ROME (Reuters) - Italy's Ilva steel plant has begun a shutdown after a court ordered it to close because of evidence pollution from Europe's biggest steel works was causing above average cancer rates in the southern city of Taranto.

A court on Saturday gave administrators five days to begin shutting the factory, prompted by a series of damning environmental reports which blamed emissions of dust and cancer-causing chemicals from the site for abnormal levels of tumors and respiratory diseases in the Taranto region.

Adolfo Buffo, the manager of the plant, said in a press conference on Monday that Ilva's blast furnace number one will be off by the end of November.

"All the actions we were ordered to do have been carried out," Buffo said.

Luxembourg engineering group Paul Wurth is in charge of shutting and then renovating the facility to bring it in line with environmental standards.

The huge, continuously operating blast furnaces cannot be switched off without a long term shutdown of the site with the risk that it could be closed down permanently.

The court also ruled the closure of the plant's largest furnace, number five, and of seven coke oven batteries. It ordered the sale of the number three furnace, which was already shut down due to weak demand.

The clean-up plan sparked a series of protests by unions, who said a pause to production would put the future of the factory in doubt and risk jobs in a region already suffering above average unemployment, creating a headache for the government of Prime Minister Mario Monti.

ILVA employs 12,000 workers directly, and another 8,000 people are indirectly employed by the sprawling site in the heel of Italy's boot. It accounts for more than a third of steel output in Italy, the second-biggest producer in Europe after Germany.

(Reporting by Massimiliano Di Giorgio; editing by Andrew Hay)