Thousands attend unprecedented anti-nuclear protests in Germany: Local action achieves global impact

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CASTOR 2010: The largest, longest protest ever

And those were just some of the results of this unprecedented action.

Called CASTOR, to reflect the trade name used for a brand of dry storage casks for high-level radioactive waste – CASTOR stands for “cask for storage and transport of radioactive material” – this direct action was organised to protest the transportation to, and placing into storage in a special facility near the German city of Gorleben, of high-level radioactive waste resulting from spent nuclear fuel generated at German nuclear power plants.

The waste is what remains after plutonium and other elements are extracted from the SNF at the reprocessing plant La Hague in France. Almost each year, this waste is returned after reprocessing to Germany, covering a transport route of nearly 600 kilometres long until it reaches its final destination in Gorleben.

This year, the action in Gorleben gathered a record number of participants – the most it has attracted throughout the movement’s history. Long before the action began, the organisers became concerned that reaching the gathering points and finding accommodation would become a problem for some of the participants.

According to the organisers, a network of anti-nuclear campaigners called X tausendmal quer campaign, around 50,000 people took part in a November 6 rally in Dannenberg in Lower Saxony, near a site where the SNF en route was being transshipped from a train and into lorries. This was three times as many participants as in a previous action in 2008.

The German police said in an official statement that the total number of rally participants was estimated at 25,000 people. Additionally, 560 tractors were used during the action, the police said.

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the day when the Berlin wall fell. This was the longest and the largest in the history of CASTOR protests.”

On November 10, Greenpeace International Executive Director Kumi Naidoo said in a statement (rendered here from the Russian translation): “In the end, when after a delay that lasted 92 hours and 26 minutes, the lethal radioactive garbage reached Gorleben, tens of thousands of protesters sent their message to the German Chancellor Angela Merkel and leaders of all countries: “Down with nuclear madness! Give us a clean future, we are for renewable energy!”

Act locally

The CASTOR direct protest action movement started with a small protest staged by local residents in 1979 – and has grown over the years to include the participation of residents from other regions of Lower Saxony and other German Länder, who arrive carrying their own equipment and sheaves of straw to block nuclear transports from passing through to Gorleben.

“CASTOR is, first and foremost, a powerful German movement, supported strongly by local farmers, who this year drove some 600 tractors out to the blockade,” Jan Van de Putte, a nuclear campaign coordinator and radiation expert with Greenpeace International, told Bellona. “This time, all of the villages and settlements of the region took part in the protests, and these were people of all ages – from the very small to those in their eighties.”

Over the past several years, numerous German organisations and parties have also been joining local residents for the CASTOR protests: trade unions, social democrats, the Green Party, the Red Cross, feminist and youth NGOs, as well as activists and organisations from abroad – including those from Russia and Belarus.

“This year, the resistance movement featured a close cooperation between the Germans and the French, one that involved the French and German offices of Greenpeace; the French Association for the Phase-out of Nuclear Energy ‘Sortir du nucléaire’ mobilised itself to participate in the action in Germany,” Van de Putte said. “Activists from all over the world were there for CASTOR 2010, including from Australia.”

Think globally!

Though local, the CASTOR protests have always resonated strongly on the national level. For instance, it was because of the mass protests near Gorleben in 1997 that a moratorium on waste transports to Gorleben was instituted, which lasted until 2001. The Germans also credit the 1997 protests with the 2000 passing of a law that envisages a phase-out of nuclear energy in Germany and step-by-step shutdown of all German nuclear power plants by 2022.

But the growing scope and international success of CASTOR protests proves that the problem of nuclear waste, and nuclear energy as a whole, is global in its nature.

The national network X tausendmal quer, the official organiser of the CASTOR campaign – founded in 1996, it now unites thousands individual and group-, NGO-, and party-affiliated participants – says the movement’s activities are directed not just against these particular nuclear waste transports, but against the nuclear energy industry in general.

The broader impact of CASTOR 2010 has just now started to sink in. Among the most prominent effects it has achieved are the changing attitudes toward Chancellor Merkel’s government and a rising distrust of its policies, a halt on nuclear transports to Russia, as well as a growing public awareness of the cul-de-sac nature of the nuclear waste problem.  And what participants note as an equally important result, thanks to the vibes the resistance has been able to send through the world’s media, the movement has set an encouraging example for people around the world – one that tells them nothing prevents them from taking action on their own.

