Protesters lose 'war' over nuclear waste

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One of the biggest police forces mobilised against demonstrators since the war fought pitched battles with militant environmentalists opposed to the dumping of nuclear waste in Germany yesterday.

Despite their efforts, a 40-tonne shipment of French-processed atomic waste reached its destination. The radioactive cargo was moved some 12 miles on a giant flatbed lorry from Dannenberg railway station to Gorleben, a medium-term nuclear storage depot

About 15,000 policemen took up military formations in their battle against a crowd of 3,000 who had defied a ban on marches and gathered near the nuclear storage site at Gorleben, in northern Germany. At least 30 people were injured as protesters erected makeshift barricades of blazing wood and hay, hurled stones with slingshots and, in one incident, fired a starting pistol at a helicopter circling overhead.

The police responded with water cannons, tear gas and truncheons. "It would almost be fitting to use the word 'war' at the moment," said a police spokesman. His force took about 30 "prisoners".

About 50 protesters were injured. One woman was flown to hospital in Hanover after being hit in the head by the jet from a water cannon. Police said six officers were slightly injured, revising police casualties down from an earlier estimate of 18.

Gerhard Glagowski, Interior Minister for the regional state of Niedersachsen, praised police for their "professional operation" and commended them for having to face what he called "extremely violent resistance".

"The peaceful demonstrators were the losers of this violent resistance, as they were pushed aside by hooligans who were spoiling for a fight," he was quoted as saying in a statement. Mr Glagowski said that 7,500 police were deployed in his state alone. The grand total of police officers mobilised across Germany to protect the shipment was 19,000.

As bonfires blocked roads, farmers in the villages surrounding the quiet market town of Gorleben dumped piles of manure in the streets in a last- ditch effort to stop the lorry.

A thick wedge of riot police, backed up by vehicles carrying water cannon trying to hose away sit-down strikers, headed up a long procession of police vehicles protecting the waste shipment. "You pigs!" young demonstrators screamed at police. Jurgen Trittin, a leader of the Green Party, accused police of heavy-handedness, condemning "the brutal methods of the nuclear state".

The nuclear waste from German power plants was returning from reprocessing in France under an agreement between the two countries. Germany has no reprocessing plant, and Germans opposed to nuclear power decided to make its Odyssey the focus of their protests. They had been demonstrating for weeks, at times sabotaging stretches of the railway line between Hamburg and Hanover. Police also reported several bomb threats in recent days. Yesterday saboteurs threw an iron bar on to overhead electrical cables on the Hamburg-Kiel railway line, closing it for two hours.

Opponents, backed in their cause - though not in their violent actions by Greenpeace and the Green Party - argue that both the method of the material's transport and its storage are unsafe. The waste, the end product of spent German nuclear rods recycled in France, needs to be stored and constantly cooled for between 20 and 30 years. Though embedded in glass, the material is hot - about 450C in the centre of the container, and radioactive.

It was the first of about 110 shipments set to carry nuclear waste and fuel back to German reactors over the next eight years. The waste shipment eluded observers from the environmental group Greenpeace who had staked out the world's largest nuclear reprocessing plant in La Hague in northern France. They had hoped to tip off their German counterparts.

Greenpeace demonstrators kept vigil along the tracks near Gorleben during the night.