product of just four now closed commercial reactors, one of which was already shut down when a 1987 national referendum, just a year after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, recorded a stunning vote of more than 80% of Italians opposed to the continued use of nuclear power. (With bafflingly daft timing, a 2011 Berlusconi government ran the referendum again three months after the Fukushima nuclear disaster in March. This time, 93% of Italians said they opposed a nuclear re-start.)
Italy’s radioactive waste is currently stored in about 20 temporary sites, none of which have been deemed suitable as final repositories. Reports on the inspections of the 67 sites identified by Sogin are due in December. A new shortlist of sites is expected in January 2022.
The Lucani, still organized under the mantel they established in 2003, Scanziamo le Scorie — which loosely translates as ‘we reject the wastes’ — are hoping to reignite the same momentum that brought them victory the first time. They participated in the National Seminar carried out by Sogin between September 7 and November 24 this year, and have prepared their own comments (in Italian) on the so-called criteria for suitable sites.
So far, the Sogin proposal has been met with vehement rejection. A spokesperson from Sardinia called it “an act of government arrogance, yet another outrage”. Puglia signaled its “firm and clear opposition”.
As Scanziamo le Scorie’s spokesperson, Pasquale Stigliani — who was there in 2003 — recently wrote to me, “the nightmare is back”. But, he added, “the mobilization continues!”