Photo Gallery: Nuclear Issue Divides Wendland


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.

The Supporters

In Gartow, a village neighboring the Gorleben site, mayor Friedrich-Wilhelm Schröder and his deputy, Ulrich Flöter, both members of the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), have stood in favor of the depository for years. In the 1980s, Flöter even received anonymous death threats because of his stance. "It would be easier if we said we were against it," he said, "but there also have to be people who raise the banner."

For them, the benefits of the site to the local community are obvious. "I stand by the site," said Schröder. "It's an economic asset." The Gorleben site employs 130 locals, and Schröder's son has an apprenticeship there.

And even though their position is deeply unpopular among the anti-nuclear lobby, it has not cost the CDU votes locally -- the party occupies eight of 15 local council seats. "We represent the local citizens when it comes to this issue," said Flöter.

Thirty years ago, local politicians gave their consent to the Gorleben nuclear waste depository, but the decision to make it permanent has long been out of their hands. The legal process lies with the federal government, Schröder told SPIEGEL ONLINE.

The Local Pastor

Eckhard Kruse has been the local pastor in Gartow for 21 years. In the summer of 2009, the local Evangelical Church appointed him "depository officer," a role which involves mulling over the ethical questions posed by the Gorleben site. He has also been tasked with being a sounding board for the local community, regardless of what their views on the nearby storage of nuclear waste are. "I'm there for anybody," Kruse said. "But I can't condone everything that people do."

Personally he is skeptical of the Gorleben project, but doesn't want to alienate his flock by openly displaying the opposition's "X" in his window. "That would mean people wouldn't feel free to come here," he explained. Even now, most visitors to his house come under cover of darkness. They don't want others to see them seeking the advice of a known opponent of nuclear power.

Spokesman for the Nuclear Lobby

Rolf Meyer, the long-time spokesman for the German Company for the Construction and Operation of Waste Repositories (DBE), knows the area's every nook and cranny. His job has not made him popular. "Over time I've become evil personified," he said.

He isn't welcome to come along, whenever his wife, a teacher, goes out for a drink with her colleagues. Still, Meyer understands the opposition's concern. "(Waste) disposal is an incredibly complex process and extends over unimaginable periods of time," he said. "But the problem has to be faced."

For Meyer the core issue in Wendland is: "Who can you trust?"

The District Official

Klaus Poggendorf is among those in Wendland who don't trust the anti-nuclear lobby. As the district's chief executive from 1978-1996, he was heavily involved in making the decisions over Gorleben. He had the final say over whether to ban demonstrations. His most unpopular decision was to clear the "Free Republic of Wendland," a temporary protest camp set up by demonstrators in 1980. "The law forced us to do it," he said. "They were unapproved buildings."

Despite receiving several death threats over the years and even a letter once with wires sticking out of it, which led to a bomb squad unit being called in, Poggendorf is "not dissatisfied" with the time he spent in office. He even spent four years writing a book justifying his actions, titled: "Gorleben - The Dispute over Nuclear Waste Disposal and the Future of a Region."

The Unwavering Opponents

Hans Werner Zachow is a farmer and a founding member of the local Rural Emergency Association, an organization of anti-nuclear farmers formed 30 years ago. The group is determined to make the passage of the nuclear waste transports as difficult as possible. When Zachow helped build the "Free Republic of Wendland" 30 years ago, his parents warned him not to get so heavily involved. Now his 85-year-old father joins the protests.

Wendland farmers are concerned that an accident at the Gorleben site would mean an end to their livelihoods. "If something happened, no one would buy our products anymore," said Zachow, who owns a local dairy farm with 70 cows. "As it is, we don't advertise that our milk comes from Wendland."

Not all farmers have joined the front against the nuclear depository and some made fortunes selling their land to make way for it. Some of the older ones have serious reservations about the protest actions.

For others in the area, the waste facility has split their families apart. Wolf Ehmke, a Hamburg-based teacher, no longer has any contact with his cousin, who sold his land to make way for the depository. "At family occasions my mother always said not to start going on about Gorleben," he said. When Ehmke visits Gorleben on weekends and runs into known supporters of the project, he always remains civil. But he knows the particular pubs where supporters aren't allowed to drink. "Everybody knows which side everybody else is on," he said.

Ehmke believes the plan for a permanent depository at Gorleben is on its last legs. "Times have changed," he said. "You can't govern against the will of the people. It'll be overturned."

The Dependents

If the Gorleben repository were to be closed down Uwe Müller would lose his job. For 20 years he has been working as an IT specialist for the team investigating the suitabilty of the site as a permanent storage facility. As employee council chairman and regional head of the IG BCE union (the Mining, Chemical and Energy Industrial Union) he represents workers from the most hated profession in the area. But, he said, "the community action groups have never turned against the miners."

The workers at Gorleben tend to keep to themselves. They avoid demonstrators and debates and they do not provoke under any circumstances. When Müller's children were taught protest songs at school, it made him angry. But he didn't complain because he didn't want to add fuel to the fire. What annoys the union man most, though, is the fact that there is no genuine discussion between those opposed to the storage facility and those advocating for it. "People who agree with the storage facility or who are ambivalent about it do not speak up," he said.

Miner Gisbert Stevens worked in Gorleben's exploratory mine for 10 years, but never suffered any personal attacks. There are opponents to the facility living in his neighborhood and most of the time everyone gets along well together. It is only when the waste transport begins that the two parties stay out of one another's way. "It doesn't make much sense to have a discussion then," Stevens said.

Whether or not the salt dome is a suitable storage place for the nuclear waste is a complex question -- one which Stevens thinks should be looked into in an impartial way. "If it turned out that it was not suitable, then I will also go and stand on the street and say 'find somewhere else,'" he said.

First up, though, will be the next transport. The demonstrations will take place but Stevens believes they are pointless. "The thing is coming in anyway," he said.

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