Just before Christmas our television screens were filled with images of revellers gathered in bars, cracking open champagne and celebrating. Just before New Year almost identical scenes were broadcast again. In both cases the celebrants were ordinary working-class people overjoyed at a piece of news they had just received. Apart from the fact that smiles were broadened in the first case with champagne and in the second with beer, there was another crucial difference between the two sets of celebrants.
News of a massive lottery windfall had led to the spontaneous pre Christmas rejoicing. Many of those beaming at the camera and spraying champagne over each other had just become millionaires. However, the post Christmas cheers resounding through the streets of the tiny Castile village, Villar de Cañas, were in response to a government announcement that a nuclear waste storage facility was to be located close by. On hearing the news, the mayor, José María Sáiz, and a number of villagers gathered in the only bar for miles around, cheered wildly and raised their beer bottles to toast to a brighter future for the 450 inhabitants of the locality. Grinning at the television camera, Sáiz declared,
“We have won the lottery, not once, but for sixty consecutive years.” This was not an opinion shared by “Disgusted from
” who phoned the nearby council offices protesting that the jubilant villagers were “subnormal”. Cuenca
My initial reaction to the Villar de Cañas celebrations was incredulity. Surely, I must have misheard, misunderstood or missed a vital element in the story. But no, I hadn’t. These people really were overjoyed that the facility was coming to their town, where it is to remain for at least sixty years as home to around 6,700 tons of radioactive waste. For them the waste represents employment opportunities. Estimates suggest that 450 jobs will be created directly in the installation and a further 700 will be generated indirectly through work setting up the 750 million euro investment.
This is the first installation of its kind in
. Currently, waste generated by Spanish nuclear power stations is sent for storage to neighbouring Spain . That will change when Villar de Cañas opens its doors for business. The village had, along with seven other locations on the peninsula, put in a bid to host the facility and it won. For the decision makers in the Spanish government the fact that there are no railways linking Villar with the rest of the peninsula, meaning the radioactive material will have to be transported by road, and that there is a lack of qualified personnel in the locality were not significant obstacles. It was chosen regardless. France
To my relief, they bypassed hopeful candidates like the nearby town of
Ascó, in province, in favour of Villar.* Disgruntled members of Ascó local council condemned the decision as politically motivated and are planning to appeal it. They may be right about the political motivation. The Villar de Cañas mayor represents the conservative ruling party, the PP, which was only elected to government last November … one month before the announcement that his town had won its bid to host the storage facility. Tarragona
It is perhaps more likely that opposition was a key factor influencing the choice of Villar over other locations. The Catalan parliament was against opening the facility on its territory, in Ascó, and this can’t have gone down too well in
. Furthermore, if I follow those suspicious thoughts of mine through the dark and murky hinterland that lies behind political decisions, I quickly come upon what could be the real reason why those disgruntled Catalan councillors in Ascó may be right. Local opposition to the facility in Villar is weak. On the very afternoon of the announcement 150 people joined a protest … in Madrid , Cuenca 75 kilometres away. That was it.
“Ecologists shouldn’t be so uptight about this. It’s not so bad. Dam it. There is a risk in everything in life …”
Television images of Villar have captured the desolate and deserted streets of a mid-winter
village that looks entirely uninviting. Abandoned by more than half its population, - young people who have left in search of jobs over the past four decades - Villar has become a ghost town. One of the villagers was quoted as saying, Castile
“They talk about bringing a nuclear cemetery here. The cemetery was already here because the cemetery is the only thing that works in this place. The number of dead goes up while only one baby is born every two years.”
Locals are confident now that the promise of work will expand the population and inject new life into the village.
Once I had overcome my incredulity on hearing the news, my second impulse was to sneer at the naïveté of the villagers and their political representatives from the ranks of the disgusted. I wanted to ridicule these bumpkins but I couldn’t. Seeing those hopeful faces and listening to their expressions of trust in the decision makers saddened me. Only despair could have driven them to welcome nuclear waste into their neighbourhood. Economic circumstances, the crisis of unemployment, mounting debt and general hopelessness – as well as manipulating politicians – have all eroded their critical faculties. The long-standing healthy mistrust of authority that has been a catalyst for change throughout Spanish history was nowhere to be seen.
I leave the last word with Mayor Sáiz, who brushed aside unease about the decision, which he emphasised, has been “unanimously approved by deputies in parliament. Would they want something that is harmful for the people of
Maybe someone should send that man on a junket to Fukishima in
*No reason to be smug here though. There are already three nuclear power stations in