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Contested nuclear waste leaves for Germany

CAEN, France --Environmentalists handcuffed themselves in front of a train carrying 123 tons of reprocessed nuclear waste, bringing the shipment to a halt just hours after it set off from France to Germany on Friday under heavy security.

The train was stopped outside of the station in the northwestern city of Caen, where police and security officials worked to detach the five activists who had handcuffed themselves across the tracks. The train started moving again after being stopped for three hours.

State-controlled French nuclear engineering company Areva said the shipment to a storage site in the northeastern German town of Goerleben over the weekend was "completely normal" -- and the 11th of its kind.

The shipment of the waste, which is to be stored in Germany as part of a long-standing agreement, comes amid an intensified debate over the use of nuclear power to meet rising demand for energy and concerns about its risks to human health and the environment.

Areva spokesman Christophe Neugnot condemned the activists' tactics, calling it "completely irresponsible to attach oneself to the tracks."

With dozens more activists and media assembled at the Caen station, police erected barriers around the handcuffed activists. Metal cutters roared and sparks were seen through the screens.

Earlier in the day, in the nearby town of Valogne, where the train left Friday afternoon, Greenpeace activists unfurled anti-nuclear banners, and thousands more are expected to line the route -- notably once it crosses into Germany.

Greenpeace officials, including executive director Kumi Naidoo, said the shipment was "the most radioactive in history" and potentially more dangerous than the 1986 Chernobyl disaster in area of the Soviet Union that is now Ukraine.

Areva sharply denied those claims.

"The reference to Chernobyl is scandalous," Areva CEO Anne Lauvergeon said on France-Info radio. The waste was about the same amount as in the other 10 shipments, she said. Other Areva officials said it was smaller than some of the others.

Activists and journalists looked on as the engine hauling trailers with whitewashed cylinders containing the nuclear waste rumbled by in Valognes to begin the 1,500-kilometer (930-mile) journey. A police helicopter hovered overhead.

Areva spokesman Neugnot said dozens of French riot police were aboard the train. Police were also expected to line the train's route in a bid to head off any disruptions by activists.

Neugnot said the security measures, under international regulations, involved sealing the solid nuclear waste in glass that is in turn encased in 40-centimeter (16-inch) thick steel containers. He called the train cars "rolling fortresses" -- each benefiting from 100 tons of protective material.

Neugnot said Greenpeace was on the defensive and changing its tactics as European governments show renewed interest in nuclear power.

The head of Greenpeace France, Pascal Husting, said "nuclear energy is not a solution for the future" and the police deployments showed that "this technology has a problem with democracy."

A large demonstration is planned Saturday in Dannenberg, where the waste containers are scheduled to be loaded onto trucks for the final stretch of their journey.

The shipments from a reprocessing site in La Hague, France, to Goerleben have been a frequent focus of protests by Germany's vocal anti-nuclear lobby.

This year, a move by Chancellor Angela Merkel's government to extend the lives of Germany's 17 nuclear power plants by an average 12 years has energized activists.

Nuclear energy has been unpopular in Germany since the Chernobyl meltdown, and the plan partly rolls back a decade-old decision by a previous government to shut down all German nuclear plants by 2021. Opponents plan to contest Merkel's move in Germany's highest court.

Merkel calls atomic energy a "bridging technology" that will allow Germany to focus on further developing renewable energy sources like wind, solar and biofuel power. Germany has no plans to build new nuclear plants.

Many countries in Europe and around the world have been looking to nuclear power as a way to reduce their dependency on energy from foreign nations -- notably oil, gas and coal, the use of which is believed to contribute to global warming.

The Italian government named a head for its nuclear agency Friday, which was seen as a step forward for Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's hopes to build nuclear reactors. A year after the Chernobyl disaster, Italians rejected nuclear power in a referendum.

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Jamey Keaten in Paris and Jeffrey Schaeffer in Valognes, France, contributed to this report. 

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