German police cleared roadblocks and carried off anti-nuclear protesters Tuesday, making way for the delivery of a shipment of nuclear waste to a storage site in northern Germany.
The protests are part of a resurgent anti-nuclear movement that has been enlivened by growing opposition to a plan to extend the life span of Germany's 17 nuclear power plants.
Tuesday marked the final leg of a contentious, five-day journey for German nuclear waste that was reprocessed in France and sent back for storage. For the past few days, protesters have tried everything to block the train and trucks -- from human chains to herds of sheep and farm tractors.
The annual shipment is always a protest magnet. But this year, there was even wider support as the trainload -- which protesters dubbed "Chernobyl on wheels" -- drew huge crowds shouting "shut the plants down."
Organizers say 50,000 demonstrators turned out on Saturday and about 9,000 protesters participated in the blockade actions this week. Some 20,000 police officers were deployed in the operation. Both sides say the actions were largely nonviolent, but there were instances of protesters throwing stones and bottles and of police using pepper spray and tear gas, resulting in mostly minor injuries.
Police trade unions complained in unusually hard terms that they have been "scapegoated" by politicians, who "made a fatal mistake" when they extended nuclear plants life spans, and that citizens are right to protest.
Nuclear energy has been deeply unpopular in Germany since the 1986 Chernobyl accident in the Soviet Union. The anti-nuclear movement thought it had secured a victory in 2001 when the then-ruling Social Democrats and Greens agreed to phase out Germany's nuclear plants by 2021.
But this year, Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative coalition reversed that decision and voted to extend the life of the plants by an average of 12 years.
Konrad Boehmer was among the tens of thousands who came out to protest the waste delivery and the larger issue of extending the life of nuclear power plants.
"It's not the future. ... We don't support the politics in Germany which our chancellor and our government are doing right now. It's a step backwards," Boehmer says.
The demonstrators have been joined by lawmakers from the resurgent Green Party. Their poll ratings are at an all-time high in large part because of the nuclear issue.
Sylvia Kotting-Uhl, a German Parliament member of the Green Party, says the issue of extending the life span of the privately owned plants has revitalized the anti-nuclear movement.
"People don't like this kind of politics the government is dealing out with the big companies, and I think the opposition is growing very wide. And they are not only politically left people, it's the citizens," Kotting-Uhl says.
The lower house of Parliament approved the extension of the country's nuclear plants in late October after a heated debate that saw Green Party members dress entirely in black in protest. Norbert Roettgen, the environment minister with the ruling Christian Democrats, said during debate that the opposition has failed to offer viable alternatives to nuclear power and disposal of its waste.
"We are the ones making a long-term concept. You're the ones with nothing to offer. Nothing. We're doing it. It is pure political party envy that is creating all this screaming and fuss," Roettgen said.
Volkmar Braeuer, who heads a German government agency partially tasked with dealing with disposal of radioactive waste underground, says that protesters should not meld the need for waste storage with the power plant life span issue. "Much of the opposition to Gorleben is aimed at the nuclear industry in general, against the use of nuclear energy in general," Braeuer says. "I would like to reiterate that nuclear disposal is a wholly separate issue: It is essential that we dispose of the nuclear waste we have already created."
Merkel recently told the German weekly magazine Focus that the decision to extend the life of the nuclear plants may be unpopular now, but will pay in the future.
The opposition, meantime, is threatening to appeal the move to the constitutional court.