No country in the world has solved the problem of the poisonous nuclear waste from nuclear power plants. The places chosen by governments of different nuclear nations to get rid of this waste have different names: Yucca Mountain or Sierra Blanca or Ward Valley in the US; the Mediterranean Sea; in Germany, Gorleben. Leben means: life. Gorleben is a little village in Lower Saxony in the North of Germany. It has become a symbol of resistance against the nuclear industry for the last 19 years.
Gorleben is a part of Wendland, close to the river Elbe, which was the border river between East and West Germany. Wendland, during the period of division, was situated at the edge of the country, a border region with almost no industry or developed road or rail networks. Rural structures predominate. Due to the scarcity of industry, many organic farmers moved into this area who were very ecologically aware. They detoxified and prepared the land for many years for organic farming to produce healthy food. Several of them produce baby food. Another group with a high awareness of ecological and political problems were West Berliners who owned holiday places there. West Berlin at that time was like an island surrounded by the German Democratic Republic. If people from West Berlin wanted to "go out" to the countryside, they had to travel about 150 miles across GDR. So villages at the border between East and West were favorite places for them. Since the '68 movement, West Berlin has always been a city with many people with high leftist feminist political consciousness.
In Gorleben the government planned to establish an intermediate storage site for irradiated fuel in a warehouse built in a forest area. For years, there have been formal discussions about using the old salt mines around Gorleben as the final nuclear disposal site for Germany, which must find a site by 2030.
Irradiated fuel elements are highly toxic; above all a substance well-named after the god of hell, Pluto. Plutonium, deadly to all living things, has a half-life of 24,000 years. The irradiated fuel is encased in melted glass with core temperatures of 752 degrees Fahrenheit and surface temperatures of 356 degrees. The glass cases are surrounded by a steel jacket whose highest temperature is supposed to be 185 degrees. The temperature needs to cool down for 20 to 30 years before the glass cases can be put into a final depository to be totally separated from the biosphere.
Nowhere in the world has a material been invented which could sheathe the fuel for this long.
But there is no total separation from the biosphere for 24,000 years (much less half a million years for the full radioactive lifetime). Nowhere in the world has a material been invented which could sheathe the fuel for this long.
It is not only fair and understandable that people of this area where the final disposal sites are planned, are afraid. It is a human right for them to protest. The area around Gorleben is a huge forest area. Shortly before the energy society bought the land, a forest fire destroyed most of the forest, so land was cheap, providing a good deal for the profit-making corporation.
Germany has 19 nuclear power plants, providing 8% of its electricity and 500 tons of nuclear waste a year, with no disposal site. It's as if, during a flight on a huge Jumbo jet, the passengers are told, "Sorry, there is no landing strip anywhere for an aircraft of this size." In Germany there are long discussions and procedures to determine whether the old salt mines are the proper facilities for final disposal. Granting of the deployment and legal protests have blocked any final decision.
Due to the indebtedness of the French electrical utilities, France decided to take in irradiated fuel from other nations, charging extremely high fees.
Up til now irradiated fuel has been transported to La Hague, the biggest French reprocessing plant. La Hague has taken irradiated fuel from France, Japan, Germany, Sweden and the Netherlands. Approximately 3,000 workers reprocess about 400 tons of irradiated fuel a year, mostly from the 53 nuclear power plants in France. Due to the indebtedness of the French electrical utilities, France decided to take in irradiated fuel from other nations, charging extremely high fees for this work. Very long transportation routes are necessary for these dangerous materials, for example, from Japan to France and back.
Greenpeace accompanied the ships and informed the public about the danger of these shipments across the oceans. In the case of Germany, the irradiated fuel has been sent mostly by rail, with the last 15 miles by truck. Many bridges must be crossed. The container for the irradiated fuel is called "Castor" (Cask for Storage and Transport of Radioactive Material). The Castor, so say the predictions, would be okay in a train crash on a bridge up to nine meters. But there are many bridges higher than nine meters. Local authorities and cities are not informed about the hazardous transports through their district. In case of an accident there is no disaster control.
