Anti-nuclear Movement in Germany
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The German Nuclear Phase-Out
This article is written from the point of view of a person of who is in involved in the anti-nuclear movements in Germany. Other people would surely tell the story from a different angle.
Why did Germany decide to start pulling away from their dependence on nuclear energy?
Beforehand one remark: It seems that many people in many countries around the world have the impression that the fact that there is no possibility to construct a new nuclear power plant in Germany and that there is much resistance against any nuclear developments would depend on the government's decision to phase-out the German nuclear power plants. But it is the other way around: after decades of fights between nuclear industry, governments and the anti-nuclear movement the federal government changed its mind in 1998. They started to adopt an position that had already manifested itself as a reality: there was no way of establishing new nuclear power plants.
The challenge of dependency on only one or two energy sources was already known in Germany - the oil crisis of the 1970s showed that this dependency is dangerous. So at the beginning many supporters of the nuclear industry argued that nuclear power would help to gain more independence from oil etc. In later discussions the dependency on Uranium also became an aspect, and environmentalists argued that being dependent on certain (especially: non-renewable) energy sources is not good to supply the society's electricity demands.
But in the end the main reason for the change in policies was a political decision that was caused by the long-term and strong resistance against nuclear power in Germany.
Was this a political decision or was it brought about by anti-nuclear pressure?
Both. Since the 1970s a huge movement against nuclear power had been established in Germany. Besides all these "normal" small activities like information events, educational work, local actions etc., some big events took place and showed the anti-nuclear resistance of parts of the population: there were several demonstrations against nuclear plants with some 100,000 people, as well as occupations of planned nuclear facilities with huge numbers of people. And, I guess very important, there was a colourful diversity of different kinds of actions, strategies and ideas how to fight against nuclear power. Eventually this mixture of very different people and their ways to resist prevented several nuclear power plants to be constructed, to be taken into operation, or to operate for more than only a few months.
Some famous names of huge battles against nuclear power are the sites Wackersdorf, Brokdorf and Gorleben. The state was very pro-nuclear and wanted to push through their policy with nearly every mean. They used riot police with tear gas, projectiles, water cannons and batons against protesters which mostly were peaceful at the beginning. There are pictures of women with baby carriages also attacked by water cannons and tear gas. In many cases people beat back - the police violence caused a radicalization of many people. Many people were injured during the battles, some died by police violence. The catastrophe in Chernobyl triggered off the establishment of new strong anti-nuclear movements in Germany. In many cases the nuclear companies gave up because of the long-term and powerful protests. In other cases politicians decided that nuclear power is political impossible to enforce (e.g. the planned Center for waste disposal in Germany that was proposed to include a reprocessing unit, fast breeder power station and more nuclear facilities).
In the 1990s the social movements lost their strength, this also occured to the anti-nuclear movements. But as it was a very strong movement before, it remained an important social movement with many groups, direct action and permanent educational work. Anyway, it didn't reach the old size and strength again. In the 1990s the movement grew again because of the first transports of high level radioactive waste to the temporary repository in Gorleben. By 2001 with every CASTOR (cask for the transport and storage of radioactive materials) transport the resistance became bigger. In 2001 some 20,000 people protested against the transport.
In 1998 the new government (after nearly two decades the Social Democrats formed a government again - together with the Green Party) decided Germany's nuclear phase-out. The nuclear topic was a very important one in the election campaigns of both parties, so they had to do so. But they didn't fulfil their promises: the so-called "abandonment of nuclear energy" was nothing more than a enactment of the real political situation. The new law said that no new nuclear power plants would be allowed to construct - but this was no new situation as it was clear that the resistance against nuclear power is too strong. It stressed that the policy decides about the question of nuclear energy and not the companies - this should go without saying. And it declared a moratorium for the proposed final disposal site in Germany of up to ten years - and this was no decision against the Gorleben site.
