French police have battled anti-nuclear protesters as the last train carrying German nuclear waste treated in France set off on its journey home.
A mobile police canteen was set on fire by demonstrators on Wednesday and at least three people were hurt, two protesters and a riot officer.
Scared by Japan’s Fukushima disaster, Germany has decided to phase out its use of nuclear power, and thus bring to an end the controversial practice of sending radioactive waste overland to France for reprocessing.
Anti-nuclear activists want France to follow suit and shut its reactors, an idea firmly dismissed by President Nicolas Sarkozy, and fierce protests were expected along the 700km route to Germany.
The shipment left a railway yard in the town of Valognes in Normandy, northwest France, more than an hour late after police played cat and mouse with hundreds of activists, firing teargas and making at least 16 arrests.
Protesters removed a rail and destroyed electric junction boxes before the train left, environmental group Greenpeace and rail operator SNCF said.
“These are more like troublemaking vandals than the usual anti-nuclear protesters,” Eric Bouillard, the prosecutor, said, noting that protesters had been found with two machetes in their possession.
As dense fog rolled in off the English Channel, mingling with the gas, police set up roadblocks to prevent demonstrators converging on the nuclear firm Areva’s yard. A helicopter flew overhead and riot vans lined the roads.
Cows scattered in the fields as police charged groups of stone-throwing protesters, and a few kilometres outside Valognes a group briefly blocked a section of track with rocks and metal debris.
Protesters intimidated journalists and smashed at least two press cameras.
Greenpeace, which did not call for the train to be stopped, condemned “all forms of violence”. The local governor’s office accused the demonstrators of throwing petrol bombs.
Protest organisers insisted police had provoked the clashes.
“Beyond the danger that this waste poses, we’re demonstrating our radical opposition to a means of production that means we’ll always need more power. We’re against endless growth,” 24-year-old Anna, from Paris, said.
There has long been widespread public opposition in Germany to nuclear power, which environmentalists believe presents an unacceptable radioactive threat to public health and the environment.
In March, the Japanese nuclear plant at Fukushima Daiichi was hit by an earthquake and a tsunami, triggering a meltdown and massive radiation leak – and increasing worldwide concerns over nuclear power.
Chancellor Angela Merkel’s German government buckled under political pressure and agreed to halt its reactors by 2022, forcing energy suppliers to close profitable plants and levying a tax on the reactors’ fuel.
In the meantime, Germany will no longer send nuclear waste for reprocessing in France, but will instead stockpile it until a way is found to make it safe.
Fukushima also increased concerns in France, where Sarkozy’s government has vowed to stand by the industry, despite attacks by Greens.
France produces 75 per cent of its electricity needs in nuclear plants, a higher proportion than any other country in the world, and its electricity bills are around 25 per cent cheaper than in its neighbours, a boon to industry.
According to pressure group Greenpeace, the shipment of 11 containers holds the same quantity of “highly radioactive” waste as the last one to leave the French reprocessing plant at La Hague for the German site at Gorleben.
Last November the train took 91 hours to arrive at its final destination , an entire day longer than planned, as it was dogged the length of the route by French and then German protesters.
Around 50,000 activists turned out in Germany to try to disrupt the train during that shipment, and organisers expect around 20,000 to demonstrate against the convoy this week.
Protesters are angry that Merkel’s announced nuclear phase-out will take another decade, and that there is still no permanent storage site for the waste generated in the country’s reactors.
The Gorleben facility, on the former border between East and West Germany, is only a temporary dump and Germany’s powerful state governments have mobilised to fight relocation to their regions.