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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 email@example.com
Zdroj: Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists
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