By David Rising
DANNENBERG, Germany — Tens of thousands of people demonstrated Saturday against a shipment of nuclear waste traveling to a storage site in northern Germany, and some tried to block railway tracks in a protest fueled by a government move to extend the country's use of atomic energy.
Demonstrators turned fields outside the town of Dannenberg into a sea of yellow-and-red flags with the slogan "Nuclear Power — No, Thanks." Police estimated the crowd at more than 20,000, while activists put the number at more than 40,000.
The waste crossed into Germany Saturday on its journey from a reprocessing plant in northwestern France. Dannenberg is where it is unloaded from train to trucks for the last leg of its trip to the storage facility at nearby Gorleben.
Activists maintain that neither the waste containers nor the Gorleben site, a temporary storage facility, are safe. The waste is stored in a warehouse near a disused salt mine that has been earmarked as a possible permanent storage site.
"What we need to say to (Chancellor) Angela Merkel is that this is a Chernobyl on wheels," Greenpeace executive director Kumi Naidoo told the protesters.
"People's resistance in Gorleben sends a valuable message to the government of this and other countries," he said. "We will not bow down to a government acting in the interests of the nuclear industry and against the interests of their own citizens."
Naidoo said two Greenpeace activists had chained themselves to tracks near a French-German border crossing, a favorite tactic of protesters trying to block the shipments — drawing cheers from the crowd.
The train crossed the border by another route, arriving in the German town of Kehl Saturday afternoon. It still had a journey of several hundred miles (kilometers) ahead of it to get to Dannenberg, and police said a few hundred people were cleared off tracks further north.
The Dannenberg protest was peaceful, though police said they used batons and pepper spray against a group of 150 people who tried to dig a hole under a nearby road and threw fireworks and stones at officers. There was no immediate word on any arrests.
Germany receives waste shipments roughly every year under an agreement that sees spent fuel sent to France for reprocessing and returned for storage.
Gorleben has been a traditional focus of anti-nuclear protests, and the shipments have in the past led to clashes between demonstrators and police.
The protests faded after a previous government embarked a decade ago on plans to phase nuclear power out entirely by 2021 — but this year, activists are angry at the decision of Merkel's government to extend the life of Germany's 17 nuclear plants by an average 12 years. Parliament approved the plan last month.
Nuclear energy has been unpopular in Germany since the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, and there are no plans for Germany to build new nuclear plants.
However, Merkel argues that extending the life of the existing ones is necessary to keep energy cheap and readily available as the country works to get more power from renewable sources. She calls nuclear power a "bridging technology."
Decisions such as keeping nuclear plants running "may be unpopular at the moment, but they will pay off," Merkel was quoted Saturday as telling Focus weekly. "They are necessary for us also in future to be a successful economic center."
The train carrying 123 tons of reprocessed nuclear waste set off Friday under tight security, as other environmental activists deployed along the route for planned protests.
Christophe Neugnot, a spokesman for French nuclear engineering company Areva, said safety measures for the shipment involved sealing the solid nuclear waste in glass that is in turn encased in 16-inch (40-centimeter) -thick steel containers. He called the train cars "rolling fortresses" — each benefiting from 100 tons of protective material.
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Many countries in Europe and elsewhere have been looking to nuclear power as a way to reduce their dependency on energy from foreign nations — notably oil, gas and coal, the use of which is believed to contribute to global warming.