Last German nuclear convoy to leave France amid protests

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French police battled anti-nuclear protesters Wednesday as the last convoy of German nuclear waste to be treated here 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.

The last shipment of treated waste was to leave Normandy in northwest France on Wednesday for Germany, as baton-wielding police battled hundreds of anti-nuclear activists, firing teargas and making at least five arrests.

In dense fog rolling in off the Channel, police set up roadblocks to prevent more demonstrators converging on the French nuclear giant Areva's railway yard in Valognes or the nearby station.

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.

Protest leaders said they expected the train to leave the Valognes yard at 1320 GMT. Demonstrations are expected along the 700 kilometre (435 mile) route to Germany, where still bigger crowds are expected to protest its arrival.

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 President Nicolas 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.

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.

© 2011 AFP

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