Protests as last German nuclear convoy to leave France

23rd November 2011, Comments 0 comments

Baton-wielding French police battled anti-nuclear protesters Wednesday as the last convoy of German nuclear waste to be treated in France was prepared for its final journey home.

Spooked by Japan's Fukushima disaster, Germany has decided to phase out its use of nuclear power, and thus bring to an end the controversial practice of sending radioactive waste overland to France for reprocessing.

Anti-nuclear activists want France to follow suit and ban nuclear energy, an idea firmly dismissed by President Nicolas Sarkozy, and fierce protests were expected along the 700 kilometre (435 mile) route to Germany.

The shipment was to leave a railway yard in the Norman town of Valognes in northwest France, as police played cat and mouse with hundreds of activists, firing teargas and making at least five arrests.

As dense fog rolled in off the Channel, police set up roadblocks to prevent more demonstrators converging on the French nuclear giant Areva's yard. A police helicopter flew overhead and rows of riot vans lined the roads.

Cows scattered in the fields as police charged groups of stone-throwing protesters trying to get to the line, and a few kilometres outside Valognes a group managed to block a section of track with rocks and metal debris.

The train is the 12th and last shipment of German waste treated in France by Areva. Spent uranium fuel rods have been reprocessed to extract plutonium, and the remains vitrified and returned to Germany for storage.

There has long been widespread public opposition in Germany to nuclear power, which environmentalists believe presents an unacceptable danger.

In March, the Japanese nuclear plant at Fukushima Daiichi was hit by an earthquake and a tsunami, triggering a meltdown and massive radiation leak -- and increasing worldwide concerns over nuclear power.

In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel's government buckled under political pressure and agreed to halt its reactors by 2022, forcing energy suppliers to close profitable plants and levying a tax on the reactor's fuel.

In the meantime, Germany will no longer send nuclear waste for reprocessing in France, but will instead stockpile it until a way is found to make it safe.

Fukushima also increased concerns in France, but opposition to nuclear power has never been so strong here, and the country still produces more than 75 percent of its electricity needs through fission reactors.

Areva is a huge employer, and Sarkozy's government has vowed to stand by the industry, despite criticism from the left.

Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, Sarkozy's minister for transport and the environment, expressed astonishment that anyone would protest the shipment.

"The system is that we are sent waste, we treat it and send it back. This is waste we're sending abroad. Do they want us to keep it?" she demanded in an interview on Europe 1 radio.

According to pressure group Greenpeace, the shipment of 11 containers holds the same quantity of "highly radioactive" waste as the last one to leave the French reprocessing plant at La Hague for the German site at Gorleben.

Last November the train took 91 hours to arrive at its final destination -- an entire day longer than planned -- and it was dogged the length of the route by French and then German protesters.

German police said they were expecting tens of thousands of protesters on their side of the border, but the demonstration was expected to be less angry now that the government has backed down over future shipments.

Sarkozy's main rival in next year's presidential election, Socialist flag-bearer Francois Hollande, has signed an electoral pact with the Greens vowing to cut the share of power produced by nuclear reactors to 50 percent.

But the opposition remains divided on the issue, with many on the left critical of the Greens' stance, arguing it will hurt jobs in a rare industry in which France is still a world leader.

© 2011 AFP

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