Nuclear waste shipment faces German protests
DANNENBERG, Germany—Tens of thousands of people demonstrated Saturday against a shipment of nuclear waste traveling to a storage site in northern Germany, and some tried to block railway tracks in a protest fueled by a government move to extend the country's use of atomic energy.
Demonstrators turned fields outside the town of Dannenberg into a sea of yellow-and-red flags with the slogan "Nuclear Power -- No, Thanks." Police estimated the crowd at some 25,000, while activists put the number at more than 50,000.
The waste crossed into Germany Saturday on its journey from a reprocessing plant in northwestern France. In Dannenberg it will be unloaded from the train to trucks for the last leg of its trip to the storage facility at nearby Gorleben.
Police discovered tunnels dug by protesters under roads the trucks are due to travel in at least two places, in what seem to be attempts to render the roads impassable.
Activists maintain that neither the waste containers nor the Gorleben site, a temporary storage facility, are safe. The waste is stored in a warehouse near a disused salt mine that has been earmarked as a possible permanent storage site.
"What we need to say to (Chancellor) Angela Merkel is that this is a Chernobyl on wheels," Greenpeace executive director Kumi Naidoo told the protesters.
"People's resistance in Gorleben sends a valuable message to the government of this and other countries," he said. "We will not bow down to a government acting in the interests of the nuclear industry and against the interests of their own citizens."
Naidoo said two Greenpeace activists had chained themselves to tracks near a French-German border crossing, a favorite tactic of protesters trying to block the shipments -- drawing cheers from the crowd.
The train crossed the border by another route, arriving in the German town of Kehl Saturday afternoon. It still had a journey of several hundred miles (kilometers) ahead of it to get to Dannenberg, and police said a few hundred people were cleared off tracks further north.
The Dannenberg protest was peaceful, though police said they used batons and pepper spray against a group of 150 people who tried to dig a hole under a nearby road and threw fireworks and stones at officers. There was no immediate word on any arrests.
Later, about 100 riot police pushed their way through the crowd as the protest was breaking up. They were pelted with potatoes dug from the fields by the protesters before retreating.
"It was going peacefully and then there came the white helmets," said Barbara Spinner, a schoolteacher from the area. "It was pure provocation.
Germany receives waste shipments roughly every year under an agreement that sees spent fuel sent to France for reprocessing and returned for storage.
Gorleben has been a traditional focus of anti-nuclear protests, and the shipments have in the past led to clashes between demonstrators and police.
The protests faded after a previous government embarked a decade ago on plans to phase nuclear power out entirely by 2021 -- but this year, activists are angry at the decision of Merkel's government to extend the life of Germany's 17 nuclear plants by an average 12 years. Parliament approved the plan last month.
The demonstration was the biggest ever in the area against the transport, with the numbers dwarfing the 20,000 who protested in 1997 in Lueneburg.
Nuclear energy has been unpopular in Germany since the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, and there are no plans for Germany to build new nuclear plants.
However, Merkel argues that extending the life of the existing ones is necessary to keep energy cheap and readily available as the country works to get more power from renewable sources. She calls nuclear power a "bridging technology."
Decisions such as keeping nuclear plants running "may be unpopular at the moment, but they will pay off," Merkel was quoted Saturday as telling Focus weekly. "They are necessary for us also in future to be a successful economic center."
The train carrying 123 tons of reprocessed nuclear waste set off Friday under tight security, as other environmental activists deployed along the route for planned protests.
Christophe Neugnot, a spokesman for French nuclear engineering company
Many countries in Europe and elsewhere 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.