The historic moment – and the political effect

The headline-making CASTOR protests provided a focal point of daily coverage in German media – with a range of political and environmental issues rising up on the editorial agenda, prompted both by the nuclear transports and the highly disputed decision by the Merkel administration that sees the closing of German nuclear power plants postponed by another 12 years, until the 2040s.

According to Spiegel Online International (rendered here from the Russian translation): “The German papers [have been discussing] the scope of protests in Gorleben, as well as the rise of the political [influence] of the Greens, set against the growing unpopularity of the conservative government of Angela Merkel.”

As Greenpeace International experts say, extending the operation of German nuclear power plants will have catastrophic economic consequences for Germany as a nation with the most developed and fastest growing renewable energy industry in the world. To date, the German renewables sector has created 340,000 jobs and it also helped the country overcome the latest financial and economic crisis much faster than any other European nation.

The left-leaning Die Tageszeitung daily writes (rendered here from the Russian translation): “The mass-scale demonstrations have shown that the ill-advised decision by the Merkel government to extend the operational licenses of [nuclear power plants] will have a [damaging] political effect. […] What strikes the eye here is the huge gap between the political statements and the real actions. This is demonstrated, for instance, by how the Federal Environment Minister Norbert Röttgen has been talking about a ‘safe repository’ and ‘national responsibility’ for the nuclear waste – and by how he is hoping at the same time to send spent fuel rods on this scandalous journey all the way to a nuclear complex in Siberia. In the eyes of the public, Röttgen is losing the last ounce of trust he had.”

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,” Van de Putte said.

Van de Putte believes, however, that it is still possible to revert the government’s decision to continue operating nuclear power plants:

“The resistance has also been rendered stronger by the confidence that Merkel’s pro-nuclear policies can be reverted. The Constitutional Court is to have its say on whether the Upper Chamber of the German parliament, the Bundesrat, will make its assessment, which may change the government’s unconstitutional decision.”

After the protests, police trade unions said they feel they have fallen prey to a series of political blunders. One of the latest official statements by the police press service made a point to underscore that the protests were peaceful.

“In other words, the attempt to marginalise the anti-nuclear movement, to paint the activists as criminals has failed!,” Van de Putte said, adding: “This blockade has an enormous international significance – here is one of the most industrially developed European countries saying a firm ‘No’ to nuclear energy and ‘Yes’ to renewable energy.”

The halt on German nuclear transports to Russia

The deal that the Germans were preparing with the Russians involved the transportation of 951 spent nuclear fuel assemblies burnt in a research reactor in Rossendorf, Eastern Germany, from a temporary storage facility in Ahaus, Western Germany, to the chemical reprocessing plant Mayak in Russia for final disposal.

On November 13, the German news agency DPA reported that authorities in Hamburg – namely, city mayor Christoph Ahlhaus – had refused to allow the port to be used as a transit point for the delivery.

“In October, another decision to refuse to participate in the transportation of nuclear waste had come from the authorities in Bremerhaven, also a port. Therefore, for the time being, there is no suitable seaport in Germany that would agree to serve as a transit harbour [for the waste]. The German government says shipping the 18 containers with nuclear waste may be postponed until April 2011,” the DPA report said (rendered here from the Russian translation).

The issue has by now generated strong criticism from a range of German political parties, including the Greens, the left, and the social democrats, who expressed concerns that the subsequent storage and reprocessing of the fuel rods may not meet safety standards accepted in Germany, according to the German centre-right publication Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.

The halt on the transport to Mayak may well be the result of the action in Gorleben, as well as protests and concerns raised by Russian environmentalists.

“On the day that the Gorleben delivery was completed, a comment of ours appeared in the German press regarding the waste transport to Mayak,” Vladimir Slivyak, co-chairman of the Russian environmental group Ecodefense!, told Bellona. “We are preparing this week, together with certain German organisations, a press conference on this subject, to take place in Berlin.”

On October 4, Ecodefense! sent a letter to Chancellor Merkel, urging the German government to abandon the idea of shipping German nuclear waste to Russia. In particular, the letter noted the woeful conditions in which local residents near Mayak are forced to live – and in the area around the severely radioactively contaminated river Techa especially.

According to the website Antiatom.Ru, a demonstration is being planned in the Ahaus against the nuclear export to Russia. The action is being organised by Russia’s Ecodefense! and the German BI Kein Atommull in Ahaus and SOFA.

