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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

German Nuclear Transport

Air Date: Week of

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Germany is phasing out its nuclear power plants. But its nuclear waste is still being reprocessed and then transported to a small farming town in that country. Mike Muehlberger reports on the demonstrations against these shipments.


TOOMEY: A few months ago, the German government finalized a deal with the utility industry there to phase out nuclear power. But, for the time being, nuclear power plants in that country still send their spent fuel to France for reprocessing. That's the procedure in which useable fuel is separated out from nuclear waste. Twice a year, this highly radioactive waste makes its way back to Germany, to the small farming town of Gorleben, where it's permanently stored. And when it does, the town's residents, as well as antinuclear activists, gather there to protest. Mike Muehlberger has this report.


MUEHLBERGER: A train bearing six containers of highly radioactive nuclear waste pulls into the station in the small northern city of Dannenberg. At the same time, several hundred demonstrators surge forward. They're within sight of the crane that will lift the containers onto flatbed trucks. From there the trucks will move at a snail's pace 12 miles down the road to Gorleben, where the waste is stored in an above-ground building. The demonstrators want to take their protest onto the tracks and onto the streets, but they can't. They face a wall of police officers in riot gear and police trucks with water cannons. The message from the crowd is clear. Go away, they shout, to the 15,000 police officers who take control of this region twice a year.


VOICEOVER: They want to break us. This is not a democracy anymore. We have no rights. They have taken away our right to move freely and to demonstrate. They just cut us off.

MUEHLBERGER: This local resident has been part of the German antinuclear movement throughout its entire 25-year history. He and his fellow protesters want an immediate end to nuclear power, but, short of that, an end to nuclear shipments, which they believe are inherently dangerous. The protestors know they can't stop these transports, but delay them with sit-ins and other non-violent tactics. But during the last transport, in March, a small group of violent protestors clashed with police, throwing stones and Molotov cocktails. This time around, the police have a different strategy, says Rebecca Harms, regional representative of the German Green Party.


VOICEOVER: They just forbid things. Almost everything that the citizens here try to organize, and get permission for, is turned down. The police always claim that they have reason to expect violence, but as far as I'm concerned, their suspicions aren't grounded in enough detail.

MUEHLBERGER: Many of the demonstrators were once members of the Green Party, but since the Greens became a member of Germany's coalition government they've become disillusioned. They say they feel betrayed by the Greens for allowing the nuclear waste transports to continue. A shipment had been halted for two years, after radiation was found on the outside of the transport containers. At that point, spent fuel from Germany's 19 reactors was stored without reprocessing at the reactor sites. But the material was starting to build up. The Greens defend the resumption of the shipments, saying that they're an integral part of the deal to get the utility industry to phase out nuclear energy in the next 20 to 30 years. It's a compromise, they say, but that's the reality of being in government. For the environmental activists here, the current time frame is a sellout to the nuclear lobby. Edelgard Graefer is the head of Dannenberg's antinuclear movement.


VOICEOVER: The sad thing is we no longer have a real opposition to the nuclear lobby. The current agreement is not a compromise, it's worse than what we had before. It really is a pact with the nuclear industry. They can continue to produce radioactive waste without a permanent storage site. For us it's been a tough blow, the way the Greens have betrayed the antinuclear movement.

MUEHLBERGER: As the nuclear waste transport winds its way through France and Germany, it is protected from above by police helicopters. The six stainless steel caskets, with their cargo of glass-encased atomic waste, contain 20 percent more radiation than was released in 1986, during the world's worst atomic accident, in Chernobyl. Since the terrorist attacks on the United States, opponents to nuclear energy have been worried about the threat of nuclear terrorism. But the police see no risk at the moment and say security measures for the transports have not changed because of what happened on September the 11th.


MUEHLBERGER: With music blaring from their tractors, local farmers try to lift the spirits of demonstrators worn out by their futile attempts to hold up the transport. The final stretch of road to the storage site is lined by thousands of police officers. And yet every so often small groups of demonstrators manage to break through police lines and sit on the road; one by one, they're carried away. It's a slow, painstaking journey, but 30 years and 3 generations have taught the protestors to be patient. Edelgard Graefer remains optimistic.


VOICEOVER: I think it's great that people still care enough in Germany to protest. I'm sure that this is an issue which won't go away until we find the solution that gives us the security we want and politicians listen to the people instead of just bowing to industry.

MUEHLBERGER: For Living on Earth I'm Mike Muehlberger, in Dannenberg, Germany.



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