GERMAN police scuffled with protesters as tens of thousands of people gathered in Dannenberg, vowing to block a nuclear waste convoy arriving from France.
The heavily guarded train carrying a cargo that activists say is “the most radioactive ever” crossed into Germany overnight after changing its route to avoid protesters but halted at Kehl station, just over the border, to take on more police.
It then headed for Karlsruhe where demonstrators were waiting, German police said.
They said the lengthy technical halt at Kehl had enabled railway engineers to check a claim by environmental group Greenpeace that an axle on the train had overheated.
Greenpeace said the convoy should immediately be halted “in the interest of public safety” but the police said: “Deutsche Bahn engineers took advantage of the technical stop in Kehl to check everything, including the axles, and no faults were found.”
Organisers in Dannenberg said 50,000 people – 20,000 according to police – had turned out ahead of the arrival of the 14-carriage train and its 123 tonnes of radioactive waste, expected to arrive later today.
According to Greenpeace it was about 350km from its final destination, a storage facility at Gorleben, which protesters say is not fit for the task.
The cargo will be transferred by truck for the final 20km run from Dannenberg to Gorleben.
A police spokesman said officers had clashed with around 150 protesters trying to remove the ballast from under the track near Dannenberg.
“Some of them threw stones and firecrackers at officers, who had to respond with batons and pepperspray,” but the situation calmed down, the spokesman added.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel denounced the attempted sabotage.
Earlier, a spokesman for anti-nuclear group X-Tausendmal Quer told AFP that thousands of campaigners were prepared to take part in non-violent action to obstruct the convoy.
Around 16,000 police have been mobilised to deal with protests in Germany.
The demonstrators at Dannenberg were of all ages, many carrying the red-and-yellow “Nuclear power, no thanks” banners used for decades by the movement.
“It’s no fun having to organise rallies like that in these conditions but the government’s policy leaves us with no choice,” said Jochen Stay, spokesman for the anti-nuclear group Ausgestrahlt (Irradiated).
Germany’s anti-nuclear campaigners have been outraged by a vote in parliament on October 28 to extend the life of the country’s 17 nuclear reactors by 12 years, although they were due to come offline in 2020.
Opinion polls show that most Germans were against parliament’s decision.
Earlier, the train ran the gauntlet of hundreds of French protesters.
After switching routes to avoid anti-nuclear protesters, it arrived in the French border city of Strasbourg just after midday to change locomotives and take on board a fresh escort of German riot police.
Then it crossed the Rhine at Kehl just outside the city, again surprising activists, who had prepared protests on another route further north.
Anti-nuclear campaigners had planned a series of demonstrations along the original route of the train, which is returning German nuclear waste for storage after it was treated in France by the Areva group.
Areva spokesman Christophe Neugnot dismissed concerns about possible leaks in transit, describing the train as a “fortress on wheels. The containers would survive a train hitting them at full speed.”
Areva has also rejected the “most nuclear” tag for the shipment of waste, which was created during power generation in Germany.
It says this cargo is not as radioactive as the last load of waste it shipped back to Germany.
But a statement from French campaigners “Sortir du Nucleaire” (Get out of Nuclear) insisted: “This nuclear convoy, the most radioactive ever, exposes the population to excessive risks.
“There is a risk to lives in the short term in case of an accident, but also a long-term risk to their health,” Sortir du Nucleaire said.
This convoy is the 11th of its kind. A previous nuclear waste shipment sent over in 2008 was blocked for 14 hours by protesters, amid violent scenes.