In February 15,000 people gathered to protest against the transportation of nuclear waste to the Gorleben reprocessing plant in Germany. Ben Taverner was there.
Squall 15, Summer 1997, pg. 48.
For over 20 years, a small German town 50,000 kilometres south-east of Hamburg, has seen a mass of activity and organisation against the opening of the Gorleben nuclear waste reprocessing plant on the outskirts of its suburbs. Locals, anti-nuclear campaigners and environmentalists spent two decades fighting the scheme. However, Western Europe’s fixation with nuclear power demands adequate resources to dispose of toxic plutonium waste which will not break down to a safe level for tens of thousands of years.
The enormous Gorleben plant was opened in the beautiful pine forests of northern Germany to the abhorrence of the German public; giving birth to an anger that was soon to grow into one of the biggest shows of defiance to a European stateby its own people for decades.
Gorleben receives deliveries of radioactive waste from power stations around Europe on a fairly irregular basis. There have only been three occasions where a sizeable amount of waste has been delivered. Each has been confronted by crowds from around Germany and much of Europe so determined to prevent the plant from functioning effectively that they are willing to take direct action, and in turn suffer under the none too friendly fist of the German state.
This year, the last week of February and the first week of March, saw the arrival of around 15,000 activists, summoned by the Europe-wide “arrugha” as waste left power stations around Europe, including Britain’s Sellafield, for its controversial destination. 1997 was to see the third mass attempt to slow the arrival of waste to the power station to a point where it was no longer cost- effective for the German Government to leave the plant in operation.
The waste, which was transported through Germany by rail, had been stopped several times by activists who had felled railway cables, removed sections of track, or cemented themselves in the path of the train. Dannenburg, Gorleben’s nearest town, which has a railway station and is the point where the castors had to be transferred from rail to road, was the centre of activity where the majority of people gathered in the days before the arrival of the waste in an attempt to blockade the station and prevent the waste being taken by road to Gorleben. However, seven other camps were set up along the route, partly with a view to confronting the convoy at as many places as possible along the 25 kilometre road, and partly to cater for the different ways in which the various groups within the giant German environmental movement wanted to confront the convoy and the German state. These varied from dedicated pacifism to all-out pitch battles involving rock, bottle and molatov cocktail hurling and the inevitable police baton charges.
On March 4th, the day before the waste left Dannenburg station, a festival-like atmosphere surrounded the eight camps along the route. This was due, in part, to the meeting of old friends and the huge scope to meet people with wide experiences of panEuropean activism. In addition it reduced the anxiety felt about the presence of 30,000 police officers accompanied by a squadron of helicopters, numerous water canons and several armoured personnel carriers. This was the biggest mobilisation of police in post-war Germany, costing the German Government £35 million.
Shortly after midnight on March 4th, police moved in to spend a few hours attempting to begin moving part of the non-violent blockade of Dannenburg station which had grown to nearly 9,000 people. Members of a women’s group which started the campaign over 20 years ago (and many of whom were well into their 50s and 60s) were thrown into ditches on either side of the road. No arrests were made at this point. At around five o’clock the next morning the police began to make a concerted effort to move the protestors who were persistently reoccupying the road and the exit from the station. High-pressure water canons, surrounded by thousands of police were used on the crowd indiscriminately; men and women, children, the elderly, and even police who got in the way, were hit and left drenched on a cold and windy morning.
Spirits remained high, activists sheltered from the water under giant tarpaulins and Ramenplan, the Dutch food collective, provided drying facilities and changes of clothes. The convoy was delayed for hours.
As soon as a path was cleared the convoy of six nuclear-waste containers left the station under the escort of thousands of police. However, only a few metres down the road, several activists from Germany’s Thuringen antiroads protest dropped from the trees in harnesses and dangled in front of the bemused convoy, blocking its progress. The delay was significant and allowed those who took part in the train-station blockade time to race ahead to the next camps to join later blockades.
At the cost of $53 million, police fought back numerous attempts by activists to halt the convoy for any further significant periods of time, except when one activist managed to chain himself to one of the vehicles in the paint-splattered convoy. Acts of defiance by 15,000 people who refused to obey laws which ordered them not to go within 50 metres of the road; 500 arrests; the threat of a European inquiry; the embarrassment of the fact that it took the might of the German state 14 hours to transport a convoy 25 kilometres; and the enormous cost of policing the route make it unlikely that Gorleben will be receiving any more deliveries over the next two years. The entire fate of the reprocessing plant has been cast into doubt.
Trainstopping - The Sequel - more protests in Germany against nuclear waste trains. Squall 16 - Summer 1998.