Nuclear waste train resumes journey from France to Germany

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The last train carrying reprocessed nuclear waste back from France to Germany left its overnight parking spot in eastern France on Friday, steaming towards another day of violent protests.

The train, carrying 11 wagonloads of vitrified radioactive material, left a siding in the station of Remilly, just outside the town of Metz and around 30 kilometres (19 miles) from the German border, at 9.00 am (0800 GMT).

Several hundred French riot police had protected the train overnight, and around 60 German officers and a French "RAID" team -- a SWAT-style special weapons squad -- were on board as it resumed its journey.

The train had left a yard operated by the French nuclear giant Areva in Valognes, in Normandy, on Wednesday, due to travel more than 1,100 kilometres (680 miles) across France and through Germany to the waste dump in Gorleben.

But violent anti-nuclear protests delayed its journey, and authorities halted it overnight while trying to keep demonstrators guessing about its eventual route across the border and back into Germany.

On Friday, it appeared to be heading from Remilly to Forbach, a French border town just south of Saarbrucken and just short of the frontier.

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

Around 50,000 activists turned out in Germany to try to disrupt the train during that transfer, and protest organisers expect 20,000 to demonstrate against the convoy as it nears the central town of Gorleben later Friday.

Some 19,000 German officers have been deployed, and tear gas and water canon were fired when clashes erupted overnight when a few hundred protesters tried to block the line around 20 kilometres outside Gorleben.

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 shut its reactors, an idea firmly dismissed by President Nicolas Sarkozy, whose government believes French industry is reliant on cheap nuclear-generated electricity.

There has long been widespread public opposition in Germany to nuclear power, which environmentalists believe presents an unacceptable radioactive threat to public health and the environment.

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.

Chancellor Angela Merkel's government agreed to halt German reactors by 2022, forcing energy suppliers to close plants and levying a tax on 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.

France produces 75 percent of its electricity needs in nuclear plants -- a higher proportion than any other country -- and its electricity bills are around 25 percent cheaper than in its neighbours, a boon to industry.

German protesters are angry that Merkel's announced nuclear phase-out will take another decade, and that there is still no permanent storage site for the waste generated in the country's reactors.

© 2011 AFP

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