Torness 1979


This was about a demonstration during the occupation of a Scottish nuclear power construction site. The demonstrators didn't realize that they were creating numerous pieces of land art, performance and installations, reflecting the ecological themes so dear to Joseph Beuys, since the pieces they created evolved spontaneously out of the protest.

Many years ago, in 1978 and 1979, young people from all over Britain went to Torness in Scotland to protest against the building of a nuclear power station. They did not want the land and sea to be polluted by radioactivity and they did not want to leave a legacy of radioactive waste for Scottish children and grandchildren. So they occupied the proposed site, planted flowers in the form of slogans, planted trees, built miniature windmills and danced with their children. The authorities didn’t listen to their message, but one of their number, Peter Lennard, made a film on an old wind up cine-camera. Robert Pettena edited the old film, adding new images and a soundtrack. He used the film to recreate the story of the occupation, adding recent footage that contrasts the nuclear option with alternative energy sources. This film remains as a record, an example for those members of the next generation who know how to make connections between current and past events.

In 2009 the people of Calabria were also protesting because their coastline had been polluted by toxic and radioactive waste. How can we live, they asked, when our fishing industry has been destroyed and no tourists will want to come to our beaches any more? Already poor, with few opportunities, they saw themselves forced, once again, to leave their homeland.

Although the circumstances of the two different groups of protestors were very different, their concerns were linked. The Torness protestors were concerned about the future of the environment, while the people of Calabria were concerned about events which occurred in the past, to the detriment of their environment. Both groups wanted the same things: clean water, clean food, clean air and a safe place to live. And both groups were powerless to stop the great corporate juggernaughts that build nuclear power stations where people do not want them, and dump radioactive and toxic waste without consideration for the people living nearby. Both groups focus our attention on the complete disrespect for the environment and for the individual that is characteristic of the current global economic system.

In Italy, Francesco Fonti, an ‘ndragheta boss from Calabria, confessed in an exclusive interview with l’Espresso magazine, on Oct 20 2009, that he was involved in the illegal disposal of toxic and radioactive waste off the coasts of Somalia and Italy. He told l’Espresso that he took orders from multinational corporations, who sent the waste to him in ships, which he disposed of.

Italy had been aware of the shipwrecks containing deadly cargos around its southern coasts, since the 1990s, when Legambiente, the Italian environmental organisation, managed to start an inquest in Reggio, Calabria. Thirty nine ships, in fact, sank in the Ionion sea between 1979 and 1995, according to the STB archive in Genova and Milano and various insurance companies, including Lloyd’s Register of Shipping’s Genova office.

The Inquest focussed on the ship, Rigel, which sank on 21 sept 1987, 20 miles from Capo Spartivento. They thought that the people in charge of this ship, including Giorgio Comerio, a go-between for arms dealers and mine manufacturers, and various ‘ndragheta clans, played a pivotal role in the nuclear waste dumping business. This ship was probably carrying radioactive waste, because they found radioactivity in the sea surrounding the wreck.

The sinking of the Marco Polo in the Sicilian canal, came up in a previous inquest in Reggio Calabria in 1993. They found radioactive thorium 234 on samples of seaweed and metal taken from the sea, after some containers from the Marco Polo were found in 1994 along the coast of Campania. So the ship was carrying radioactive waste and the containers fell out of the ship when it sank and were washed by the movement of the water all the way to the coast of Campania. Some of the containers burst, releasing their radioactive waste.

The Koraline sank near Ustica. They found some containers from it that were highly contaminated with thorium.

After months of investigation the inquest began to realise how serious the contamination of the Southern Italian coastline was. However, as the inquest began to discover these cargoes of radioactive waste, the Ministry brought it to an abrupt halt, by refusing to allow the authorities in Reggio Calabria to investigate the ships sunk near Capo Spartivento.

