"When it is not possible to
The Siege of Gorleben
The facts and figures are self-evident and telling. It took the largest security operation in postwar German history--the mobilization of 30,000 police--to move six radioactive waste transport canisters a few hundred miles from southern Germany to the northern farm town of Gorleben.There, the casks are placed in "interim" storage, inside a building that from the outside looks like nothing so much as a soft drink bottling warehouse.
Along the way to the small city of Dannenberg, the casks faced rail saboteurs, people blockades, and two people who cemented themselves to the tracks (the police couldn't remove them, and eventually removed and replaced the tracks instead). At Dannenberg, the casks were lifted by a huge crane from the rail cars to trucks, in preparation for the final 14 miles of road transit into Gorleben. When the casks finally reached their destination 36 hours later, the costs were just beginning to be tallied.
More than 150 demonstrators and 20 police were injured. Some 500 people were arrested. At least 20,000 protestors were involved in the final stages, although the number across the country was probably far higher. The transport cost Germany, according to newspaper accounts, $100 million, not to mention the support of the police union, which has called for no more waste shipments.
And northern Germany, in an area known as Wendland, had become a war zone.
The facts and figures are easy: it is the atmosphere, the sounds, the feelings, the experience, that is much harder to describe....
Wednesday, March 5, morning
Mona, a German student and activist, and I walk to a small farming village about 2 miles from Dannenberg. The CASTOR (Cask for Storage and Transport of Radioactive Material) casks have not yet begun moving, but they will soon--but not on this, the preferred road.
In the center of the village, about 80 tractors are parked together--some are chained together--in a barricade passable only by brute force.
A mile down the road, there are more barricades, made up of downed trees, dirt, concrete, and whatever local people could find. Underneath the barricades, the road has been completely dug out--just a few inches of road and then holes several feet deep. If the 100-ton CASTOR casks try to move down this road, it will collapse. No, the CASTOR casks will not be using this road today; indeed, no one will be using this road for weeks, perhaps months to come.
There are only farmers and workers in this village. The students and anarchists often associated with German anti-nuclear protests are elsewhere. We go to a farm which has been set up as an impromptu information center and resting station. Above us, police helicopters circle constantly, the noise of their blades is so common by now that it is just background.
Over a p.a. system set up in a car sitting in a farmer's front yard, an announcement comes. Mona translates for me: the helicopters may be landing, don't panic.
But a few farmers do panic, and suddenly tractors are moving everywhere. There is far more danger from the chaotic tractor movements than from anything else we have so far seen.
The helicopters land, and 40-50 riot-equipped German police jump out and run toward the tractor barricade. Before anyone can react, they begin slashing the tires and trashing the lead tractors--the lifeblood of these farmers.
The townspeople quickly regroup and charge the police, who retreat, running, perhaps embarrasedly, down a country lane. The helicopters land again in a nearby field, and to taunts and angry gestures, the police climb back in the helicopters and fly away.
The U.S. couldn't have done it better in Vietnam. And the police have made enemies for life of the people who grow their food.
And the casks are not even going to move through here, the road is completely impassable and has been for days. It is harrassment and destruction by the police, pure and simple. Someone yells out in black humor: call the police, someone is damaging our tractors.
But, here, a few miles from Gorleben, in the midst of an undeclared war zone, the atomic state has revealed its true colors: it is a police state.
Lueneburg, Saturday, March 1
Lueneburg is a beautiful, peaceful city of 60,000. Untouched by Allied bombing, many of its buildings date to the 14th and 15th centuries, and have been lovingly restored. There is a university, and an activist student union which a couple of years ago decided there needed to be better international contacts among grassroots anti-nuclear activists.
The first conference, held in March 1996, was not well-funded, but nonetheless brought together activists from about a dozen countries. It was considered a success, and this year, with a little more funding in hand, the conference--titled simply "the 2nd international anti-nuclear conference" brings together about 60-70 activists from 28 countries.
It is an eclectic mix: there are people from South Africa, Namibia, Phillipines, Korea, Belarus, Ukraine, Sweden, Turkey, Czech Republic and many more. Susan Lee of Texas and I represent the U.S. How these people learned about the conference and were chosen to attend isn't entirely clear. But the point is, we are here, we are meeting and exchanging information and ideas, and it is working.
The conference was planned months ago, it wasn't until the last couple of weeks that organizers learned the CASTOR casks would be moving to Gorleben, just 40 miles away, around the same time. The conference goes on, but with a bit of an edge to it.
