30 Years of Division Gorleben Nuclear Waste Depository Splits Community

The Gorleben nuclear waste depository has been a site for anti-nuclear protest for 30 years, and this weekend 30,000 are expected to return to the north German site. The issue of where to store the toxic waste has divided the region and split families apart. SPIEGEL ONLINE examines both sides of the fence.


On Saturday, more than 30,000 protestors are expected to converge in the Wendland region of northern Germany. Their cause: Ending the transport of highly toxic nuclear waste into the area's Gorleben facility. It's an issue that's driven a wedge through the local community for the past 30 years.

Until recently, it seemed as if the environmental lobby's battle to rid Germany of waste-producing nuclear power plants had been won. In 2001, the German government, under a ruling center-left Social Democrat (SPD)-Green Party coalition, announced it would phase-out nuclear power. But this fall Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative government announced it would extend the lifespan of nuclear reactors by an average of 12 years.

The decision breathed new urgency into the country's anti-nuclear movement, and is bringing more protestors back to the Gorleben area, where sit-in blockades on the train tracks have taken place for decades.

The issue at hand is what to do with the high-level radioactive waste. The Federal Office for Radiation Protection estimates the government's decision to extend nuclear reactor lifespans will generate an extra 17,200 tons of heavy metal of heat-generating, radioactive waste by 2040.

In 1979, a former salt mine at Gorleben was selected as a temporary waste site, and the government began investigating whether or not to make the site permanent. The announcement unleashed a wave of protest from the Green movement -- still in its infancy at the time -- and the nuclear issue came to define the fledgling German Green Party.

Now, after a 10-year cooling off period, feasibility research into a permanent storage site in Gorleben have started again. As yet another so-called "Castor transport" of nuclear waste containers makes its way from France, tens of thousands of protestors are preparing to block its path with a sit-in blockade. Old banners declaring "Castor brings cancer," and "Stop Castor," adorn the houses along the route and the Wendland anti-nuclear movement's signature yellow "X" has been nailed to fences and posts in gardens.

But the local population is far from united on the issue. Opponents and supporters live side by side in the idyllic countryside. With views hardening in recent weeks, the dispute is threatening to destroy the harmony of the area's communities. SPIEGEL ONLINE spoke to local residents on both sides of the nuclear fence.


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