Protests fail to stop nuclear train

A train carrying nuclear waste to France was able to depart on Tuesday despite efforts by Dutch and Belgian anti-nuclear activists – some who were trying to block it by chaining themselves to the tracks.

A train carrying nuclear waste to France was able to depart on Tuesday despite efforts by Dutch and Belgian anti-nuclear activists – some who were trying to block it by chaining themselves to the tracks.

The train was able to leave Borssele in The Netherlands’ Zeeland province at around 11:00 am (0900 GMT) – three hours behind schedule – and after noon head across the Belgian border, said local police spokeswoman Esther Booth.

She said 33 Dutch activists belonging to Greenpeace were arrested and charged following the protest, which saw them chaining themselves to the tracks from 7:00 am onwards.

“The train is over the border and in Belgium,” she told AFP at 1:30 pm.

Earlier she said: “There were some five blockades, but they have been broken up one-by-one. The protesters were cut loose with saws – for others we had to use a blowtorch.”

Police arrested 33 people, who were taken to the southern central town of Middelburg, where they were held in custody and released after the train passed.

“They have been served with summonses to appear in court. We don’t know what the charges are yet, but I believe it would be either for disturbing the public order or preventing a train from operating,” she said.

Environmental group Greenpeace said in a statement that 10 of its activists had chained themselves to the rails near Borssele. The radioactive waste originated at a nearby nuclear power plant.

Greenpeace’s representative in Belgium said the train crossed the border north of Antwerp.

“The train crossed the border in Essen,” Greenpeace Belgium’s spokeswoman Elizabeth Loos said, adding the action planned by 30 Greenpeace activists “who had taken up position” in Essen, the first town on the Belgian side of the border, had failed bring it to a halt.

“There were many police officers. We could not stay for long,” she said, without giving more details.

The train was crossing Belgium through Ghent in the northwest, despite a legal attempt by its mayor Monday to prevent the train from passing through his city. His attempt was rejected by a court on Monday night.

It was then proceeding to Mouscron, close to the French border.

The activist organisation said the load consisted of three wagons “with an amount of radiation comparable to that released at the nuclear disasters at Chernobyl and Fukushima”.

Greenpeace’s nuclear energy campaign spokesman, Ike Teuling, said the wagonload presented a clear danger to the population living along the railway route to a nuclear recycling plant in La Hague in Normandy.

“If there’s an accident it will be a catastrophe,” Teuling told AFP.

Greenpeace said the trainload of nuclear waste was the first to leave in six years and another 10 trainloads would be leaving in the next two years.

“And this is just the tip of the iceberg,” Teuling said.   Greenpeace added despite recycling efforts, only some four percent of the waste would be turned into new nuclear fuel. The rest of the waste would remain radioactive for the next 240,000 years, it said.


Why Germany’s nuclear exit is posing tough questions about its energy future

The Bavarian village of Gundremmingen is so proud of its nuclear power station that its coat of arms is graced with a giant golden atom.

Why Germany's nuclear exit is posing tough questions about its energy future
Gundremmingen nuclear power plant. Photo: DPA

But change is coming to the village, with the plant facing imminent closure under Germany’s energy transition policy.

Former village mayor Wolfgang Mayer’s house has direct views of the imposing complex with its two 160-metre cooling towers — taller than the spires of Cologne Cathedral.

The plant still produces 10 billion kWh of power per year, though parts of it have already been shut down — enough to provide the entire Munich metropolitan region with electricity.

The power station will be decommissioned on December 31, 2021, along with two other facilities in northern Germany.

By the end of 2022, Germany will have achieved its goal of completely phasing out nuclear power, set by Chancellor Angela Merkel on May 30, 2011, in the wake of the Fukushima disaster.

SEE ALSO: Berlin agrees to compensate power firms for nuclear phase out

The plan represented a dramatic change of course by Merkel’s ruling conservatives, who just a few months earlier had agreed to extend the lifespan of Germany’s oldest power stations.

But it was met with widespread public support in a country with a powerful anti-nuclear movement, fuelled first by fears of a Cold War conflict and then by disasters such as Chernobyl.

Village church

In Gundremmingen, however, the decision has been a tough pill to swallow.

The nuclear power station has been “as much a part of the village as the church” and it feels as though “something is dying”, said Gerlinde Hutter, owner of a local guest house.

According to Meyer, it will take at least 50 years to remove all radioactive material from the site after the plant has been decommissioned.
The German government is still looking for a long-term storage site for the country’s residual nuclear waste.

Gundremmingen is not the only German village facing big changes as the country strives to implement its energy transition strategy.

Renewables have seen a spectacular rise since 2011 and in 2020 made up more than 50 percent of Germany’s energy mix for the first time, according to the Fraunhofer research institute — compared with less than 25 percent ten years ago.

The declining importance of nuclear power (12.5 percent in 2020) “has been compensated for by the expansion of renewable energies”, Claudia Kemfert, an energy expert at the DIW economic research institute, told AFP.

Nuclear power stations have therefore not been replaced by coal, though the fossil fuel does still represent almost a quarter of the electricity mix.

The gas dilemma

In fact, the phase-out of nuclear energy has been joined by another plan, announced in 2019, to close all of Germany’s coal-fired power stations by 2038.

This presents a particular challenge for Germany, which remains the world’s leading producer of lignite.

Mining for the brown coal, which is highly polluting, continues to lead to the destruction of villages in the west of the country in order to expand huge open-cast mines.

If Germany is to free itself from lignite, renewables such as wind, solar, biomass and hydropower will have to make up 65 percent of the energy mix by 2030.

Yet the country, which has long been at the forefront of wind energy in Europe, installed only 1.65 gigawatts (GW) of wind farms last year — the lowest level in a decade, according to the WindEurope advocacy group.

To meet the government’s targets, Germany would have to add 9.8 GW of solar and 5.9 GW of onshore wind annually, according to Kemfert.

But the development of new areas for wind or photovoltaic energy production is complex, with plans often coming up against resistance from local residents and the risk of damage to the landscape.

And unless storage and distribution can be improved via so-called virtual power plants, these new forms of energy do not have the same stability as thermal or nuclear power.

To secure its supply, Germany could therefore be tempted to build more gas-fired power stations.

But this would risk reinforcing its dependence on Russia, as illustrated by the controversy surrounding the construction of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline.

A gas-fired power station is already in the works for the town of Leipheim, just around the corner from Gundremmingen.