Nuclear Waste: Showdown at Scanzano

For 15 days in November, the small southern town of Scanzano Jonico, population 7,000, was the most famous place in Italy.

On November 13, 2003, the country’s center-right coalition government, led by Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, signed an "emergency decree" naming Scanzano as the site for a national nuclear waste repository. The government insisted the choice was "technical, not political," based on Scanzano’s deep salt rock deposits beneath hundreds of feet of clay. The community saw the decision as a death sentence.

Hundreds of citizens promptly mobilized, occupying the proposed site and blockading rail lines and major highways. By the time it was all over, 100,000 protesters of all political persuasions had forced Rome to withdraw Scanzano as the intended site. "Scanzano" entered Italian parlance as a word synonymous with successful anti-nuclear activism.

Lightning strikes

Nestled along the coast of the Ionian Sea, Scanzano belongs to the Basilicata province, which stretches along the Gulf of Taranto and reaches inland, where villages perch and olive groves intermingle with vineyards on the precipitous hillsides.

Rumors had flown that Scanzano could be fingered as a nuclear waste dump because of its proximity to Trisaia, a nearby nuclear fuel-processing and research facility. But the exclusion criteria cited in a government-commissioned report on radioactive waste management seemed to rule it out: Scanzano’s population is growing, the area is seismically active, and the region depends heavily on agriculture and tourism.

Italy has targeted 80,000 cubic meters of radioactive waste for disposal. Much of it is spent fuel from Italy’s four reactors, three of which were shuttered after a post-Chernobyl national referendum in 1987. The fourth was shut down in 1978.

When Trisaia was built in the 1960s, few understood the health and environmental implications, and there was little opposition. Today, locals fear the price they may be paying for Trisaia, where more than 4,000 cubic meters of liquid and solid wastes are believed to be stored. This includes 64 irradiated uranium-thorium fuel rods from the American Elk River reactor, imported from Minnesota in the 1970s. Twenty of the original 84 rods were reprocessed at Trisaia’s pilot plant. Plans to solidify the resulting liquid high-level waste have never been carried out, and the liquid remains in containers whose analyzed structural integrity has expired. Other wastes are stored in expired casks housed in sheds or enclosed in cement sarcophagi.

The precise inventory of wastes at Trisaia has been concealed from the public for years. In 1995, a parliamentary commission declared that conditions at Trisaia and the Saluggia complex in Piedmont constituted a "national emergency" because of the unsafe storage of radioactive waste.

In 1999, Italy’s national electric utility assigned all its nuclear liabilities and assets to a newly established, state-owned company, Societa Gestione Impianti Nucleari (Sogin). Sogin’s mission includes decommissioning the four reactors and managing radioactive waste. Sogin’s president, Gen. Carlo Jean, was appointed special commissioner for the repository project.

The choice of Scanzano was slipped quietly into the newspapers on the day that Italy learned its barracks in Nasiriyah, Iraq, had been bombed. But news of the decision struck "like a lightning bolt" in Scanzano, according to Tonino Colucci of the World Wildlife Fund.

A tent city of protesters quickly rose at Terzo Cavone, the proposed site, a flat area at sea level just 200 meters from the beach and 100 meters from the Cavone River. At night, occupiers took flash photos of the salt mine wells; the reflected light proved, they said, that the site was already waterlogged and consequently geologically unsound. Some kept a nightly watch on the beach, lest military ships begin arriving with the waste. (The government planned to transport the wastes to the site within the year, storing them above ground until the repository was built.)

Within days of the announcement, Scanzano’s main street was draped in banners opposing the dump, and the region was declared a nuclear-free zone. The town’s mayor, whose possible complicity in the decree was the constant subject of speculation, hurriedly exempted the Terzo Cavone site from governmental authority--a largely symbolic gesture. A donkey, Nicoletta, was proclaimed the official mascot, "because we are stubborn like her, and we won’t budge," said her owner, Vincenzo Castellucci. Students blocked the coastal road and a local railway station, while other occupation sites mushroomed.

Protesters seized control of the A3 autostrada, the main artery linking Rome to the south. For seven days trucks stood idle between Salerno and Reggio Calabria (demonstrators provided the drivers with hot meals, sanitary facilities, and money to compensate their lost time).

On November 23, a march organized by trade unions turned out 100,000 people. Supporters poured in from neighboring regions, where southern sensitivities bristled at the perception that the North was once again dumping, literally, on the poorer and politically weaker South. Banners declared "Don’t bury our future" and "We will fight to the bitter end."

As the government went into retreat, Berlusconi complained bitterly to his ministers about the "popular uprising." By the end of November, the government had scrapped the Scanzano plan, declaring it would find another site in 18 months. On December 4, the government changed its mind again, removing General Jean as special commissioner, and abandoning plans to bury all levels of radioactive waste. Only high-level waste, it said, would be sent to a repository, to be named in one year. Lower level wastes would be secured at the sites where they were generated.

The government goofed

In failing to anticipate the uprising, locals said, the government had ignored the unique history of the area. The people of Basilicata drew their inspiration for rebellion from swashbuckling stories of brigand heroes Crocco and Ninco Nanco as well as from the hard-won struggle to salvage the salty clay region and turn it into a fertile orchard. Perhaps, too, the government considered Basilicata easy prey. It is poor, largely rural, and politically left.

But central to the protest at Scanzano was the issue of democracy. The decree was signed without a preliminary environmental impact assessment and without public participation. The military-style imposition of the decree, and the role of General Jean, had aroused suspicion that the project would be a military undertaking clouded in secrecy.

With Jean gone and Scanzano officially off the list, the protesters could simply have returned home. But base camp is still bustling, maintained as a "symbolic presidio," a place where speakers draw large audiences and songs reverberate around a nightly bonfire. Foremost on the discussion agenda is the growing concern that a repository might lead to the reopening of Italy’s reactors, a proposal that was floated after a countrywide blackout in September 2003. Italy relies heavily on imported electricity, particularly from France and Switzerland.

Meanwhile, inspired by Scanzano, protesters in other cities have begun taking action. Sicilians mobilized after a list of 13 possible sites included 11 in Sicily.

As in other countries, there is little agreement in Italy on potential solutions to the nuclear waste problem. The communities where radioactive waste is currently stored want it gone; some favor a European repository while others insist Italy must take responsibility for its own waste. A few organizations, including Greenpeace, oppose repositories altogether and instead advocate secure on-site storage. Amid uproar, Italy’s Friends of the Earth, an environmental organization, supported a repository at Scanzano as "the only rational solution." General Jean has suggested that the spent fuel would be sent to La Hague in France for reprocessing.

The Italian government wants to name a new site by December 2004--a decision that is sure to provoke more protests after the people’s victory at Scanzano.

Linda Clare Gunter *

* Formerly with the Safe Energy Communication Council, recently joined the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) as a press officer. This article does not reflect work conducted at or by UCS. Gunter can be reached at

Zdroj: Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists

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