You Wouldn't Read About It


Three thousand anti-nuclear protestors have spent several nights this week in temperatures hovering around freezing in northern Germany, blocking the transport of 11 trucks carrying radioactive waste to a medium-term storage facility. A quick search of the Australian media websites finds short articles referring to a "tense standoff with police" and "violent protests (with) police wielding batons".

The tone here in Germany is different. The protests have been blanketing the headlines for all week and this highly successful anti-nuclear blockade is receiving positive and encouraging media attention.

This is the twelfth time that German nuclear waste has been transported from a treatment plant in La Hague, France to a storage facility in a former salt mine in Gorleben, Germany.

The "castor transports" — castor stands for Cask for Transport and Storage Of Radioactive material — have become an annual event in the calendars of environmental activists. The protestors come to block the train tracks and roads, physically delaying the transport. The point is not to try to stop the transport from occurring — everyone knows that the waste has to safely reach its  destination — but rather to draw the transport out as long as possible. The previous record for the delay was 79 hours in 2008.

But this year the protests have coincided with a recent parliamentary vote on the extension of use of nuclear power in Germany, and public sentiment is high. When the waste reached its final destination early on Tuesday morning it was 92 hours late, marking the longest anti-nuclear transport protest in German history.

The protestors gathered over the weekend in the relatively sparsely populated area, coming from across the country and representing multiple anti-nuclear protest groups. The organisers held crash courses in the woods on how to sit heavily, how to link arms to create physical barriers, how to allow oneself to be carried away with as much resistance as possible while avoiding injury.

On Sunday approximately 50,000 people protested, and around 3000 stayed to camp on the train tracks overnight. They huddled in thermal blankets and around campfires until the police came to remove them soon after midnight. Some pepper spray was used and a few batons were wielded, but the protest was remarkably peaceful. The activists were carried one by one away from the tracks and into a holding pen until eventually the way was cleared. The train carrying the waste got to its station late on Monday morning.

And then the protestors rallied again, preparing themselves for another night in the cold, this time to block the road from the station to the final storage place. Local farmers joined in by rounding up herds of goats and sheep and letting them loose on the route. Greenpeace borrowed a truck from a local brewery, parked it across the road and used it to anchor two activists into the asphalt. The two current chairs of the German Greens, Claudia Roth and Cem Özdemir, peered out from under their thermal blankets to be photographed.

The Greens are currently enjoying unprecedented political popularity in Germany, and clearly the party decided to risk a few potential sick days to have a major presence at the protest. This time the police began to clear the road in the early hours of the morning, again laboriously picking up individual protestors and moving them to the side of the road. The arrival of the castor wagons at the storage facility a few hours later was a disappointment to no-one, rather the protest was hailed as a triumph.

The national media romanticised the event, describing a local grandmother making industrial quantities of soup for the protestors and a 29 year old mother from Leipzig whose husband stayed home to look after the two children so she could join the protest, filming wood being chopped for a pizza oven in the demonstrators’ camp and photographing police trucks with sticks propped against the wheels to form the emblematic X of the campaign. Spiegel Online set up a "Gorleben-Liveticker" so readers could follow the action hour by hour.

The positive light in which the protest has been cast in the media reflects the fact that the nuclear issue is currently reaching broadly into the German psyche. The country’s 17 nuclear power plants were scheduled to close in 2020, but Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government last month voted to extend their lifetime by up to 14 years. In September tens of thousands of people protested across the country against the bill, and nuclear power remains a hot topic.

The protest was also unusually peaceful. This was not a greenies v authorities demonstration. Police were quoted as describing the Greenpeace truck maneuver as "very cool" and many officers would probably themselves have preferred to sit down and join in. The major complaints from the authorities reported in the media were about the fact that the police were working 20 or 30 hour shifts and that their catering was poorly organised compared to that of the protestors.

This year’s Castor protest was a success in its duration, ingenuity and inclusivity. It demonstrated that protests can be peaceful and yet still extremely effective. There is no doubt that many German voters are against continuing nuclear energy supply. It is now up to Opposition parties to change from protesting against a course of action to working towards an alternative.

The German Greens have a current campaign called Energie 2050, in which they claim it is possible for Germany to become completely independent of fossil fuels, including nuclear power, by 2050. This is a genuine policy platform from a party with more than 10 per cent of seats in the federal parliament. It seems it is no longer questionable that a highly industrialised, densely populated country can supply its energy needs from renewable sources, and Germans this week have taken an important step in signaling their desire to make that possibility a reality.

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Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.