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Revived German movement protests nuclear energy

Chancellor Angela Merkel's support for nuclear power has sparked demonstrations.

Anti-nuclear energy protesters stage a rally near the building where the Christian Democratic Union, the Christian Social Union and the Free Democrats party were holding coalition talks in Berlin Oct. 17, 2009. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)

BERLIN, Germany — When Germany’s newly elected conservative coalition recently declared that it would rescind the country’s phase-out of nuclear power, it served as the final death knell to the era of consensus presided over by Chancellor Angela Merkel’s previous “Grand Coalition.”

But the announcement was not a surprise: Energy policy was one of the few issues about which Merkel and her Christian Democratic party (CDU) spoke candidly during the campaign.

But, the announcement resonated deeply across Germany and has served as a rallying cry for activists who lay dormant during the past few years in search of a cause. With hundreds of independent anti-nuclear activist groups promising frequent and disruptive protests in the coming weeks — and already providing a preview by way of hundreds of hecklers dispatched to the new coalition negotiations — the country is bracing for a heated confrontation.

“The 17 nuclear plants in Germany are everything but safe,” said Jochen Stay from the anti-nuclear group “Ausgestrahlt,” one of the organizers of the protests at the coalition negotiations. “Whoever thinks about extending their use puts the lives and health of millions of people in jeopardy.”

Some conservatives are already worried that things may get out of hand. An executive of one of the country’s largest energy utilities has written a letter to the heads of the opposition Green Party in order to suggest that they meet in order to clear the air. “Certainly one of the things we should talk about is how we can avoid conditions in the country that resemble a civil war,” wrote Juergen Grossmann, head of RWE, according to the newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung.

The activists have a long and rich tradition to draw on. West Germany’s anti-nuclear movement of the late 1970s and 1980s is generally upheld as the country’s most effective and sustained example of civic engagement. The federal government in Bonn hadn’t been much interested in the dangers of nuclear energy until hundreds of thousands representing a diverse cross-section of the country came out in mostly rural areas to protest against — and, at times, physically prevent — the opening of local reactors and the depositing of nuclear waste.

Eventually, the demonstrators formed the basis of a new party, the Greens, that would, in a late 1990s coalition with the Social Democrats (SPD), proscribe by law the phase-out the country’s remaining 17 nuclear power plants by 2020. This is the law that Merkel now seeks to amend.

Today’s activists, like those from 30 years ago, have declared themselves independent of all the established parties, including the Greens. But, in their aims, style and composition, these activists are less a new social movement than a nostalgia-tinged continuation of an old one, complete with a logo borrowed from the previous era: a red, smiling sun set against a white background together with the words “No, thank you!” It’s a fitting instance of recycling, since in some sense, the old anti-nuclear movement never went away: Periodic clashes between protesters and police near the city of Gorleben, where Germany has disposed of nuclear material, have gone on uninterrupted since the 1970s.