• World

Trains Full of Terror

7 minute read

It was a case of speed and overwhelming numbers. Some 15,000 police officers in riot gear swooped down at dawn on 2,000 antinuclear demonstrators who were trying to block a truck convoy carrying nuclear waste from reaching a storage center in northern Germany.

The officers closed roads for miles around Dannenberg and ripped down protest banners. They detained 780 protesters briefly and arrested 45 others. “They didn’t allow us even a small, low-profile demonstration,” complained Sven Teske of the environmental group Greenpeace. “It was a democracy-free zone.”

Antinuclear demonstrators are hardly new to Germany. In fact, this is the second such stop-the-transport protest this year. But since Sept. 11 the demonstrators have a new argument: that the spent nuclear waste, moving slowly by truck or rail, provides an easy target for terrorists.

The German convoy reached the nuclear storage facility at Gorleben last week after a 1,400-km journey mostly by rail from La Hague in northern France, where German nuclear waste had been sent for reprocessing. The train carried six 100-ton, cast-iron casks designed to transport nuclear material safely. Each cask contained 28 canisters of nuclear waste at temperatures of around 400C. They will remain in an interim storage facility for between 20 and 30 years, so that the waste can cool down to a more manageable 200C, when it can be permanently stored in a mine shaft.

Paradoxically, the German antinuclear Green Party helped make the shipment happen. In June the federal government (the Greens are part of the coalition) and the nuclear power industry signed a groundbreaking agreement to phase out atomic energy in Germany completely. Under the deal, each of the country’s 19 nuclear power stations will shut down after 32 years of service, an average of 12 years from now. As part of the agreement, the government agreed to take back nuclear waste that had been shipped to France in the ’70s and ’80s for reprocessing into storable materials.

There are roughly 170 more casks to be returned to Germany for storage. The agreement also provides for reprocessing to end in 2005. Between now and then, officials say, another 500 casks will be sent for reprocessing either to France or to Britain’s Sellafield nuclear facility. “However hard it may be,” said German Environment Minister Jürgen Trittin, a prominent member of the Green Party, “we have to deal with the waste that Germany’s nuclear-energy policy produced.”

The protesters hope to disrupt these future shipments, by blockading roads, sabotaging rails or making the whole process so costly that the government calls them off. During a protest in March, when 10,000 demonstrators turned out, the government spent $22.5 million to provide police protection for the train.

Now protesters are playing the terrorism card. “Nuclear transport is always dangerous, but in this situation it shouldn’t be done,” said Greenpeace’s Teske. “The casks wouldn’t survive a plane crash.” That case was boosted at a special session on nuclear terrorism held by the U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna this month. There experts warned that the threat of sabotage on spent-fuel nuclear transport was being underestimated.

“If terrorists were willing to kill thousands of innocent people in suicidal attacks against buildings symbolizing America’s economic and military power . . . they would have little trouble acquiring antitank weapons that could blow up the heavy canisters in which radioactive spent fuel from nuclear reactors is transported through populated areas,” wrote George Bunn and Fritz Steinhausler at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation in the October issue of Arms Control Today. “Despite the danger, no multilateral treaty requires that nuclear material and facilities be protected from such attacks.”

Jürgen Sattari, spokesman for a Bremen-based environmental group called Robin Wood, said the November protesters had a simpler idea in mind: an earlier phase-out of nuclear power in Germany. “Our goal is to stop the use of atomic energy,” he said, “and the transport of waste is one possibility to show the politicians that this is not the right energy.”

Industry supporters argue that nuclear power can’t be phased out any faster than agreed. “Nuclear energy is essential, providing about 30% of Germany’s energy requirements,” said Christian Wilson, spokesman for the Deutsches Atomforum, an industry group. As for the possibility of terrorism, Jürgen Auer, spokesman for the company in charge of storing the waste, said the casks have been built to withstand extreme heat such as a fire after an airplane crash. According to the Federal Office for Radiation Protection, “The transport from La Hague to Gorleben is still allowed, even considering the new security situation after Sept. 11.”

After 2005, Germany won’t be sending any more radioactive material for reprocessing. Interim storage sites will be constructed at each nuclear power station and used fuel rods will be kept at the plant. By the time interim storage is finished in 30 years, a permanent dump should have been prepared. Germany’s Greenpeace argues that storage at nuclear plants should start immediately.

In addition to Germany, Belgium, Spain, the Netherlands and Sweden have contracts for waste reprocessing in France or Britain. Yet Sweden has banned any future shipments for reprocessing. Of the E.U. member states with nuclear power facilities, all but three — Finland, France and the U.K. — have declared a moratorium on the construction of nuclear power stations. The only standing order for a new nuclear facility is in Finland, where Parliament has a vote pending.

“The nuclear power industry in Europe has great hopes that approval of the Finnish nuclear power plant will signal a revival of the industry,” said a European Commission official who asked to remain anonymous. The last order for a nuke came from France in the early ’90s.

The European Commission is split over the future of nuclear power, which provides 30% of Europe’s electricity needs. While environment Commissioner Margot Wallström of Sweden has expressed her opposition, transport and energy Commissioner Loyola de Palacio has taken what she says is a more realistic approach. “If the E.U. is to meet the Kyoto Protocol target of an 8% reduction in greenhouse gases by 2012 based on 1990 levels, we need nuclear,” De Palacio says. In a paper outlining Europe’s energy future published earlier this year, De Palacio said nuclear power was crucial if the E.U. is not to become totally dependent on foreign energy sources, especially natural gas from Russia.

Like Germany, Britain also runs trains carrying nuclear waste, including routes that pass through London on their way to the reprocessing center at Sellafield. But when Britain’s Nuclear Trains Action Group staged a protest recently, only 10 demonstrators turned up. “We’re definitely against reprocessing but aren’t as concerned with leakage or terrorism,” says Nigel Chamberlain, spokesman for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in London. “We want to be able to alert communities that they have casks moving through them.”

In France, protests have focused on the reprocessing center at La Hague. “We’re not a storage site,” says Jacques-Emmanuel Saulnier, spokesman for Cogema, which runs the plant at La Hague. “We’re often accused of being an international dustbin, but of the 7,500 tons of spent fuel we currently have awaiting reprocessing, 7,000 came from France.” Shipments of reprocessed waste to Germany were halted for four years by German opposition, but the French government presented the Germans with an ultimatum: take back the waste or the French would stop accepting new shipments for processing. German reactors didn’t have sufficient storage to accommodate the unprocessed waste, so the Germans had no choice but to comply.

Until the waste shipments stop in 2005, expect more massed police and more demonstrators in the sleepy German town of Gorleben.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com