What will Germany do with nuclear waste?

One of the sobering effects that the CASTOR action has had on the public was the very emphasis it placed on the insolvable problem of nuclear waste. The subject sent ripples through all levels of German society, including its political elite.

Spent nuclear fuel cannot be safely disposed of or rendered harmless, and it’s not as if the Germans did not know about it. The problem of storing and disposing of nuclear waste yearly becomes the focus of heated debates in the country, and each year more and more unpleasant details are revealed of this or that dangerous and untested option decided on to deal with the SNF.

Judging by what the German press is saying, however, the Germans are tired of getting duped by the nuclear lobby.

The left-of-centre Süddeutsche Zeitung writes, for instance (rendered here from the Russian translation): “Instead of first setting standards for the [suitable] storage facility, and then finding one, the friends of the existing storage site in Gorleben have done just the opposite. First, they invested billions, and only then do they start considering the various shortcomings and the environmental damage. Even from the point of view of common construction standards, this approach would have been absolutely useless, and what this case is about is a far more serious thing – disposing of nuclear waste.”
 
The German organisation Bund für Soziale Verteidigung (Union for Social Protection) , one of the participants of the CASTOR action, said: “The protests have resulted in that the German national parliament at least decided […] to discuss the issue of storing nuclear waste in Gorleben.”

Both German and Russian environmentalists believe that the only two options available at this point to achieve a relative level of safety with regard to nuclear waste are: Stop moving the already generated waste, and stop generating more. And the only way to stop accumulating more waste is by closing down all nuclear power plants.
 
According to Felix Ruwe, a representative of BI Kein Atommull in Ahaus, environmentalists will not cease to oppose nuclear transports to Russia: “We don’t want either transports to the storage facility [in Ahaus], nor out of it. We demand a full moratorium on nuclear transports.”
In its October 4 letter to Merkel, Ecodefense! said that “each country that has generated nuclear waste must dispose of it on its own, not shift the responsibility to other countries.”

The solidarity effect

Twenty-one Belarusians and four Russians took part in the CASTOR protests this year. According to Rashid Alimov, co-chairman of the Russian environmental group Ecoperestroika, the Russian participants were from his organisation and from Ecodefense!.

Olga Karach, who heads the Belarusian civil campaign movement Nash Dom (Our Home), said the delegation from that country included activists from the public organisation Ekodom (Ecohome), Nash Dom, the Belarusian Green Party, and the NGO called Ekosfera (Ecosphere).

The Russians and the Belarusians agree that participating in the Gorleben protests is important both for the progress of democracy in their respective countries, and to help solve the many problems related to the nuclear energy industry on the former Soviet territory.

Where Belarus is concerned, the primary problem for environmentalists in that country is to stop the ongoing project envisioning the construction of a nuclear power plant in Ostrovets, a town close to the Lithuanian border. Belarus bore the brunt of the radioactive fallout from Chernobyl, when the world’s worst nuclear disaster took place at that Ukrainian site in 1986.

“It was important for us to take part in the [Gorleben] protests first and foremost because our government wants to build a [nuclear power plant], and we are against it,” Karach told Bellona. “We wanted to see once again how the German people express their opinion and to support them, and to understand how public democracy works. Of course, we also want to have no [nuclear power plants] anywhere in the world.”

Ecoperestroika’s Alimov believes Gorleben provides an important experience for Russian activists to learn how to better resist nuclear waste transports back home.

“The problem of SNF and radioactive waste transports is, unfortunately, just as urgent in Russia, where SNF is continuously shipped from [nuclear power plants] with VVER reactors to storage sites,” Alimov said. “There are a dozen of such transports a year sometimes.”

Alimov’s organisation has staged a number of protests against German radioactive waste imports in St. Petersburg, Russia, and is now planning protest actions against the import of German SNF from the research reactor in Rossendorf.

Some of Ecoperestroika’s protests proceeded peacefully, but then some were also broken down by the police, and “not too ceremoniously, either,” according to Alimov. He said not too many people come to take part in the protests, as most do not consider street action to be an efficient method of opposition.

“I think the only lesson one can take out of the Gorleben experience is that the different civil and political groups can join forces to solve a problem – and become a considerable presence,” Alimov said. “Only by uniting and defending our interests together can we stop the predatory exploitation of nature.”

Tatyana Novikova

Maria Kaminskaya