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German environmentalists hold in place nuclear phase-out plan, 2008-2011
On the cover of its 7 July 2008 issue, Der Spiegel, one of the largest and most respected news sources in Europe, depicted the international symbol of the anti-nuclear movement (a smiling sun with the words “NUCLEAR POWER? NO THANKS” surrounding it) languishing half-submerged in the ocean with an accompanying caption that read “Atomkraft - Das unheimliche Comeback” (Nuclear Power: Its Eerie Comeback). The article outlined how factors such as the increasing urgency to limit CO2 emissions, the rising costs of fossil fuels, and the political instability of fossil fuel exporters such as Libya and Russia were combining to revitalize a widely unpopular industry that once again appeared to be the “lesser of evils” for energy production.
After the Social Democrats and Greens announced the progressive phasing out of nuclear power in 2000, Germany’s historically active anti-nuclear movement began to dwindle. However, in the following years, Chancellor Angela Merkel and the conservative Christian Democrats had begun to reevaluate the prudence of such as phase-out. Consequently, the Greens and anti-nuclear organizations such as X-tausendmal quer and Ausgestrahlt, seized on the renewed attention towards the nuclear power debate prompted by Der Spiegel to galvanize opposition towards Chancellor Merkel’s position on the matter.
In early November of 2008, 15,000 activists, including several high-ranking Green Party officials, attempted to prevent the transportation of eleven containers carrying 123 tons of radioactive nuclear waste from France to a storage site in Gorleben, Germany. In what was characterized as a mostly nonviolent demonstration, three protesters were able to delay the transport by twelve hours when they chained themselves to concrete blocks along the rail line. Meanwhile, activists staged sit-ins at two other locations along the track, while additional protesters used nearly three hundred farm tractors adorned with anti-nuclear banners to obstruct the route. In addition, 1,000 demonstrators performed a sit-in at the entrance of the Gorleben plant. Though the activists were only able to delay the shipment by about fourteen hours, the protest represented the largest anti-nuclear rally since 2001 and marked the beginning of a reinvigorated effort to ensure that German’s planned nuclear phase-out stayed on schedule.
In April of 2009, protesters blocked the entrance of a nuclear power plant at Neckarwestheim with an 8 meter wall during the annual meeting of utilities provider Energie Baden-Württemberg (EnBW), the company that operated the plant, alleging that EnBW was attempting to stall the scheduled closing of one of their reactors. A few days later, on the anniversary of the Chernobyl accident, activists in Neckarwestheim were joined by over 1,000 anti-nuclear protesters in Krümmel and Münster in calling for an end to nuclear power.
In September of 2009, 50,000 anti-nuclear activists, supported by almost 400 tractors, marched from the Berlin train station to the Brandenburg Gate, demanding that Germany close all of its nuclear plants by 2021 and calling for the closure of the dump at Gorleben. The march coincided with the release of a Greenpeace study that showed 59 percent of the country was opposed to extending the lifespan of older nuclear power stations, an option Chancellor Merkel had been considering.
By April 2010, the surging momentum of the campaign allowed anti-nuclear organizers to commemorate the twenty-fourth anniversary of the Chernobyl accident with a 120,000 person, 120-kilometer human chain spanning the distance between the towns of Brunsbüttel and Krümmel, both of which were home to phased-out nuclear plants that the Christian Democrats had targeted for lifespan extensions.
Despite the mounting opposition, on 6 September, the German government agreed to a plan that would extend the lifespan of the country’s nuclear power plants by up to fourteen years as 1,000 anti-nuclear protesters demonstrated outside the Chancellery. Two weeks later, under pouring rain, activists staged Berlin’s largest anti-nuclear protest since the Chernobyl accident, as 100,000 people surrounded Chancellor Merkel’s office demanding that she halt the extension plans and uphold the previous government’s pledge to end nuclear power by 2021. The next month, on 9 October, the Bavaria Chain Reaction group organized Munich’s largest anti-nuclear demonstration since 1985, with 25,000-50,000 people forming a 10-kilometer long human chain through the center of the city. Yet, on the 28th of that month, the German parliament approved legislation allowing the extensions as 2,000 protesters formed a human chain around the Reichstag.
Two years into the renaissance of German anti-nuclear activism, 50,000 people came out to protest another shipment of radioactive nuclear waste to Gorleben. Thirty activists delayed the transport by three hours when they chained themselves to the railway, while another 4,000 protesters blocked the entrance of the storage site for 44-hours before being removed by the police prior to the arrival of the shipment.
On 12 March 2011, an anti-nuclear demonstration that had been planned for weeks was preceded by news of the Fukushima accident the day prior, resulting in a turnout of 60,000 protesters who united to form a 45-kilometer human chain stretching from Stuttgart to the Neckarwestheim nuclear plant. The unfolding catastrophe in Japan only intensified the strong anti-nuclear opposition that had been building up in the previous years, as new opinions polls showed that 80 percent of Germans opposed the recently approved extensions, while 72 percent wanted an immediate shutdown of Germany’s seven oldest reactors. Three days into the disaster, an estimated 110,000 people protested in 450 towns across Germany, demanding that Chancellor Merkel reverse her decision to extend nuclear power. The next day, Merkel announced a temporary shutdown of the oldest reactors and a three-month moratorium on extensions.
On 26 March, a quarter of a million anti-nuclear activists marched in the “Fukushima Warns: Pull the Plug on all Nuclear Power Plants” rallies that were staged in Germany’s four largest cities, with 120,000 protesters in Berlin, 50,000 in Hamburg and 40,000 in both Cologne and Munich, respectively. The next day, Chancellor Merkel’s Christian Democrats lost control of Baden-Württemberg, the third largest state in the country and the home of four nuclear power plants (including the plant at Neckarwestheim) for the first time in sixty years, while the Greens attracted enough votes to take charge of a state government for the first time in their history. Most observers directly attributed this outcome to the nuclear power debate.
Anti-nuclear activists continued their protests on into April and May, to include a nationwide protest of 40,000 people on 28 May, with 25,000 demonstrators gathering at the Berlin headquarters of the Christian Democrats. The following Monday, Chancellor Merkel’s government announced a reversal of their nuclear energy policy and offered a plan to phase-out nuclear power by 2021. The following month, on 30 June, the German parliament approved the laws placing Germany back on schedule to be nuclear-free by 2021.