Antinuclear Activists Confront Police

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Antinuclear Activists Confront Police


By: Sean Gallup

Date: January 1, 1956

Source: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

About the Photographer: This picture was taken by Sean Gallup near Lueneberg, Germany, on March 27, 2001, during a peaceful phase of the confrontation between police and protestors trying to stop a rail shipment of nuclear waste to the Gorleben nuclear waste storage facility.


The fuel on which most nuclear power plants run consists of metal tubes filled with an alloy uranium. When this alloy has changed its elemental composition too much to continue functioning in a reactor, the spent rods are removed. In Germany, which has nineteen nuclear power plants, the spent rods are shipped to La Hague in France and to Sellafield in the U.K. for "reprocessing," that is, for the extraction of uranium from the rods. The uranium can then be made into fresh fuel rods. The highly radioactive waste left over from the reprocessing is melted into a glassy slag which is sealed inside steel canisters. These canisters are then bundled inside large containers called "castors," an acronym from "CAsk for Storage and Transport Of Radioactive material." Each castor contains twenty-eight canisters holding a total of about twenty thousand pounds of nuclear waste.

Protests against the transport of nuclear-waste castors through Germany have been frequent. Such large protests occurred in 1997–98 that the German government imposed a ban on waste transport on safety grounds. This caused reprocessed waste to accumulate in France until, under pressure from the French, the German Chancellor lifted the ban in 2001. The renewal of shipments triggered large protests. In this photograph, protestors occupy railroad tracks at Lueneberg, Germany. Here they managed to stop the first of the resumed waste shipments, a train carrying six of the white-painted castors (not visible in the photograph). The protestors, who chanted slogans and sang hymns and folk songs, were eventually cleared by the police, who arrested about two hundred. One man—illustrating the vulnerability of such shipments to terrorist attack—jumped from a low bridge onto the top of a passing castor, forcing another brief stoppage of the train.

Further protests met the train further north. On March 28, the day after the picture was taken, a few protestors fired flares: police used water cannon, plastic shields, and billy clubs against protestors. About ten thousand people tried to stop the train; some twenty thousand police were on hand to assure passage of the castors. Although the very great majority of the protestors were nonviolent, a few violent militants clashed with police in the streets of the small town of Gorleben, resulting in injuries and arrests. The shipment was completed on March 29, 2001.



See primary source image.


Although German antinuclear protestors have never managed to turn back a castor shipment, their actions have had profound consequences for German politics and possibly for the global energy picture as well.

The anti-shipment protests in 1997 and 1998 were among the largest ever. Some twenty thousand German protestors sought to block the progress of the waste through the country, usually by sitting down on roads or rail lines. The largest security operation in post-World War II Germany, involving some thirty thousand police, was mounted to clear the way for the waste shipments. Over one hundred and fifty demonstrators and twenty police officers were injured, about five hundred demonstrators were arrested, and German newspapers reported the cost of the transport effort at one hundred million dollars. Shipments were halted because of safety concerns. Some observers have attributed the gains of the Greens and Social Democrats in the September, 1998 German elections to the political furor over the protests. The Greens and Social Democrats formed a coalition government that in 2000 committed Germany to shutting down of all of its nuclear power plants in about twenty years. The German government's massive commitment of money and resources to wind and solar power as alternatives to nuclear energy has helped reshape the global renewable-energy market, lowering prices for wind and solar worldwide. By 2006, about 40 percent of the world's installed wind-generation capacity was in Germany, with rapid growth continuing. There is a possibility that with changing political power balances in Germany, the 2000 commitment to phase out nuclear power may be canceled. No German nuclear power plant has, as of 2006, been shut down as a result of the phaseout commitment.

Protests against nuclear materials shipments have continued since 2001. Protestors have blocked the shipment of spent nuclear fuel from Germany to France, as well as the shipment of waste slag from France to Germany. In 2004, a protestor was killed in France when the train he was attempting to block ran over his legs.

The fact that castor transports are happening at all is, in a sense, a result of antinuclear protest: in the 1970s the West German government planned to build a nuclear reprocessing facility of its own, but mass protests forced cancellation of that plan. Shipments of nuclear material to and from reprocessing facilities in the U.K. and France were one result. The United States does not do any reprocessing of spent fuel from commercial reactors, but is accumulating it unprocessed in some 125 temporary surface facilities in thirty-nine states pending possible disposal in the highly controversial deep-burial site at Yucca Mountain, Nevada. German's storage facility at Gorleben is also temporary, with possible long-term burial to occur under a nearby salt dome (a type of underground geological formation).



Reuters. "Police Clash with Nuclear Protestors in Germany." Toronto Star March 28, 2001.

Web sites

"German Waste Transport." Nuclear Information and Resource Service. 〈〉 (accessed February 16, 2006).

"Where Now for Atomic Waste?" Deutsche Welle (English), November 12, 2002. 〈,,673725,00.html〉 (accessed February 16, 2006).

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Antinuclear Activists Confront Police

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