Nuclear waste battle shows German feelings run deep

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German activists claimed victory Tuesday after huge delays to a radioactive waste convoy that showed the depth of unease over nuclear power as Berlin moves to keep its reactors for longer.

"(The shipment) may have arrived but the government is further than ever from its aim of getting people in Germany to accept nuclear power," Florian Kubitz from protest group Robin Wood said.

"We are going to draw new strength from these protests and feel we have been supported by a broad and decisive movement."

The 123 tonnes of waste, originally from a German nuclear power station, took 92 hours to make it to the Gorleben storage facility in the north of the country from a processing plant in France, by train and then by road.

The protesters -- who numbered 20,000 to 25,000, according to police -- were mostly young, but there were also older people in a country that since the Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine in 1986 has been uncomfortable about nuclear energy.

Protest stunts included sit-ins, abseiling from bridges into the train's path, removing stones supporting train tracks and even shepherding a herd of sheep and goats into the convoy's way.

The police operation included 20,000 officers and cost around 50 million euros (70 million dollars), according to the police union.

Monday and Tuesday were peaceful, but Sunday saw violent clashes, with masked activists fighting pitched battles with baton-wielding police enveloped in clouds of tear gas, and setting fire to a police vehicle.

Such shipments regularly attract protests, but this year the delay was the longest ever with demonstrators wishing to display their opposition to government plans to postpone the date when Germany goes nuclear-free.

Under a previous government, Germany decided in 2000 to switch off the last of the country's reactors by around 2020, but Chancellor Angela Merkel intends to keep nuclear power until the mid 2030s.

Tens of thousands of people demonstrated in Berlin in September against the move. A survey in September showed 59 percent of respondents opposed the extension, with just 37 percent in favour.

The lower house of parliament passed a bill on the extension last month. But the legislation could still face a tough fight in the upper house, where Merkel's alliance lost its majority in May, as well as court challenges.

"There was consensus on nuclear power, but this has been thrown of the window," political scientist Gero Neugebauer told AFP.

The material transported this week was first produced before 2005, and the government has said that the issue of radioactive waste has nothing to do with the question of extending the lifetimes of nuclear reactors.

But protesters disagree, saying they want to highlight what they say is one of the most alarming aspects of nuclear power, namely what to do with the radioactive waste produced.

Germany, like the rest of Europe, has no permanent storage site for the waste, which will remain dangerous for thousands of years. Keeping the reactors running for longer is therefore highly irresponsible, opponents say.

"This mass mobilisation has brought to the foreground the fundamental problem of the nuclear industry: that it is dirty, and dangerous," pressure group Greenpeace said.

"Nowhere in the world is there a proven solution to the deadly problem of isolating long lived radioactive waste from the environment."

"The protests in Gorleben show ... Merkel has in fact won little with her nuclear policy and lost a lot politically," the influential news magazine Spiegel said on its website.

© 2010 AFP

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