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Gorleben: Trainstopping

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 

(April 6, 2001) The first nuclear waste transport from France to Germany since 1997 took place over the period 26-29 March 2001. Six Castors containing vitrified high-level radioactive waste made the journey from La Hague to Gorleben. They were met with protests in both France and Germany. Protestors blocking the railway tracks caused the longest delay yet for a Castor transport: about one day. For the first time ever, the train even had to reverse at one point because of activists locked on to concrete blocks under the tracks.

(546.5262) WISE Amsterdam - This Castor transport was a crucial one. It was the first transport of its sort since contamination found on the surfaces of Castors caused a transport ban to be declared in 1998. It was also the first of its sort since the German consensus agreement, and so served as a crucial test of the agreement. Since the French government decided not to allow any more transports of nuclear waste from Germany to France until at least one transport of reprocessed waste passed in the other direction, it was also a test of Franco-German relations.

For the Green Parties in France and Germany, this transport was always going to be a problem. Both parties have their roots in the anti-nuclear movement, and both now sit as junior partners in coalition governments, where they have had an uphill struggle trying to counteract the powerful nuclear lobby. Both parties have ended up making compromises that have resulted in fierce criticism from anti-nuclear activists.

The German consensus agreement (see WISE News Communique 542.5241, "German Consensus Agreement: An update") has been criticised as a guarantee for the future existence of the German nuclear industry, rather than the closedown that it purports to be. Around the time of the transport, the German newspaper Der Spiegel described the consensus agreement as a license for "70 billion DM (US$30 billion) tax-free profits for the nuclear power companies".

The German Greens called on their members not to block the Castor transport since it was part of the consensus agreement, and argued that Germany had a duty to take its own nuclear waste back. Anti-nuclear activists were quick to point out the hypocrisy in this, since this one transport of high-level waste from France to Germany serves to "open the gates" of La Hague to accept at least 15 more transports of spent fuel from Germany to France.

Afraid of losing support, the Greens then said that their members could protest against the transport, but should not attempt to block it. Even here, there was confusion: the Environment Minister, Jürgen Trittin, said there were "no grounds" to protest against the transport, while Claudia Roth, co-chair of the party, said the party supported peaceful protest "in the name of the right to demonstrate". Removing rails from the railroad track, however, did not fall within Roth's definition of "peaceful protest".



The transport to Gorleben consisted of six Castors each with 28 cylinders of vitrified high level waste. The glass cylinders will initially be stored inside the Castor casks in the Gorleben interim storage. In the future it is planned to store these glass cylinders in a rock formation deep underground. Greenpeace Germany studied the safety of the glass cylinders and published its results in a March 2001 report.

The glass cylinders contain the most radioactive waste, the fission products. Fission products account for 98% of the radioactivity of spent fuel elements. These fission products are concentrated in the vitrified waste after reprocessing the fuel. The radioactivity of the glass is so high that one would receive a lethal radiation dose within one minute at one meter distance of the bare glass (without the steel container). Looking at cesium-137, one of the important fission products, a Castor with 28 glass cylinders contains almost ten times more cesium than a Castor with 19 spent fuel elements.

Important for the safety of a glass cylinder is its mechanical strength, the adsorption capacity of the glass, radiation resistance, a low leaching rate and a good heat conduction ability to prevent local build-up of heat. According to Cogema, the strength of the glass starts to decrease at 502°C and its adsorption capacity at 400°C. After an accident, a Castor is said to withstand a fire of 800°C for 30 minutes (this standard is often considered to be too low). During that time the glass cylinders also heat up which eventually leads to the disintegration of the glass and a release of radioactive substances from the glass.

Greenpeace criticizes the absence of a system to check the integrity of each cylinder produced. In producing MOX fuel elements, at least ten quality controls have to take place, whereas such a system is absent in the production of glass cylinders. Cogema considered a general assessment of its production method as sufficient. No test samples are taken from the molten glass nor are single cylinders inspected.
Qualität: undurchsichtig, Greenpeace Germany, March 2001

The French Greens have also had problems. While insisting that they are against reprocessing and that no more reprocessing contracts should be signed by Cogema, they said that they would not oppose the Castor transport back to Germany because they consider each country should take responsibility for its own nuclear waste, and so the Germans should take "their" waste back. However, the fact that this one transport coincides with the approval of 15 transports of German spent fuel to La Hague to be reprocessed has left the French Greens, like their German counterparts, open to the charge of hypocrisy.

The French anti-nuclear network Réseau Sortir du Nucléaire described the nuclear transports as a "marché de dupes" (swindle) and published a timetable for the nuclear train on their web site.

Build-up to the transport

The build-up to the transport was marked by a variety of protests, such as 15 Greenpeace activists climbing the 30-metre tower of the Gorleben nuclear waste site on 16 March, hanging a banner "Stop Castor" from the tower, and the sawing of railway lines on 17 February (WISE News Communique 544.5255, "French and German activists unite to stop 'gate-opener' Castor").

On the Saturday before the transport, 24 March, thousands of people attended a demonstration in Lüneburg (more than 16,000 according to X1000mal quer, 10,000 according to police). There was also a demonstration on the German-French border at Strasbourg/Kehl, with around a thousand people.

The Lüneburg demonstration was followed by a "Stunkparade" (noisy parade) the next day in Dannenberg with more than 300 tractors carrying anti-nuclear signs driving to Gorleben.

The transport itself

The train with six Castors left Cogema's rail terminal at Valognes early on Monday 26 March, where Greenpeace protesters were removed by police. As the train travelled through France, it was greeted by protest at several locations, including Bar-le-Duc, where the campaign against nuclear waste storage at Bure organized a demonstration of about 100 people. The train crossed the German border at Lauterbourg/Wörth around midnight, where the first 11 kilometers took 11/2 hours because of blockades by 200 to 300 protesters.

