Germany's Anti-Nuclear Revival Activists Hope for Impressive Showdown

This autumn, German anti-nuclear activists are busy planning what could be the biggest protests in the movement's history. Saturday's demonstration in Berlin will reveal the extent of public outrage over government plans to prolong Germany's nuclear program.

German anti-nuclear demonstrators formed a 120 kilometer-long (74.5 miles) human chain from Krümmel to Brunsbüttel in April 2010.
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German anti-nuclear demonstrators formed a 120 kilometer-long (74.5 miles) human chain from Krümmel to Brunsbüttel in April 2010.


The cornfield in Wendland has already been chosen, and there is enough space for about 30,000 to 40,000 people. A major event is expected there in November, to coincide with a new transport of nuclear waste to Germany's temporary depository site at Gorleben in the western state of Lower Saxony.

Such a large rally would have been unthinkable a year ago, but Wolfgang Ehmke, the spokesman for the Lüchow-Dannenberg Citizens Initiative for Ecological Protection (BI), is also hoping for what anti-nuclear activists have been predicting for some time: that this fall be the pinnacle of their protest movement, already one of the biggest in German history. Until very recently, it looked like their mission -- to phase out nuclear energy -- was complete.

It appears that anti-nuclear resistance has been reforming since the governing coalition announced its new nuclear energy policy, including plans to extend the lifespans of German nuclear power plants by a number of years. But how much potential does the anti-nuclear movement really have? So far reliable figures have been hard to come by, but there are a few indicators.

High Hopes

This Saturday will be the first reality check. An alliance of six organizations has called on activists to attend a mass demonstration in Berlin, encircling the government quarter. The police have received notification of a demonstration of around 30,000, but organizers suggest numbers could be far higher. Claus Möller, head of the center-left Social Democrats' (SPD) Party Council and long-serving finance minister for the state of Schleswig-Holstein, is hoping for as many as 100,000 protesters. His party led the government coalition together with the Green Party under Chancellor Gerhard Schröder that in 2001 voted to phase out nuclear power in Germany.

Those wishing to help with the mobilization effort were able to order packs from the organizers including stickers, flyers and posters, which read: "Nuclear Power: Stop It Now!" Organizers had been receiving around 20 to 30 orders per day until Chancellor Angela Merkel announced the nuclear package. That was on a Sunday. The next day 99 orders were received, then 181 on Tuesday and 300 on Wednesday. After that activist Jochen Stay, a member of the anti-nuclear alliance ".ausgestrahlt, " gave up counting.

Meanwhile, the community action network "campact" has already gathered more than 94,000 signatures for an open online protest letter addressed to Chancellor Merkel. "Your plan to extend the operation terms of nuclear power plants by an average of 12 years is completely incomprehensible to me," the letter states. "I hereby give notice that I will be participating in the protests against your nuclear policy."

'Against the Will of the People'

Officials at Greenpeace say they have seen a "considerable readiness" to engage, both from volunteer groups and in online protests.

"The potential seems to be growing quickly," said spokesman Tobias Riedl. "Anger at the way opinion has been manipulated and the secretive nature of the agreements has penetrated into the broader population, and there's an enormous amount of outrage." There's a general feeling that "something is being forced against the will of the people" -- and that will be the driving force behind the protest.

Jürgen Trittin, co-chair of the Greens' group in the federal parliament, agrees. "At the protests this fall it will become clear that the federal government doesn't have the support of the majority of the people for its pro-nuclear course," he predicts. According to Trittin, the current coalition government -- led by Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats and the business-friendly Free Democratic Party has needlessly burdened the country with the revival of a major social conflict that the SPD-Green coalition had already resolved, and that even industry had consented to. People are also outraged about "Merkel's kowtow to the nuclear lobby," says Trittin.

Tritten notes that the plans to extend nuclear plant lifespans aren't yet set in stone. "Without the consent of the Bundesrat (Germany's upper legislative chamber, which represents the interests of the states) it can't be enforced. This dispute will end up before the Federal Constitutional Court."

Phase-Out Cop-Out

Political scientist and sociologist Dieter Rucht, a professor at the Social Science Research Center Berlin, believes the "withdrawal from the phase-out" will drive people who don't normally get out onto the streets to the barricades.

Rucht has been an observer of the anti-nuclear scene for about three decades and believes that "the mood is currently very stirred up."

Rucht sees the new protest movement as being made up of several components. First, there are the veterans who were out on the streets back in the 1970s and 1980s. "They've woken up again," says Rucht. After the SPD-Green decision to phase out nuclear power, many of them assumed the issue had been put to bed, but now they are realizing they had been too hasty.

Joining them, Rucht speculates, are young activists taking issue with the legacy of nuclear waste left to them by their predecessors, an inheritance they do not want to leave for future generations.

Current developments have, according to Rucht, driven many other ordinary citizens to join the movement. Many have been annoyed by the details of the contracts proposed by the governing coalition and the power of the energy utility corporations involved, particularly after the experience of the banking crisis.

Finally, Rucht thinks general discontent with the governing coalition could also drive people out onto the streets.

Where there are more people, there is a higher portion of them willing to commit "acts of civil disobedience," Rucht suggests. Uwe Schünemann, the interior minister for Lower Saxony -- whose state must provide security for the safe transport of so-called Castor containers of highly radioactive waste to Gorleben -- is also concerned.

He predicts the protests in November will grow larger, more brutal and more expensive. Schünemann says securing the passage of the previous nuclear waste transport in 2006 cost the state €23 million. Schünemann thinks it's likely this year's operation will cost even more.

Return to Gorleben

The nuclear opposition in Wendland is also girding itself for more protestors. "Gorleben is the place where what (Merkel's) coalition really wants will be manifested first," says citizen's initiative spokesman Ehmke.

According to his information, the Federal Office for Radiation Protection has, in its search of a potential permanent waste repository site in Germany, already sought out which landowners would have to be dispossessed should they refuse to sell their property. Ehmke and his fellow resistors consider this a clear signal as to where the government wants to go.

Activists are hoping for a mass movement and are determined to mobilize more people than ever before. "If need be," Ehmke said, "we'll look for a bigger corn field."

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