'Trainstoppers' gather to halt a deadly cargo in its tracks

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The Independent Online

Slumped bleary-eyed on a bale of straw, Eduard Schösser looked as though he had been run over by a train, but that possibly still lay ahead. He was exhausted, he explained, because he had been sleeping rough for three frosty nights and he was obviously getting too old for this kind of thing.

Slumped bleary-eyed on a bale of straw, Eduard Schösser looked as though he had been run over by a train, but that possibly still lay ahead. He was exhausted, he explained, because he had been sleeping rough for three frosty nights and he was obviously getting too old for this kind of thing.

They call it "trainstopping". Mr Schösser, a 61-year-old retired clerk, and thousands of like-minded people were gathering yesterday on the windswept plain of northern Germany in an attempt to prevent a particularly nasty cargo reaching its destination.

Six very special wagons containing the bitter harvest of German nuclear power were coming home, encased in glass at a French reprocessing plant, but still hot with radioactivity. Germany is legally obliged to take back its spent fuel and, under pressure from France to ease a backlog of German waste at its La Hague plant near Cherbourg, Chancellor Gerhard Schröder lifted a transport ban imposed on safety grounds in 1998. About two cargoes a year are now planned.

The train was approaching Dannenberg, an ancient town but thoroughly insignificant except that this is where the railway tracks end. If all goes to plan, the shipment will be transferred today to flat-bottomed lorries, to be whisked to the storage facility at Gorleben, 20 kilometres (12 miles) to the east. The unresolved fate of radioactive waste is an Achilles heel of the nuclear industry, and Dannenberg its most vulnerable point. And so Mr Schösser has returned, four years after the last battle, for another tilt at the nuclear industry.

The train was running late. It had set off on schedule, at dawn on Monday, crawling on branch lines across northern France. Its route was kept secret to keep the opponents of nuclear power guessing. They had threatened to chain themselves to rails and be cemented to the sleepers.

The train's meanderings through southern Germany were undisturbed but protesters had prepared a fiery welcome on the tracks that they thought lay in the train's path. They were right, but the authorities had a surprise up their sleeve. Instead of sending it through Göttingen, a university town and bastion of Green power, they diverted the unwanted consignment towards Paderborn, a staunchly conservative Catholic town. They lost three hours but saved themselves a lot of aggravation.

They had less luck further down the line. Everybody knew that after reaching Lüneburg lay only a single option. This is where thousands of protesters had set up camp, along the 50km (31 mile) stretch linking Lüneburg and Dannenberg.

As the six containers pulled into Lüneburg yesterday afternoon, some 1,500 demonstrators stormed through the cordons and sat down on the line just outside the town. The authorities' new secret weapon ­ "conflict managers" ­ unsurprisingly failed to get them to move. Riot police were then sent in, helicopters appeared and a convoy of water cannons menacingly trundled past. One by one, protesters were lifted and carted away. Some were injured by police truncheons.

Meanwhile, forests along the length of the line were teeming with youths in black parkas, some sporting balaclavas. As police vans raced from one trouble spot to the next, demonstrators would reappear elsewhere to occupy another section of the railway line. The vast majority of demonstrators, such as those singing Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" as they sat on the tracks, were peaceful. But police feared the unseen anarchists in black.

The day had begun peacefully enough with a spectacular stunt. At dawn, Greenpeace activists managed to cross the river Jeetze near Dannenberg in rubber dinghies, ramming one police boat that tried to head them off. Attaching ropes to the pillars of a bridge, they abseiled and unfurled anti-nuclear banners. Police eventually prised them away and arrested about 40 of the protesters. One person was reported to have been injured in the incident and a policeman was drenched in the river.

The demonstrators were clearly outnumbered by the forces ranged against them, which included German border troops. Every railway bridge was being guarded and police vans stood by at most road intersections. Officials said that 15,000 police were being deployed in the region. Dannenberg felt as if it was under martial law, with just a few hundred demonstrators visible, while dozens of armoured cars and water cannons were massed at the railway station.

Mr Schösserhas been protesting against nuclear power for three decades and was under no illusion. "Of course we can't stop the train, but at least we can make this whole operation so expensive that we price nuclear power out of the market," he said.

The cost of this delivery to Gorleben of six "Castors" ­ an acronym for "Cask for Storage and Transport of Radioactive Material" ­ is expected to exceed 10m German marks (£3.2m). Each "Castor" contains 168 cannisters of reprocessed waste embedded in glass and weighs about 100 tonnes. In the next 10 years, Germany will have to dispose of an estimated 120 Castors filled with its nuclear refuse.

That these trains are again rolling, two years after the Greens entered government, makes environmentalists very angry. Mr Schösser comes from Frankfurt, where Joschka Fischer and other Green politicians shot to prominence. Mr Schösser was once a Green, but no longer. He is disgusted with the metamorphosis in his old friend. "There's no Joschka any more," he said. "There's only Herr Fischer now. He has forgotten who he was. When a pacifist starts to shoot, as he did in Kosovo, when an environmentalist strikes dirty deals with the nuclear mafia, then the movement is dead."

The sense of disaffection is palpable. Far fewer people came to protest this time than four years ago. Mr Schösser says the protesters lack leadership. "The Greens always used to be at the head of the march. At our demo today, they marched at the back and then tried to confiscate our banners." But even at his age, Mr Schösser refuses to miss these protests. If he gets through the coming days in one piece, he will be back again for the next shipment.