On the other hand, the nuclear phase-out law allowed that the nuclear companies can produce a certain amount of electricity and that they have a right to do so. The government committed itself not to try to stop the nuclear power stations earlier, especially not to use fiscal means (e.g. taxes on nuclear power) to restrict nuclear power. And the final disposal site "Schacht Konrad" sacrificed (= the resistance of the parties against this project was stopped) to convince the nuclear industry to agree with the new law. Anyway, at the end of the day the nuclear phase-out law was no progress but ful of concessions to the nuclear industry.
Nowadays the so-called German nuclear phase-out has another significance: it works as a positive signal for other countries and gives also reasons against nuclear developments in Germany if certain interest groups try to reestablish atomic ideas. Even if the history of this "phase-out" was not that good, today it is an important symbol for anti-nuclear resistance.
Was the inability to dispose of high-level waste one of the reasons for abandoning nuclear?
The unsolved problem of nuclear waste disposal is an important argument against nuclear power. For this reason it will also have influenced the decision for the nuclear phase-out law. But the discussions were not so much about detail problems but about nuclear power in general. In my memory the issue was discussed as well-known that nuclear power is dangerous and that there are further problems such as the unsolved disposal of the waste (not only high level radioactive), destructive and indigenous people exploiting Uranium mining, proliferation etc.
Did the decision to abandon nuclear and pursue renewable energy occur at the same time?
It was connected with each other, somehow. Of course, renewable energy policies started long time before. Even the conservative government couldn't deny the importance and prospects of renewable sources and started a programme to sponsor those energies. It was called the "Energy Feed-In Law" and it stipulated certain amounts of money the electricity companies had to pay for power from renewable sources of private producers. So a fixed price was guaranteed for renewable energies and people could invest in this technology without high risks. The first renewable boom was triggered off by this law.
In 1998, when the Social Democrats and the Green Party formed the government (and made the "Nuclear Phase-Out Law") a new renewable energy law was established: the "Renewable Energy Law". It increased the support for renewable energies again.
The phase-out policy required something like the renewable energy law, because it was clear that alternatives are necessary if the abandonment of nuclear energy was meant seriously. So it was a logical consequence of the nuclear phase-out policy.
Anyway, the establishment of renewable energies was not the precondition for a nuclear phase-out policy. Both were caused by political pressure of the anti-nuclear movement in the decade before. Even the renewable sponsorship was a demand of anti-nuclear activists and many of them had engaged for renewable energies or created first enterprises in this sector.
Did the majority of German people support getting rid of nuclear power?
A long time the majority of the population was anti-nuclear. But the governments and the industry ignored the public opinion and continued the pro-nuclear policy for a long time. When the government decided to make the nuclear phase-out official at the end of the last century, about 75 % of the population wanted a nuclear phase-out.
The government of Social Democrats and Green Party was in some ways a step backwards for the environmental scene as many people believed that everything will become good now and many environmental (and also anti-nuclear) activities stopped over the first years of the new government. Another consequence was that environmentalists saying that it's not enough what the government does were seen to be extremists - the public believed that the environmentalists already are in the government and that everyone who demands more was crazy or at least not serious.
It was a hard way for the movement to reconstitute and to develop critical positions towards the "green government's policy" and strength again. Up to last year the public opinion towards nuclear power had become less clear anti-nuclear than before the nuclear phase-out policy, only a few more than 50 % wanted the abandonment of nuclear energy.
These days a clear majority of more than 70 % is anti-nuclear again. Caused was this development by the pro-nuclear propaganda of the conservative party that believed to make an election campaign with this topic. But the opposite occured: Many people understood that clear anti-nuclear positions are needed and made their stances like this.
The anti-nuclear movement in Germany has a long history dating back to the early 1970s, when large demonstrations prevented the construction of a nuclear plant at Wyhl. Anti-nuclear success at Wyhl inspired nuclear opposition throughout Germany, in other parts of Europe, and in North America.