At the beginning of May, 1996 the first of 100 shipments of reprocessed fuel from La Hague returned to Germany, which had signed a contract to take it back. So far there are three intermediate storage sites in Germany: Ahaus in Northern Westfalia, Gorleben, and Morsleben in the former GDR. All the storage sites together can take 8,000 tons of radioactive waste. Until now there are 4,000 tons waiting in La Hague. Five hundred more tons a year are being produced. It is obvious that not even the planned capacity is not big enough. Besides, none of these districts want to take it. Since the plans of the atomic industry became public, resistance has grown, especially in the Gorleben region.
The farmers are very visible in this struggle. You can block streets with tractors.
The farmers are very visible in this struggle. They have organized demonstrations with their tractors. One demonstration went to the capital city Hannover, to Parliament. You can block streets with tractors. They also symbolize that there are people demonstrating who are deeply connected to the land and to the region. The police and the government try to criminalize the protesters. They say, "These are only people who want to use violence, autonomous movements." They call protesters "chaotic radicals." So the farmers advertised in the newspapers: "We are the chaotic radicals." But many others-teachers, pastors, shop owners, children and young people, the majority of the populace-have been in resistance for almost 20 years. During the protests, almost all the stores were closed, even the pharmacies and doctors' offices. All of these groups demonstrated on "Day X" against the nuclear threat to their region.
The weekend before Castor came, more than 15,000 people gathered in this region in peaceful demonstrations. One year ago, a transport of irradiated fuel had come from Philippsburg, from one of the German reactors. At that time, democratic rights were more or less respected by the police. People were asked to leave the streets, and then, if they did not, were carried away. This time the government tried to use all their assembled police forces to destroy the protest. It ended up in circumstances almost comparable to civil war.
Every demonstration was forbidden; that meant the human right of free speech was out of order.
Almost 12,000 police and border control troops had been concentrated for one week in district of Gorleben. Dozens of water tanks, hundreds of police vans blocked the streets of the region day and night. No normal life was possible anymore. Helicopters chased people two meters above ground. Every demonstration was forbidden; that meant the human right of free speech was out of order. All of the protesters were criminalized before they had done anything. The farmers' tractors were destroyed by the police; the tires were cut. People were beaten up. The "battle" was called "the Olympics of hiding." This police action cost 50 million DM ($33 million US).
The protesters held rallies, blocked streets, undermined railroads. They carried trees and bales of straw onto the streets and burned them. They cut electric wires. Stones and bottles were thrown against water tanks. There were bomb threats against railroads, fortunately none carried out. Hundreds of protesters were arrested; dozens heavily injured. The police accompanied the Castor the last 12 miles from the last railway station to the storage facility. These 12 miles took eight hours, every step accompanied by protest.
These violent protests were at the end of 20 years of peaceful protest. Demonstrably, most of the violence was caused by the police. The peaceful protests all these years always aimed to start an international debate and solution to the nuclear waste problem.
The federal government did not expect such strong resistance at this point. We believe that many people, including politicians, understand that this way won't succeed in solving the problem of nuclear waste. One hundred more of these shipments with such a police crowd and a cost of 50 million DM are not bearable. Even the police union said they see the internal security of Germany endangered with such massive police actions. The so-called peaceful use of nuclear energy will not be pushed through with such violent police attacks.
A real solution can only be immediate withdrawal from the nuclear energy program and the closure of all nuclear power stations.
The brutal police attacks have awakened more people. For the next transport of Castor, many more people have said they would join the protest. A worldwide debate has started. It has become clear that an international solution is necessary. It also has become clear that a real solution can only be the immediate withdrawal from the nuclear energy program and the closure of all nuclear power stations.
Ellen Diederich has a long association with the Foundation for a Compassionate Society's international program
Cover: 1994 photo of demonstrators lying across railroad tracks leading into Gorleben.