Protests continued as the train passed through Germany. Through most of Germany, the Castor train is able to take alternative routes - for example, the train avoided a blockade at Göttingen by taking an alternative route. However, for the last stretch of track from Lüneburg to Dannenberg, there are no alternative routes, and so this stretch has become a focus for blockades. Indeed, nearly all of the delay of this transport occurred in this 70-kilometre (44-mile) section of track, where thousands of activists planned to block 52 crossings.

The police arranged for a special train to take away about 400 people arrested after blocking the track at Wendisch Evern and release them some distance away from the transport. This train was also briefly halted when a protestor chained himself to the track.

Greenpeace activists climbed underneath the new bridge under the river Jeetzel, whose replacement had delayed the transport (see WISE News Communique 543.5247, "The political 'contents' of a Castor").

However, the largest delay to the transport was caused by a group of four Robin Wood activists at Süschendorf. The activists were locked on, with their arms in metal tubes set into a 1.5-meter high block of reinforced concrete set under the rails. It took police over 12 hours to cut them loose, and the freezing temperatures meant that they were taken to hospital after being freed. The painstaking preparations for the actions, in which part of the trackbed was dug away (probably months ago) and replaced with the concrete block containing the lock-on tubes, then covered again in gravel for concealment, also attracted admiration, even from the police.

The Castor train was very close to the activists when they locked on, and had to reverse along a stretch of track to allow a track repair train to go ahead of it and repair the damage. As a result the Castor stayed for some hours within 25 meters of a private house, whose inhabitants were concerned about the radiation dose they were receiving.

A planned transport of spent fuel from the Dutch Dodewaard NPP was cancelled on 3 April because of foot and mouth disease in the country. The transport was planned to take place the next day and would bring spent fuel to the Sellafield reprocessing plant. Another transport was planned at the same day from the Borssele NPP to La Hague.

Both reactors resumed transports to the reprocessing plants in December 2000. Activists from different groups organized actions around the earlier transports. Because of a number of foot and mouth disease cases on Dutch farms, the police was unable to provide enough policemen to guide the latest transports. On Tuesday 3 April, the Dutch government decided to seal off a large area in the middle of the country and vaccinate all the animals on the farms.

On 1 April, about 150 activists demonstrated in The Hague against the reprocessing of Dutch waste. The action was organized by the Alliance against Reprocessing (STOP) in which WISE participates, and the route passed by the embassies of the UK and France and the Ministry of Environmental Affairs. At each place, a barrel with radiation signs and a letter against reprocessing was left behind.
WISE Amsterdam

After the Robin Wood activists were removed, the authorities held a press conference in Lüchow at which they said that the Castor train would not go any further that day, because there were not enough police. Just twenty minutes later, however, the train moved again, and special police commandos (SEK) arrived by helicopter and stormed onto the tracks, causing many of the demonstrators to flee in fear.

All these delays meant that the transport arrived very late at the transfer station at Dannenberg, where around 3000 demonstrators had assembled. When the Castor train arrived, the police used water cannons and then surrounded the demonstrators that remained.

Preparations for the last part of the journey, by road from Dannenberg to Gorleben, started very early indeed the next day (29th), taking many activists by surprise. Immense numbers of police guarded the transport, and the trucks completed their journey in a record 90 minutes. Many demonstrators wept as the trucks entered the Gorleben nuclear waste storage site.

The cost of the police action, involving around 28,000 police and border guards, is expected to be even higher than the DM110 million (US$50 million) forecast. Police trade unions are asking for extra pay because many of their members had to work for long periods without a break in freezing temperatures. Ironically, this request may find support amongst many demonstrators, since part of the strategy for the demonstrations is to make the police actions so expensive that the transports, and nuclear power itself, become unviable.

The police action also came at a considerable cost to civil liberties. Police had been present in the region for large numbers for some time before the transport. A whole range of measures had been taken to restrict demonstrations as much as possible: demonstration bans for 50 meters either side of the railway line, eviction of protest camps, and a rule that local residents were not allowed to provide accommodation to more than two guests at a time! All these measures were in vain: police patrols before the transport failed to notice Robin Wood's concrete blocks under the track, and churches opened their doors to those evicted from protest camps.

The new police tactics of using "conflict managers" was also criticized. Intended to de-escalate tense situations, the conflict managers were said to be too few to make much difference, so that their deployment was more of a publicity exercise. X1000mal quer said that only 12 of the 130 who took part were "real" conflict managers, with the rest working for the police public relations department.

As the police have refined their tactics, so have the activists - and with success. Despite the icy cold weather, despite the Greens calling for no blockades because of the consensus agreement, and despite the huge police operation, this Castor transport had the longest delay of any of the Gorleben transports so far. The fact that the Robin Wood action caused such a large part of the delay led to allegations in Die Tageszeitung that the protest movement was becoming professionalized. However, the vast majority of the thousands of protestors who took part were not activists but ordinary people of all ages, expressing their opposition to transports of deadly nuclear waste.

The message from the demonstrators is quite clear: there should be a real halt to the nuclear industry, not the "consensus-nonsense" which guarantees the industry's future operations under the pretence of closing it down. Until then, blockades against Castor transports will continue.


Contact: Bürgerinitiative Umweltschutz Lüchow-Dannenberg, Drawehner Str. 3, 29439 Lüchow, Germany,
Tel + 49-5841- 4684, Fax +49-5841-3197