BERLIN - A mass confrontation between German anti-nuclear demonstrators and police started building to a climax Monday as a convoy of dangerous nuclear waste began heading for a storage dump in northern Germany.
Some 30,000 German police have been mobilised to ensure that the controversial cargo reaches its destination despite efforts by militant protestors to impede it, a police union spokesman said.
German riot police stand beside thousands of anti-nuclear activists who occupied a stretch of railway in Wendisch Evern near Dannenberg, Germany, March 26, 2001. Police expect thousands more to try and block a transport train carrying nuclear waste to an interim storage facility near Lueneburg. The train is expected to arrive in Germany later today. (Christian Charisius/Reuters)
It was among the biggest police operations seen in post-war Germany, comparable only to the last convoy bringing nuclear waste back from France into Germany, in March 1997.
There were violent clashes then, when some 20,000 demonstrators gathered, including 1,000-2,000 so-called autonomes, or far-left anarchists.
A rail convoy carrying six special containers of the highly radioactive material left the reprocessing centre at La Hague near Cherbourg in western France around dawn amid tight security, the first such shipment from France to Germany after a three-year suspension.
It is expected to cross the French-German border at Lauterbourg southwest of Karlsruhe at around 11:00 pm (2100 GMT) Monday on its way to the storage centre of Gorleben, in the north German state of Lower Saxony.
Some 15,000 police will be on duty in the state alone by Wednesday.
Similar nuclear waste transports sparked huge demonstrations and blockade attempts by German protestors in the 1990s, but the shipments were suspended in May 1998 after radioactivity was discovered on the outside surface of one of the containers, or Castors.
Hundreds of police were deployed in the vicinity of the French departure terminal of Valognes, where activists of the environmental campaign group Greenpeace had been holding a vigil since Sunday night.
But it is in Germany, where protest actions had already begun to accelerate at the weekend, that the confrontation could be serious.
After entering Germany, the train will head northeast for Lueneburg. From there on, according to the German anti-Castor campaign group "X-Tausendmal quer ueberall", one can expect the protest blockade efforts to begin in earnest.
A train carrying containers of nuclear waste leaves the COGEMA treatment center in La Hague, near Cherbourg in northern France, early March 26, 2001, en route for Germany. (Sylvain Lefevre/Reuters)
The first clashes between demonstrators and police took place Monday and there were some arrests after rail equipment was damaged along the route the convoy is expected to take.
More than 1,000 people also peacefully occupied the tracks near Lueneburg, and 30-40 demonstrators blockaded a nuclear power station at Kruemmel, police said.
From Lueneburg, the train is expected to travel as far as the trans-shipment point of Dannenberg, from which the cargo will continue the last leg of its journey by road to the provisional storage dump of Gorleben.
On Saturday, some 10,000 anti-nuclear activists mounted a protest in Lueneburg against the resumption of the shipments, police said, many spending the night in churches or at a camping ground. The organisers put their number at 17,000.
The nuclear waste in question is of German origin, as it comes from German power stations.
Although the German government is committed to phasing out nuclear energy in the long term, with legislation to that effect expected to be passed this year, it says it is obliged to take back the waste treated at the Cogema plant at La Hague.
Germany has no nuclear waste treatment plant of its own.
French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder announced after a meeting on January 31 that the waste shipments would resume.
Special police force officers arrest a demonstrator near Dannenberg, northern Germany during the on going protest against the planned resumption of nuclear waste transport to Germany Monday March 26, 2001. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)
Copyright © 2001 AFP