European governments almost certainly sent nuclear waste to ‘ndragheta clans, through intermediaries, who stated in their contracts that the waste would be inserted into steel tubes, inside steel containers with sonar systems, so that they could be found if necessary in the future. The containers were to be deposited 50-80 metres deep in the sea or buried deep in the ground. The inquest at Reggio Calabria found contracts to this effect, in connection with some of the sunken ships. The ‘ndragheta clans, who dealt with the nuclear waste, did not appear to stick to this protocol, but probably simply loaded containers of radioactive waste onto old ships and sunk the ships in the Mediterranean, subsequently claiming the insurance.

The Inquest had also been on the point of uncovering a connection between the toxic and radioactive waste dumping business and illegal international arms traffic in 1996, when it was ordered to stop. The findings of the inquest were sent to the Antimafia Department, who ordered further enquiries to be carried out by the Milano and Brescia authorities, but these have not yet produced any results.

Legambiente tried desperately to discover the location of the other sunken ships, so that they could determine whether they were carrying toxic and or radioactive cargoes. But with the inquest shut down and no cooperation from the authorities they were unable progress.

So the revelations of Francesco Fonti finally forced the authorities to find at least one of these ships:

"For years no-one wanted to listen to what I had to say in court.” He said. “I always admitted that I was involved in dumping this waste in shipwrecks, both toxic and radioactive. I told them where to find the shipwrecks, along the coast of Cetraro, and indeed on the 12th Sept, the Calabria Region . . found one of the ships.”

The sunken ship, just 14 miles from the coast, was the Cunski, carrying a cargo of radioactive waste. A mini submarine was sent down to take photographs, which showed several barrels, some of which were empty. Clearly the cargo had been damaged and some of it had been released into the sea.

Francesco Fonti, told L’Espresso how he sank the Cunski in 1992. He and members of his ‘ndragheta clan also sank the Yvonne A at Maratea and the Voriais Sporadais at Largo Melito Porto Salvo, near Reggio di Calabria. All three ships were carrying toxic and radioactive cargos. Fonti said that ‘ndragheta carried out these shipwrecks for the arms dealer, Ignazio Messina.

“I put dynamite inside a big lump of concrete" he said "on board the ships with a long fuse, then I blew them up. It was easy."

Fonti says “I sank 3 ships but I know from ‘ndragheta bosses that at least 3 other ships were sunk between Scilla and Caribdes, another one near Tropea and others near Crotone. I can’t exactly remember where they sunk the others.”

Fonti says that he worked for various Italian politicians, including De Stefano, Riccardo Misasi, who used to tell him whether to dump the waste on land or at sea, and Dc Ciriaco de Mita who used to ask him to dispose of waste for the state. “We could get between four and twenty billion lire for dumping a load. The money was deposited in a Swiss Bank in Lugano, or in a bank in Cyprus, Malta, Vaduz or Singapore. We did it all through the banker Valentino Foti.”

Of course all the politicians deny all involvement, but the lack of political will to carry on investigations and the lack of media coverage do seem to indicate some kind of a cover up.

Although it is tempting to point a finger at Italy with its infamous Mafia, and (somewhat less well known) Camorra and ‘ndrageta, it is as well to remember that ‘ndragheta just performs the dirty end of the business, business that originates in other parts of Italy, Northern Europe and maybe even other parts of the world. These ships were carrying waste for international arms dealers, who declared false cargos, were paid for the disposal of the waste and collected money fraudulently from the Insurance companies when the ships sank. Fonti named some of the arms dealers, including one Saud Omar Mugne, from Somalia, but he (Fonti) has not yet revealed the origin of all the waste, perhaps because he does not know.

‘ndragheta stopped dumping toxic and radioactive waste off the coast of Italy several years ago and started sending ships to Africa, mainly to Somalia. Of course a lot of people say that Fonti is not a credible source, since he is a member of ‘ndragheta, serving time for drug dealing offences. But he was not the only person to indicate a link between the toxic and radioactive waste business and illegal arms dealing. The Italian journalist, Ilaria Alpi, who was killed on the 20th March 1994 in Somalia, had discovered the link between toxic waste dumping and arms traffic in Somalia before she died. Her death certificate disappeared, but a photocopy of it was found on the property of the arms dealer Saud Omar Mugne. He is suspected of buying and selling arms between East Europe, Italy and Africa and, both according to Fonti and Ilaria Alpi, he was also involved in the toxic and radioactive waste disposal business. Several secret service operators from various countries, who were trying to get to the bottom of this affair, were also killed in mysterious circumstances.