The tiny hamlet of Wyhl, in the southwestern corner of Germany, was first mentioned in 1971 as a possible site for a nuclear power station. In the years that followed, local opposition steadily mounted, but this had little impact on politicians and planners. Official permission for the plant was granted and earthworks began on 17 February 1975. On 18 February, local people spontaneously occupied the site and police removed them forcibly two days later. Television coverage of police dragging away farmers and their wives helped to turn nuclear power into a major national issue, with subsequent support coming particularly from the nearby university town of Freiburg. On 23 February about 30,000 people re-occupied the Wyhl site and plans to remove them were abandoned by the state government in view of the large number involved and potential for more adverse publicity. On 21 March 1975, an administrative court withdrew the construction licence for the plant. The plant was never built and the land eventually became a nature reserve.
The Wyhl occupation generated extensive national debate. This initially centred on the state government's handling of the affair and associated police behaviour, but interest in nuclear issues was also stimulated. The Wyhl experience encouraged the formation of citizen action groups near other planned nuclear sites. Many other anti-nuclear groups formed elsewhere, in support of these local struggles, and some existing citizens' action groups widened their aims to include the nuclear issue. This is how the German anti-nuclear movement evolved. Anti-nuclear success at Wyhl also inspired nuclear opposition in the rest of Europe and North America.
In 1976 and 1977, mass demonstrations took place at Kalkar, the site of Germany's first FBR, and at Brokdorf, north of Hamburg. The circumstances at Brokdorf were similar to those at Wyhl, in that the behaviour of the police was again crucial:
The authorities had rushed through the licensing process, and police occupied the site hours before the first construction license was granted, in order to prevent a repetition of Wyhl. Demonstrators trying to enter the site a few days later got harsh treatment, and all this helped consolidate the population in opposition.
In February 1977 the prime minister of Lower Saxony, Ernst Albrecht of the Christian Democratic Union, announced that the salt mines in Gorleben would be utilised to store radioactive waste. New protests by the local population and opponents of nuclear power broke out and approximately 20,000 people attended the first large demonstration in Gorleben on March 12, 1977. Protests about Gorleben continued for many years.
In the early 1980s plans to build a nuclear fuel reprocessing plant in the Bavarian town of Wackersdorf lead to major protests. In 1986, West German police were confronted by demonstrators armed with slingshots, crowbars and Molotov cocktails at the site of a nuclear reprocessing plant in Wackersdorf. The plans for the plant were abandoned in 1988. It still isn't clear whether protests or plant economics led to the decision.
In 1981, Germany's largest anti-nuclear demonstration took place to protest against the construction of the Brokdorf Nuclear Power Plant on the North Sea coast west of Hamburg. Some 100,000 people came face to face with 10,000 police officers. Twenty-one policemen were injured by demonstrators armed with gasoline bombs, sticks, stones and high-powered slingshots. The plant began operations in October 1986 and is scheduled to close in 2018.
The anti-nuclear protests were also a driving force of the green movement in Germany, from which the party The Greens evolved. When they first came to power in the Schröder administration of 1998 they achieved their major political goal for which they had fought for 20 years: abandoning nuclear energy in Germany.
In 2002, the "Act on the structured phase-out of the utilization of nuclear energy for the commercial generation of electricity" took effect, following a drawn-out political debate and lengthy negotiations with nuclear power plant operators. The act legislated for the shut-down of all German nuclear plants by 2021. The Stade Nuclear Power Plant was the first one to go offline in November 2003, followed by the Obrigheim Nuclear Power Plant in 2005. Block-A of the Biblis Nuclear Power Plant is still provisionally scheduled to be shut down in 2008. Block-B is going back online after a year-long shutdown on December 13 or 14, 2007 and is scheduled to keep operating until 2009 or 2012.
In 2007, amid concerns that Russian energy supplies to western Europe may not be reliable, conservative politicians, including Chancellor Angela Merkel and Economics Minister Michael Glos, continued to question the decision to phase out nuclear power in Germany. WISE along with other anti-nuclear movement groups contend that the climate problem can only be solved by the use of renewable forms of energy along with efficient and economical energy technologies.
In November 2008, a shipment of radioactive waste from German nuclear plants arrived at a storage site near Gorleben after being delayed by large protests from nuclear activists. More than 15,000 people took part in the protests which involved blocking trucks with sit-down demonstrations and blocking the route with tractors. The demonstrations were partly a response to conservative calls for a rethink of the planned phaseout of nuclear power stations.
