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The World from Berlin: Merkel Has 'Re-Ignited a Culture War' Over Nuclear Power

Demonstrations against the annual Castor nuclear transport train broke records this year. Green leaders call it a rebuke of Angela Merkel's government, which recently extended the lifespans of German nuclear plants. Have German politics rolled back to the 1980s?

A Greenpeace activist, right, sits in a container blocking the Castor transport train in northern Germany. Zoom
AFP

A Greenpeace activist, right, sits in a container blocking the Castor transport train in northern Germany.

The so-called Castor transport train carries sealed containers of spent fuel rods almost every year from a nuclear reprocessing plant in La Hague, France, to a deep-earth storage facility in Gorleben, Germany. Camping out to block the train among the farms near Gorleben is a ritual for German environmentalists. This year, starting on Oct. 6 -- in response to the government's recent extension of legal lifespans for German nuclear power plants -- a record-breaking total of some 50,000 demonstrators turned out to wait for the train, which runs on a secret schedule and along an unpublicized route. On Monday and Tuesday the train waited 19 hours, about 20 kilometers (12 miles) from the facility, before track-sitting demonstrators could be cleared by police.

A leader of the Green Party's parliamentary group in Berlin, Renate Künast, told German TV that the protests were the "biggest that Gorleben has ever seen." She said protesters had responded to a "political provocation" by Angela Merkel's government, which in October officially changed a cherished Green Party phase-out of the nation's nuclear power plants. The last nuclear facility had been scheduled to go dark around 2020; as of October 28 plants can run for an average of another 12 years. Merkel called the extension a necessary bridge between old and new forms of domestic energy. Her critics call the measure a gift to the nuclear lobby, noting that it would create billions in additional profits for power utility companies.

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Photo Gallery: Waste Reaches Gorleben

The fuel rods originate in Germany, move to France for reprocessing, and return to Gorleben for temporary storage in a former salt mine. Protesters object to the movement of radioactive cargo through the countryside as well as the risk of some future disaster at Gorleben, which is also being researched by the government as a possible "final storage" facility for the highly radioactive, spent fuel rods.

The German government is also mulling a deal with Russia to move 951 radioactive rods burned in an old East German reactor from a temporary storage site in Ahaus, western Germany, to final storage in Majak, Siberia. The Süddeutsche Zeitung broke the news Tuesday. Those considerations are controversial already because of a risk of accidents in Majak.

The origin of Germany's Green movement, which has been vigorous enough to place one Green politician (Joschka Fischer) near the summit of power in Berlin, lies in popular demonstrations against the nuclear industry in the 1970s and '80s. The 2000 law capping the lifespans of nuclear plants was considered a triumph of Fischer's career. German papers on Wednesday morning consider the scale of the protests at Gorleben as well as the revival of Green politics under Angela Merkel's increasingly unpopular conservative government.

The leftist daily Die Tageszeitung writes:

"With their protests against the Castor train to Gorleben, nuclear power opponents have scored a clear win on points against Merkel's government. The massive show of participation by demonstrators shows that the government's hasty decision to extend nuclear-plant lifespans has led to more political engagement in Germany, rather than resignation ... It's now clear that people from all levels of society took to the streets out of personal conviction against the government's irresponsible policies. The attempt to tar them as violent troublemakers has failed."

"What's striking is the gap between political talk and behavior -- particularly in Environment Minister Norbert Röttgen's recent push to send highly radioactive waste to Russia. By talking up 'secure final disposal' and 'national responsibility' for nuclear waste, but at the same time hoping to send old fuel rods to a scandal-ridden nuclear complex in Siberia, Röttgen relinquishes his last ounce of public trust."

"Merkel's government will not reverse its decision about nuclear-facility lifespans just because of the protests near Gorleben. But now the chances have escalated that its own lifespan will be shortened."

The center-right Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung argues:

"In 2005, a government of Greens and Social Democrats in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia resisted the movement of fuel rods from an old East German research reactor in Rossendorf to the temporary site in Ahaus (in North Rhine-Westphalia) … Now the Greens are upset that the waste will be returned to its original owners in Russia. The worry that the fuel rods may not be processed and stored according to German safety standards is not without merit; but it is two-faced. Those who protest the removal of rods from Ahaus are the same people who protest attempts to find a final-storage site (for them) in Germany. If it goes on like this, the demonstrators will manage to ensure that radioactive waste from Germany as well as Russia will find its way to uncertain burial in Siberia."

The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:

"Storing nuclear waste is a thankless, dirty business … (But) instead of first establishing criteria for storage site and then finding a site, friends of the Gorleben facility did things the other way around. First they found the site, then they set the rules. First they invested billions, then they looked into possible objections and environmental damage. It would be an unusual way to approach a normal construction project, but in this case the concerns are much loftier: getting rid of waste."

"Germany, without doubt, needs to solve its nuclear problem at home. And wherever it sites a final storage facility, there will be protests. But the government can persuade only through geological, factual arguments and orderly practice in law -- not arguments about practical constraints and opportunities. The 'Gorleben principle' can no longer hold."

The left-leaning Berliner Zeitung writes:

"A collective historical awareness of successful civil disobedience arose in Germany (with the protests in the '70s and '80s). These extra-parliamentary movements made German democracy stronger, not weaker. What many people see as carping, dithering and getting in the way is the best you can hope for in a democratic state -- that citizens should look after their deepest concerns."

"The only citizens in Germany who refute this collective awareness are politicians from the Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU) and Free Democrats (FDP), who form the current government. Without the slightest appreciation or understanding (of history) they have re-ignited a painstakingly resolved culture war over nuclear power. They won't resolve it again, even if they put thousands of pitiable police officers in the street. It's up to the Greens, who may one day find themselves in power again -- as they were in 2000 -- to perform the hard work of negotiating a compromise between nuclear protesters and the nuclear industry, and to find a socially acceptable solution for the storage of nuclear waste."

-- SPIEGEL ONLINE Staff

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