The inquest started by Legambiente in 1994 discovered a web of international financiers from big banks involved in a money-laundering programme called the “Roll Programme.” Fonti points to the involvement of international financiers in the toxic and radioactive waste disposal business, with its links to the arms trade. But he is a very small fish in a big pond, who only sees a small piece of the puzzle.

It is important to remember that Italy only ever had one small nuclear power station, which has since closed down. So though some of the radioactive waste in these shipwrecks may have originated in Italy, most of it almost certainly did not. It is a well-known fact that the nuclear power industries of Europe and Russia have accumulated vast quantities of radioactive waste, which they do not know what to do with. It would be very interesting to find out where the cargoes of the sunken ships came from and who ordered ‘ndragheta to dispose of them.

Similar scandalous insults to the environment have been going on in other parts o the world for the past half-century. In Britain there was a fire in the Windscale Nuclear reactor forty years ago, which burned for twenty-four hours, spewing out radioactivity all over the country, but especially in the surrounding coutryside of Cumbria. This was followed by a total news blackout. The population of Britain were given no warning. Mothers left their babies out in their prams. Children played out of doors in the parks. Cyclists continued to cycle through the streets. No one was sent to measure the radioactivity of the soil in Cumbria, where sheep continued to graze.
It was not until years later that the media was allowed to speak openly about this massive radioactive leak.

Meanwhile nuclear power plants were built all over Britain, including one at Torness, despite protests by the local population. All the money that should have been channelled into research and development of renewable energy went to subsidize the building of these nuclear power plants, some of which continue to function today, although they have become more and more dangerous. Britain has some of the best renewable energy resources in the world: wave and tide energy, which have never been developed.

Windscale is part of a nuclear complex at Sellafield. Spent nuclear fuel from all over the world is sent to Sellafield to be reprocessed. Reprocessing turns the spent fuel into plutonium, and plutonium, as we all know, is what nuclear bombs are made out of. Highly radioactive waste has been flowing out of Sellafield into the Irish sea, polluting the whole coastline from Scotland to Wales, for the past forty years. The Irish Government have been protesting to the European Commission for years, demanding that Sellafield be closed down. Britain has been told to close it down, but still it continues to take in spent fuel, still it continues to create more plutonium, and still it continues to pollute the Irish sea. In the meantime, levels of cancer rose in Cumbria, there were a few protests but the nuclear industry denied that there was any link between these cancers and the nuclear reprocessing plant nearby.

Does the media talk about this?
Do the population of Britain rise up and demand that Sellafield be shut down?

No. A state of torpor and apathy reigns throughout the western world. Long ago Aldous Huxley predicted that the population would be brainwashed by television and that is exactly what has happened. Lulled into a dreamlike state, where celebrity, gossip and fashion are the only communal topics of conversation, the population allows its politicians to do what they like, say what they like, manipulate the media how they like and allow corporations to do what they like, no longer aware of the gradual erosion of their civil liberties and the pollution of their environment.


http://www.camera.it/_dati/leg14/lavori/stenografici/sed491/aurg01.htm http://www.parlamento.it/parlam/bicam/rifiuti/Sedute/02.htm

Articolo del settimanale cartaceo "L'Espresso" del 9 settembre 2004, pag.34 e successive ("Naufragio radioattivo" di Riccardo Bocca)
Articolo del settimanale cartaceo "L'Espresso" del 16 settembre 2004, pag.76 e successiva ("Indagini Radioattive" colloquio con Paolo Russo di Riccardo Bocca)
Articolo del settimanale cartaceo "L'Espresso" del 23 settembre 2004, pag.76 e successiva ("Nella memoria si è aperta una falla" colloquio con Gianfranco Messina di Riccardo Bocca)
© Robert Pettena 2022