When the government of former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, which saw his Social Democrats paired with the Greens in a governing coalition, announced in 2000 that the country was phasing out its nuclear power plants, it seemed that decades of anti-nuclear activism in Germany could be laid to rest. Indeed, protests against atomic power virtually disappeared from the calendars of political ativists.
That, though, has changed recently. A series of revelations about leaks at a nuclear waste dump, combined with a fresh political debate about the nuclear phase-out has led to a revival of the movement. And this weekend saw the clearest evidence that the issue is still very much alive as thousands of people turned out to disrupt the transport of radioactive nuclear waste from France to a dump in Germany.
They were the biggest and most violent anti-nuclear protests in Germany since 2001, with activists setting fire to barricades and chaining themselves to train tracks. Several protestors and police were injured during the clashes.
The protests delayed for hours the transport of the disputed nuclear waste to the long-term storage facility in Gorleben, located just south-east of Hamburg. By the time the 11 containers of treated waste were finally transferred to trucks for the final 30 kilometers of their journey, the operation was already 14 hours behind schedule.
Thousands of police were deployed throughout the weekend and well into Monday to ensure that the waste gets to its destination. Some 1,000 demonstrators continue to be waiting along the possible routes with protestors even having driven 37 tractors on to one of the roads near the Gorleben storage facility. A number high ranking members of Germany's Green Party took part in the demonstrations on the weekend.
This weekend's transport is the 11th of its kind to date.The nuclear waste from many German nuclear plants is sent to the French facility at La Hague in Normandy to be reprocessed and sealed into glass for storage.
The cargo had already been delayed on Saturday for 12 hours at the French-German border after three protesters chained themselves to concrete blocks supporting the rails. Meanwhile, three deliberate fires in signalling equipment disrupted rail traffic on Saturday, knocking out the high-speed rail link between Berlin and Hamburg.
In all around 15,000 demonstrators rallied against the transport over the weekend while 16,000 police officers were deployed across Germany. While most of the protests were non-violent there were some ugly scenes. Riot police clashed with activists on Sunday after around 700 militants began hurling firecrackers at the police and setting bales of straw on fire on the rails. The police used water cannon and batons to disperse the crowd. Other groups staged sit-ins on two other parts of the track but they were described as more peaceful. Many wore silly hats, blew bubbles and played bagpipe music as they were carried away by the police.
"This is a strong sign of the renaissance of the anti-nuclear movement," Jochen Stay, spokesman for anti-nuclear group X-Tausendmal quer, told reporters. The organization campaigns for the speedy phase-out of the country's remaining nuclear plants. The opposition Greens and the far-left Left Party had called on their members to join the protests.
The German governing coalition of Social Democrats and conservative Christian Democrats has approved plans to shut down the last of the 17 reactors by 2020. However, Chancellor Angela Merkel has indicated that she would be in favor of slowing down that process so that the country could meet its commitments for slashing greenhouse gases.
On Monday, German papers see the protests as evidence that the old conflict over nuclear energy is far from over. And that it is likely to be a key issue in next year's federal elections.
The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:
"In Gorleben it was much more than the repeat of a ritual. Mobilized by the Greens, many more people demonstrated this time. The protests were reminiscent of the carefully organized performance by anti-globalization protestors at the G-8 summit. The non-violent blockades were carefully prepared and attracted many noticeably young demonstrators. In this way a movement that many believed was dead could be revived."
"Perhaps the conditions at the Asse nuclear storage facility made this deployment possible. Above all, however, it is a signal to the nuclear industry and also to the chancellor and to her Christian Democrats. Many young citizens now take for granted the nuclear power phase-out that was pushed through by the SPD and the Greens. Anyone who now uses the climate crisis to put it in question, and presents nuclear power as environmentally-friendly energy, will not have any easy time of it -- rather they will provoke the renaissance of an old conflict."
The conservative Die Welt writes:
"For a time it seemed that rising prices of oil and gas and the great dependence on energy exports from Russia allowed for a heretical idea: rethinking the nuclear phase-out. It would be good, if this debate were to continue."
"However the final storage question remains vital, and even those in favor of nuclear power have to concede this. In a heavily populated country like Germany -- one that may be technically accomplished but also one which is notoriously fretful -- this issue needs to be reexamined."
"Rational considerations naturally play no role in the powerful and emotional demonstrations that took place this weekend. The 'either-or,' 'right or wrong' is the preserve of the young, as evidenced by the many fresh faces. Those who chained themselves to the rails and wanted to delay the transport are militant activists. Many others used the opportunity for a big get-together and an annual festival."
The left-leaning Die Tageszeitung writes:
"The unresolved question of nuclear waste disposal is once again at the forefront of people's minds Above all, however, is the fact that the nuclear consensus is now officially being called into question. The energy companies are blatantly using tricks to save their old power plants until past the next election -- in the hope that the phase-out will then be abandoned. The CDU and FDP say openly that they would like to let the reactors keep running and are even using this issue for their election campaign."
"These provocations may not end up being to the advantage of the Christian Democrats, as the weekend protests show. It was only all quiet on the nuclear front because the issue was seen as resolved once and for all. If the phase-out is reversed, then the old conflicts will break out again."
"It is obvious that the other parties are happy to take up the challenge It is not only SPD Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel who has discovered how much one can score points with the nuclear issue. The Greens had a bigger presence in Gorleben than they have had for some time. And the Left Party is also taking up the cause. If the three parties vie with each other over who is for the true nuclear phase-out, then they are guaranteed attention."
-- Siobhán Dowling, 12 p.m. CET