The first day, Saturday, of the conference, there is a large rally in Lueneburg. 15,000 people gather in a town square to oppose the radioactive waste transport. Two of us from the conference, myself and Mario Wanza from the South African Mineworkers Union, were asked to speak to the crowd.
I bring them greetings from the U.S. and the conference. The day before, the Bonn government had warned protestors not to disrupt the CASTOR shipments. I tell the crowd that we in the U.S., and indeed, the whole world, will be watching what happens this week. The crowd needs no German translation, it roars its approval.
On the way to the rally, I did a little quick math. The CASTOR protestors are trying to stop the shipment of six nuclear waste casks. I point out that in the U.S., we are facing the possibility of the transport of six casks through Las Vegas every day for 30 years. The crowd boos and yells. And I conclude by saying that this is an international problem and demands international action. The crowd agrees. A few years ago, I didn't think that. Now, it is very clear: our concerns are the same, the companies involved are the same, the solutions are the same. We must knit into a solid international movement if we are to beat the nuclear industry at its own game.
At the same time as the rally in Lueneburg, 10,000 more protest in Dannenburg. Meanwhile, in Dannenberg, the police attempt to requisition a schoolhouse to serve as a temporary barracks. Too late: the schoolchildren have barricaded themselves inside the building and refuse to allow the police in. But the police move in force, and throw the children out of their school. The Dannenberg officials are unhappy with the police. They refuse to provide them with water or electricity.
On the roads leading to Dannenberg, police vehicles--traveling in convoys of 50-60 cars--descend on Wendland...
The War Zone begins.
Monday, March 3, Lueneburg
The official conference reaches an end, all of us much closer than we were just a couple of days ago. We've made some good plans, some will be realized, some not, but the contacts and networking will continue for years. We begin preparing for tomorrow's first visit to Gorleben.
Tuesday, March 4
We are led by Ursula Schoenberger, a Green Party member of Parliament. We have become an official "observer" team, which mostly means that we can get through police lines.
And there are plenty of police lines to get through. Roads are blocked off for miles leading to the Dannenberg/Gorleben area. But the police, most from out-of-the-area, don't really know the region, and every direction sign has been blacked out by protestors, in order to confuse the police. A few roads, mostly one-lane farm roads, remain passable.
We reach Gorleben itself, and the building that is the "interim" storage dump. Nearby is the salt mine in which the German government hopes someday to "permanently" place its radioactive waste. But the man who owns the salt mine is a leader of the resistance; his mine may be confiscated, but he is fighting it....
It is of little comfort that we realize the German government has no better idea of what to do with its radioactive waste than does the U.S. government. Traveling through the area, one fact quickly becomes clear: the opposition to the waste transport, and to nuclear power generally, is virtually unanimous. The battle has been going on here for 20 years, since the government first announced it would build a reprocessing center at Gorleben, as well as interim and permanent waste dumps, and perhaps a reactor to power it all. The area was considered to be conservative and not nearly as likely to block the government's plans as the more activist-oriented South. But just as in the U.S. and other countries, proposed nuclear projects have a way of turning conservatives into activists. The reprocessing center has long been cancelled, and the resistance to the waste dumps is massive.
The symbol of the movement is an X. Every farmhouse, every townhouse, every household displays an X. Some are quite elaborate, many are yellow, made of wood. Some are glass, some are metal. Almost every house also has anti-CASTOR posters in its windows; many have anti-nuclear banners as well.
Outside of Gorleben itself, which is divided on the issue since many residents work for the dump, there is no doubt: the people of this area oppose the waste casks, and oppose nuclear power. The War Zone demarcations become clear: police convoys barrel down two-lane farming roads while the residents promote active resistance.
Near the town of Guzborn, about halfway between Dannenberg and Gorleben, on the preferred cask transport road, we have to stop. A mud and tree barricade straddles the entire road. Behind it, in the center of the road, is a 15-foot tall X, made of steel girders, welded and cemented into the road. This baby ain't moving....
100 yards further on begin the serious barricades, one after another, about 20 in all. In between them, the road has been hollowed out from underneath. There is nothing but air. In some places, the protestors have put in logs to hold up the road so they won't cave in on the people digging them out. A 100-ton nuclear waste cask cannot possibly go over these roads in the near future; indeed, no vehicle can. The CASTOR will have to go on the less-preferred, twisting route through several towns, or it cannot go at all.
We eventually, through side roads and through police checkpoints, make our way to Dannenberg, where the casks now sit on trucks awaiting movement. It is about 6 pm, the casks cannot move at night, so they won't move soon.