A short History of the Resistance against the Castor Transport
In 1985 there was the first trial of (empty) Castor containers to Gorleben, to see if the tranport could be done safely (without the Castors breaking or failing in some way).
In 1989, the first transport to Gorleben was forbidden by the courts.
In 1991, the next trial transport failed, because of damaged Castor casks.
In 1993, the company that sends the nuclear waste from its power stations was criticized by the government of Lower Saxony - where Gorleben is located. The company chose not to try to transport its waste into the region that year.
In 1994, citizens of Gorleben called on higher courts to reject the tranport through their region. But before this court culd make a decision, the Federal Office of Radiation Protection stated that the transport HAD TO be allowed to go through (its hierarchically allowed to make these decisions as it sees fit I believe), and the other court was not given time to make a decision.
But the Federal State office of Lower Saxony rejected this decision, and said the transport was not allowed to go through.
The nuclear power plant prepared a Castor cask for transport...
There were massive protests in Gorleben, with blockades and baricades in the streets, and holes were dug beneath the railway as well as the streets to destabilize them making transport impossible.
Self-made wooden resistance villages sprang up filled with acitivists fighting against the transport, which were removed by police.
In October 1994, the Federal Minister of Environment gave an order to the Lower Saxony Ministry of the Environment to agree with the decision of the Federal Office of Radiation Protection.
The Lower Saxony Ministry first refused to do so, and then two weeks later they had to do what they were ordered to do, so the minister agreed.
Then there were several attacks to the railway in the nearby region of Hannover, one day later, the police began trying to find the people who attacked the railway, and called them 'terrorists.'
Then, the local government forbade all demonstrations (this is the government for the Luchow-Dannenberg region, not Lower Saxony) related to the Castor transport.
21 Nov 1994, the night before the planned start of the transport, a court stopped this transport due to security concerns.
The 1st Transport
1995 was the first actual transport of radioative waste by Castor casks into Gorleben.
21 April, transport starts to Gorleben. There wer technical problems when the company wanted to transport the spent fuel to the Castor cask - they could not close the cask.
4000 people protested the transport, and 15 000 police were present to protect the transport, 9 000 of which were in Lower Saxony, 6 500 officers in the Wendland.
The transport cost 55 million deutschmark, paid for by public taxes.
The 2nd Transport
For the second Castor transport on 8 May 1996, which was from La Hague France, to Gorleben, there were 19 000 officers aross Germany to protect the transport, 7 800 in Lower Saxony. 10 000 people came together to organize against it.
Again police outnumbered protesters, again there was police brutality - at one blockade, of a road leading into Gorleben, (which the trucks would have to drive to get into the town), police beat people with batons and used water canons to disperse the crowd.
The 3rd Transport
5 March 1997 - 30 000 police officers. The largest assignment of police officers after the Second World War. 15 000 police in Lower Saxony. 10 000 protesters in the Wendland.
The Cost: 100 million deutschmarks.
A story I've heard: in 1997, demonstrators would bring large plastic sheets to protests, to protect people from the water canons and allow for the action to continue. Local firemen would hold the large plastic sheets up over their heads and the crowd would gather beneath it.
In response, police forces used knives to hack through the sheeting, risking hitting the people on the other side.
(This timeline will be continued later)
- Anti-nuclear movement in France
- Anti-nuclear movement in the United Kingdom
- List of anti-nuclear groups
- Non-nuclear future
- Nuclear controversy
- Nuclear Power
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- Greens plan to close down all Germany's nuclear power plants
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- Filming the anti-nuke movement
- Germany's anti-nuclear protesters
- German Police Hold 250 In Anti-Nuclear Protest
- Germany to remain anti-nuclear stronghold
- Anti-nuclear protesters use tractors to block route of waste shipment
- After the almost-meltdown in Sweden the German anti-nuclear movement remains passive
- Anti-nuclear activists needle German power giant's annual general meeting
- Germany's Anti-Nuclear Consensus Crumbling
- German Anti-Nuclear Activists Slam Plan to Boost Research