On the island of Sicily, a pastoral village faces potential health threats from a huge communications array slated to be built nearby.
On the island of Sicily, the town of Niscemi, with its 28,000 inhabitants, its white houses, its nature reserve, its unique cork forest, its sun and its vicinity to the sea, is probably what most people would think of as an idyllic spot to spend the holidays. But these days, the Italian town is far from being quiet: in the last few months, it has become the theater of a dispute between the local inhabitants and the U.S. Naval Air Station situated nearby.
It all started two years ago, when the U.S. Navy decided to deploy one of the four ground stations for their Mobile User Objective System (MUOS) in the cork oak forest, a protected nature reserve. The forest already hosts a U.S. Naval Radio Transmitter Facility (NRTF), installed in 1991 and involving 41 antennas. These antennas only caused mild concern over health risks, but when talks about a new project involving additional big antennas started circulating, the local people decided it was too much.
And so they mobilized. They created No-MUOS committees, and on several occasions in recent months, organized demonstrations. They have repeatedly blocked the road leading to the military base, cut off soldiers and construction workers’ access to the site and blocked trucks carrying construction materials into the base. They say they want to protect this natural oasis, its unique flora and fauna, and the surrounding population’s right to a healthy environment. They are also denouncing the increasing militarization of Sicily by the U.S. military.
Strategically located in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea between Europe and North Africa, and close to the Middle East, Sicily has been a military asset since the end of the Second World War. The United States has maintained a basis there since 1959: NAS Sigonella originally hosted around 700 Americans and a small expeditionary airfield. Over the years, however, the number of active-duty service members and their families increased to 7,500; it now hosts U.S. and NATO aircraft of all kinds. After the flare-up of the so-called Arab Spring, the Middle East turned into an unstable area, further underlining the importance of the Sicily naval station — hence, the new U.S. project.
The multi-billion dollar MUOS program is a very high frequency, narrowband satellite communications system, designed to significantly improve ground communication for U.S. forces on the move and to facilitate the employment of ‘mobile user’ warfighters — especially drones — worldwide. Antonio Mazzeo, an Italian journalist specializing in defense and military issues, writes of a “revolution that will change the face of the war.” According to him, NAS Sigonella is destined to become the world capital for drones at the disposal of the U.S. military and NATO. It has already been used during the air war in Libya.
The system is composed of a constellation of four geostationary Earth orbit satellites, with a fifth left inactive as an in-orbit backup, and a terrestrial network consisting of four ground stations, each of which serves one of the four active satellites. Two of the planned ground stations have already been built in Norfolk, Virginia and in Wahiawa, Hawaii, while the two other facilities, located at Kojarena, Western Australia and Niscemi, Italy, are still under construction. The Niscemi station will be equipped with three parabolic very high frequency tilting satellite dishes, each nearly 60 feet in diameter, and two helical antennas for the UHF spectrum, which will tower almost 500 feet tall.
But the popular opposition against the MUOS seems to grow with each passing day. A new movement called Mamme-No Muos (Mothers against the MUOS), consisting of women of all ages that defend the right to health of their children, has seen the light, saying they don’t want to be ‘guinea pigs.’
In April, four activists cut the fence of the U.S. base and climbed on the giant antennas that were in operation. Police, military and firefighters went there to persuade them to get down. Two of them were arrested and accused of aggravated damage, resisting a public officer and being disruptively present on a military site. No-MUOS activists claim a regular presence on or near the site is the only way to stop the construction.
Protesters have been brutalized by the police on several occasions, while under the pressure of the United States, the Italian government is insisting on supporting the project. Work on construction of the station has been halted several times by dispositions issued from local legal authorities. Nevertheless, work always resumed.
In August 2013, twenty U.S. intellectuals, professors and researchers, including Noam Chomsky, launched a public appeal to ask the Obama administration to immediately stop the installation of the MUOS station in Niscemi. They also condemned the brutalization of the protesters and expressed their solidarity with Sicilian civil society groups, asking for their right to free speech and demonstration to be respected.
Uncertainty over the risks
Technicians and scientists, however, remain divided over the risks the antennas pose to the local population and the environment, apart from the fact that they are located within a natural protected area. Several reports have been published but they appear to contradict each other. As a result, it has not been possible to shed real light on the risks the population fears.
According to a study conducted by two physicists, Massimo Zucchetti and Massimo Coraddu of the Polytechnic University of Turin and published in November 2011, “the electromagnetic waves emanating from MUOS in case of mistakes, accidents, errors or malfunction, can be associated with the risk of accidental irradiation of the people within a 20-km radius leading to serious and irreversible damages, including for short exposures. The entire population of Niscemi is exposed to such a risk.”
The two professors – who are advisers to Niscemi’s local administration – also write that the main beam of microwaves emitted by the MUOS antennas during normal operation would significantly increase the risk of accidental irradiation of aircraft and could cause accidents up to six miles away. In other words, the U.S. antennas’ emissions could potentially affect all air traffic in the surrounding area — there are three airports within 50 miles of the MUOS site.
The study of Coraddu and Zucchetti concludes that to safeguard the population’s health as well as the environment, additional sources of electromagnetic fields at the NRTF station in Niscemi should not be installed. Existing emissions need further study, they say, citing “risks of major accidents and damages to the health of the population and to the environment need to be carefully evaluated” and “prevent the realization of the system only a few kilometers from a densely populated area, like is the case with the Niscemi village.”
More generally, during a “white night for peace” organized earlier this month, Zucchetti intervened, saying that “all the literature of the last 30 years say that electromagnetic waves cause damages. Given that they are radiations, it is obvious that they have an effect on the human body. Close to high-voltage power lines, for example, we know that there are more children suffering and dying from leukemia.”
The Italian National Institute of Health (ISS) holds a different opinion, however. In a document released in July 2013, it concludes that no evidence was found of possible risks due to the effects of the electromagnetic fields. The ISS document does state that the population of Niscemi presents a critical health situation compared to the rest of the region, with excessive numbers of cases of liver cancer and other liver diseases, multiple myeloma (a cancer of plasma cells), central nervous system diseases and other pathologies, for which no precise cause could be found. It added that further investigation was highly recommended.
In other words, doubts over the risks of the NRTF antennas and the additional MUOS arrays are still in the air. More tests, more measurements and more studies are probably necessary.
This has not made Niscemi residents feel more secure. The mobilization against the American projects in Sicily is likely to persist for some time. But in the meantime, the MUOS is growing.