On the lane leading to the road from the crane, hundreds of people are lying in two-foot tall mounds of straw. They are the front lines: to reach the road, the police must move them first. But for now, all is peaceful. Music is in the air, drummers play, people cheer. The police throw candy to the people in the straw. The casks are remarkly unprotected. Only a few police nervously walk up and down a very small fenced-off area.
I walk to within about 12-15 feet of the six casks, radiation detector in hand. Within a minute, the detector has risen to more than 600 counts per minute, then more than 700--about 50 times background radiation levels. The radiation levels decline rapidly with distance though, at 50 yards, it is only five times above background, at 100 yards, there is no discernible radiation increase. I decide it's time to go; later, I learn that a Greenpeace scientist got a bit closer to the casks, and measured levels around 4,000 counts per minute--even above the levels near Chernobyl.
The thing is, in Germany houses are built right on the street, with just a narrow sidewalk in between. These giant casks, tomorrow, will travel on narrow roads within just a few feet of bedroom windows and children's playgrounds. But tonite the air is almost festive; one can almost forget about the sounds of the helicopters circling overhead. We walk from the crane to the largest camp---there are many camps spread out across the 14-mile route. Each camp plans something different for the final transport. Along the road, people walk up and down, milling around. There are bratwurst, soda and t-shirt vendors; it has the aura, if not the music, of in impromptu Woodstock.
But as the night wears on, temperatures drop precipitously. Thousands of people are now in the straw area between the crane and the road, thousands more block the only road left. We have to leave, and after an hour's drive and an endless meeting, agree to be back to the area in six hours. Time for just a little sleep.
Wednesday, March 5
We arrive back in Dannenberg about 9 am. The removal of the people in the road is well underway. We're quickly updated: about 1 am, the police began moving and arresting people. After three hours, they had only cleared 150 feet of people, so they turned on their water cannons.
These water cannons are mounted on giant armored, Star Trek-looking green tanks. The cannons are operated by remote control from inside the bullet-proof protected cabs. Their power is quite strong, but the protestors have come prepared, and are covered with plastic. As long as they don't receive a direct hit, it doesn't hurt too much, and they don't even get too wet.
The police train the cannons on a small group, to break down their resistance, then move in to move and/or arrest them one-by-one. But there are 9,000 people in the way now, so arrests become impossible. Susan Lee, camera in hand, gets picked up by her hair and thrown across the road. Krista, an activist now working in the Czech Republic against the Temelin reactors, gets clubbed. Others get off easier. Still, tension is building.
During the night, a group of Autonomen--radicals perhaps not organized enough to be anarchists--engage in serious streetfighting near the town of Quickbon, along the only road the CASTOR can now travel. That road has not been torn up, and the radicals want time to set up barricades and dig under the road. The police are not inclined to provide that time. Rocks and slingshots are used, and molotov cocktails. According to one report, a woman is critically injured. Many are hurt and/or arrested. The barricades and digging don't take place. The CASTORS eventually will move. Back in Dannenberg, we watch the water cannons pelt the people in the street. The police are clearing about one yard of street per minute now.
Above the road, four people have tied themselves into the trees, with a giant banner. The police try to shoot them down with water cannons, but it doesn't work. The CASTORS cannot legally move underneath them, so a team of police goes up and tries to cut them down. This takes at least a half-hour, to the boos of thousands.
The understanding was that the protest would be non-violent. People would block the street, but once moved would not try to reclaim it. They want to show that the violence is caused by the police. The police use their water cannons, billy clubs and shields; here, the protestors simply join arms in resistance until they are moved off the road.
Finally the road is cleared, and thousands of police stand shoulder-to-shoulder to protect the casks. As the casks move out, we are cheered by reports that there are 2,000 more people sitting in the road at Quickborn, and 5,000 more chained across the road, at Gorleben.
We jump in our cars and attempt to get in front of the CASTORS, but we cannot do it, there are simply too many police. We finally have to stop behind a huge police convoy when we hear an announcement that even the police can't move forward, because there are too many police in front of them. We are about three miles out of Gorleben, but it is wall-to-wall police from here to there....
Nearby, there are various small confrontations between protestors and police; nervous, the police bring out dogs. The barking reaches an ear-splitting crescendo, but there is no serious trouble.
Thursday, March 5, Braunschweig
A unique aspect of this international conference is that the organizers ask participants to stay in Germany as long as possible to attend meetings, help organize, and basically provide an international presence for the German anti-nuclear movement.
