Berlusconi's attempt to bury bad news about a nuclear waste dump provokes outrage in 'Italy's California'

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The Independent Online

The news dropped last Thursday out of a clear blue sky. Shortly after 9am, Italy learnt that a huge lorry bomb had detonated at its Carabinieri base in southern Iraq. Hours later, as details of the atrocity were still coming in, Silvio Berlusconi's cabinet had something quite different on their minds.

That morning, the ministers of the centre-right coalition signed a decreto legge, an emergency decree, stating that the 80,000 square metres of nuclear waste produced by Italy's nuclear power stations, at present scattered in sites around the country, are to be buried in salt deposits beneath the town of Scanzano Jonico in the province of Basilicata, in the deep south.

The timing of the announcement, coming when the whole country was digesting the horror of Italy's worst military disaster since the Second World War, may or may not have been accidental. But it was certainly useful for Mr Berlusconi. It meant one of the most controversial decisions he has taken in two and a half years ended up deep inside the news bulletins. It was as if it had never happened. It was relegated to the status of some small issue, a traffic pile-up, an everyday case of provincial corruption.

At Scanzano Jonico, however, they got the point pretty fast. The impact, morally speaking, was as bad as that tanker exploding outside the Nasiriyah barracks. There was no blood and gore. But with a few dry words, Mr Berlusconi sentenced a community to death.

Scanzano Jonico is an extraordinary place, a place of tragedy and redemption. And now, because it is said to have the finest, deepest salt deposits in Italy, it is to be thrust into a new and perhaps final tragedy.

The Mediterranean is clean here, the sandy beaches broad and inviting and unbroken for mile after mile. In the past seven or eight years there has been an explosion of mass tourism, with half a dozen tourist villages, already operational, including a Club Med, hosting tens of thousands of holidaymakers from Italy and abroad every summer. An equal number of new villages is planned. Some are already under construction.

By the weekend - within 48 hours of the decree - the consequences were already hitting home. Hotel managers spoke of cancelled Christmas bookings.

A hundred years ago this coastal strip was all marshland. Malaria was endemic. Emigration was incessant - it became one of the emptiest corners of the country. In the 1930s, Mussolini drained the swamps, which put a stop to the malaria. But there was still not much reason to hang around.

Today the region has been transformed. In the past two decades, diligent farmers have rendered the sandy soil fertile, and the countryside is full of peach and apricot and plum orchards, groves of tangerines, strawberry farms, vineyards, olive groves. Proudly they call it Italy's California.

A town of 7,000 people, Scanzano Jonico is the epicentre of an amazing boom. It is still being built: diggers and bulldozers squat on plots of wilderness between newly rushed-up blocks of flats. It has the raw, hasty feel of a boom town: short on pavements and street lights, but thronged with people including lots of school students and young families.

Unemployment is negative: people flock to work here, in the tourist villages, on the farms and building sites. The benighted south of Italy, butt of every twist and turn of the nation's history, drained of people and resources, here at Scanzano Jonico has achieved an amazing apotheosis. It is holding its head up.

A fruit farmer reported foreign markets turning away his strawberries. A Swiss wine importer told a local wine grower: "Don't send in your consignment for now."

Even before the first spade of earth is turned on the deposit site, many years before the first container of spent uranium is lowered into the salt, the nuclear blight has arrived.

The town has reacted as if electrocuted. The first demonstration was held outside the town hall on Friday: small children walked in procession carrying a little coffin symbolising the town. Students blocked highway 106, the coastal road, for hours, and have come back to do it again every day since. Citizens pack emergency meetings at the town hall day after day. Local leaders talk of organising a march on Rome.

Normal life has ceased. In its place there is the restless agitation of a community in sudden and total crisis. "I've only seen people in this state once before," said Michelangelo Tarasco, a local television journalist, "that was after an earthquake". There is the same commotion and dread, the turning of a community inwards for comfort, then out again in fear.

At one of the four entrances to the salt deposits, a few hundred yards towards the coast, the citizens have put up tents. The police keep a watchful eye, local people mill about. Citizens sit on plastic chairs in front of protest signs. Any government people trying to gain access to the site will be stopped, they vow. So far nobody has tried. There are students, union activists, farmers, housewives. The entrance to the deposit is next to a plantation of plums. The students make macabre jokes. "The plums will light up like phosphorus with the radiation - we'll be able to sell them all over the world!" Everyone giggles at the notion.

"Yes, the surprise was total," said Antonello Bonfantino, a student in the town. "They say they plan to put the deposit 900 metres underground, with a structure 20 metres high above ground, the whole thing the size of a football field. It's going to be a disaster for the whole of southern Italy. We're going to fight it until we stop it. It's a provisional decree, it has to be confirmed by parliament within 60 days. We're going to block everything in the region for the next two months."

A fruit farmer, Antonio Ambrose, said: "We have everything we need here. The farming is very good, we have water, sun, sea - we don't need the rest of the country, we can survive on our own. We can be autonomous. This is the way they always treat the south - take everything good and send us their rubbish. Of course we're furious! They're treating us like slaves!"

"Are you a journalist?" a middle-aged woman with ginger hair said to my companion. He nodded. Immediately she began to scream and wave her arms. "Bring Berlusconi here! And Bossi! [Umberto Bossi, leader of the Northern League] I want them here! I want to see if Berlusconi has the courage to show his face here! We'll put them under the ground! I want Italy the way it was ... the way it was!"

Antonio Loscalzo, the wine grower whose consignment of Fontana Rossa has just been rejected by the Swiss, has spent most of his working life elsewhere, finally returning home when it looked as if Scanzano Jonico had turned the corner. "I've worked abroad all my life," he said, "mostly in France. I finally came home in 1997 and started the business.

"I've made a huge investment in it. I've got massive debts. What's going to happen now? What about our children? What about the future?"

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