The “Brigands” Regroup in Basilicata: Italians Rise Up Against New Nuclear Dump

Photo by Tony Vece.

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).

We had gotten lost on the way on what, under normal circumstances, was already a six-hour drive. We were late and cold and exhausted and we had no idea a press conference had been arranged for us. But that crowd had waited two hours. And now we needed to deliver.

The author (far left) at the Terza Cavone press conference in 2003 with Valentina, her Greenpeace colleague and local activists Antonello Bonfantino and Marcella Forastieri.

Basilicata is a region nestled in the instep of Italy’s famous “boot”. The area is best known for Sassi, an ancient hillside complex of cave dwellings dating back thousands of years and wedged into the rocks adjacent to the town of Matera. Aficionados of Italian literature might be familiar with Carlo Levi’s book, Christ Stopped at Eboli, also set in the province.

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 bombingthat 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.

The protest garnered widespread coverage, including in the New York Times, and even spawned academic papers, one such describing the remarkable victory as having “cut across lines of locality, age, social class and political affiliation, mobilizing the populace with various symbols, including references to brigandage, postwar struggles for land, and the Madonna of Loreto.” I wrote up my own experiences in The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

Along with the expected objections — the unsuitability of the site so close to the sea; the damage to agriculture and the tourism trade —outrage was also expressed at the desecration of an area so steeped in ancient history. Pythagoras had fled to Basilicata from Greece. He made his table here. He died at Metaponto, just 16 kilometers from the proposed radioactive waste dump site. It was unthinkable to build a nuclear waste dump in such a venerable place!

So here we were at Terza Cavone having a press conference even though the victory had already been won. The site remained occupied. Passions still ran high (encapsulated later as they broke into brigand songs around what was now a roaring camp fire). There was plenty to talk about; plenty still to learn. But I learned more that night from listening — to farmers will the precious dirt of Basilicata still beneath their finger-nails; from union representatives; from mothers and vintners — than talking.

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.

A map showing the proposed radioactive waste dump sites being considered in Italy.

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!”

Linda Pentz Gunter is the editor and curator of BeyondNuclearInternational.org and the international specialist at Beyond Nuclear. She can be contacted at linda@beyondnuclear.org.