So today, I try to reflect upon what I've seen in Gorleben, even while descending 1200 feet into an old iron mine now intended as a disposal site for "low-level" nuclear waste. The air is dusty. Our hosts are the German equivalent of the NRC, they assure us the mine is perfect for "low-level" waste disposal, even while they admit that certain types of "low-level" waste are too thermally hot to be placed there. But the mine--the Konrad mine--eventually is slated to hold some eight tons of plutonium from reprocessed fuel.
Later, the Greens tell us all their problems with the mine: it isn't safe; they lied when they said there had been no accidents; it will leak; although the authorities claim no water has entered the mine for millions of years, there are salt deposits which indicate recent water movement, plus there are recent boreholes....
It sounds familiar....
That night, Ilya Popov of the Socio-Ecological Union in Moscow and I speak to a gathering of people from the area, about our experiences in our own countries. Then, one-by-one, other members of our international delegation speak.
The First Nation Canadians speak in moving terms about what uranium mining has done to their communities. Ottis, in exile from Papua New Guinea for the past 20 years, brings tears with his tale of repression and death squads. From the Phillipines, Korea, Turkey, from across the world, activists tell their stories; they unload their fears and reveal their hopes. In front of these young German activists, the emotions of the past few days pour out.
The stories are similar: we truly are in the same movement, but it has taken us longer to understand that than it has Westinghouse, or GE, or ABB, or Siemens or the other multinational nuclear corporations which buy and sell politicians like pork-belly commodities.
We each have our local and national battles and concerns, but tonight we truly have become an international movement, understanding each other, and united. It's a feeling unsaid, but shared, and one we hope will stay with us.
Sunday, March 9, Washington DC
Back in the USA, having dealt with lost passport and plane ticket--the less said the better.... A little time to reflect before the work week and new challenges begin. Most countries, including the U.S., are not yet attempting to move radioactive waste across their nations. Thus, the Siege of Gorleben is hardly an end, it is just a beginning.
The first CASTOR shipment into Gorleben took place less than 18 months ago; it brought out about 2,000 protestors and cost the German government about $15 million. The second shipment cost more than $40 million, with 9,000 protestors and more than 15,000 police. Crowd estimates are notoriously unreliable even in a small area, over a 14 mile road, they are impossible. But there were are least 20,000 protestors, and admittedly 30,000 police to usher the new casks into Gorleben. So it has cost Germany more than $150 million to move eight casks--and the original plans call for the shipment of 412 more casks to the Gorleben "interim" site.
Where does it stop? At what point does the German government, or any government, say 'this is it, we can't do it anymore.'
In Germany, even the police are rebelling. At Lueneberg, and again at the gates of Dannenberg, the "Critical Police" appeared--police refusing to take part in the quashing of the demonstrations; refusing to walk for hours next to the highly-radioactive CASTOR casks. Indeed, the police have called for an end to the shipments. Without the police state on its side, how can the nuclear industry expect to take its lethal garbage anywhere?
The CASTOR casks only traveled about 300 miles. In the U.S., if radioactive waste transportation begins, many casks could travel nearly 3,000 miles. How many police will it take to guard those casks? How much money? How many injuries and protestors and arrests? When it is not possible to maintain the atomic state without a police state, then we have reached the sunset of the atomic state.
What happened in Gorleben the first week of March 1997 is easily, almost too easily, replicable in the U.S., or any other country facing a similar radioactive waste "crisis."
In Germany, they have decided to make their stand at Gorleben, and the German nuclear industry will never be the same. Perhaps we will make our stand in Las Vegas, or Chicago, or Omaha, or Little Rock, or perhaps all of them.
Eventually, we will have to make our stand, and it may be sooner rather than later. Most members of Congress want radioactive waste transportation to begin, because most members of Congress are beholden to the nuclear industry.
We will continue to work to defeat legislation to begin nuclear transport, and we may win in this Congress. But eventually, Congress and the federal government will want radioactive waste transported somewhere, somehow.
And then we must make our stand: on the roads, on the rails, in the streets and fields. We must not let the casks drive by unimpeded. For the transportation of radioactive waste is not just a routine industrial maneuver. It is a defining moment. It is our opportunity to expose the nuclear age, and to assert its end.
No government can withstand the costs of Gorleben for long. No government can long withstand the divisions among its people, the alienation of its farmers, the devastation of a War Zone inside its borders. There is but one obvious path, one poorly-understood by the farmers of Gorleben two decades ago, but clearly grasped now: we must stop making lethal poisons simply in order to generate electricity; our lives, our nations, our futures are all too important for that.
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