Amid the hustle and bustle of Christmas shopping in Aachen’s opulent downtown district, a huge crowd of people gathered this Tuesday evening to voice opposition to something that’s been bothering them for a long time now – nuclear power production across the border in Belgium.
The crowd, at least 1500 strong according to police on site, was a strikingly heterogeneous mix of the German public, comprising young and old, rich and poor, bald and dread-locked, boisterous and calm, activists and non-activists alike, all united by the desire for one single thing.
“Stop Tihange!” they chanted on a number of occasions during the hour-long demonstration, interspersed between speeches laying out the danger of the three-reactor plant located just 70 km (40 miles) to the west.
“The trade winds, as you all know here, blow straight in our direction from Tihange. If it finally comes to what we all fear, then there’ll be nothing left of our city,” the first speaker, in his sixties and heavily bearded, said.
“It’s been a long time since we gathered here,” the moderator of the event then chimed in, referring to the dozen anti-nuclear demonstrations that took place in Aachen following the Fukushima meltdown in early 2011. Back then, demonstrators came to this very spot every Monday evening to demand that the German government bring an end to nuclear power production. That very thing, a promised nuclear phase-out to begin in 2022, was announced little more than two months later by German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
“But we cannot stop our fight against the danger of greed, and we must not let Tihange become the next Fukushima,” the moderator said to the crowd, which was waving posters and green and yellow flags that have been become icons of the anti-nuclear movement in Germany and abroad.
“I’ve been involved since 1977,” Jürgen Reinhartz, 76, standing behind the crowd and holding one end of a long poster advocating the use of more solar power, said. “I’ve got my daughter here with me tonight, and this is a proud moment for us, and for the city of Aachen, to be out here again.”
“It feels like we’ve been around forever, but a movement like this doesn’t stay alive on its own,” Reinhartz told DW, referring to what he felt was a waning anti-nuclear force in Germany even amid the planned national phase-out. “Let’s not think that our politicians can’t change their minds. And when it comes to Belgium, we all know there’s more they could do to help bring about the final closure of Tihange and (another Belgian nuclear plant) Doel.”
Ingrid Blohm, 47, standing at the back of the gathering that had poured into the street, said she and her three daughters aged between seven and 12 came out tonight to plead with the government to do something to close down Tihange. “If a people feels strongly enough about something, change can happen. All we want is for these (Belgian) reactors to stop running, especially the ones that have already been found unfit for use by the Belgian authorities.
Safe in the eye of the beholder
But are the reactors at Tihange, one which was shut down for almost three years after cracks were observed and another which was shut down after a fire last Friday, unsafe?
“We fully understand that our decision is criticised, especially in the context of the nuclear phase-out in Germany,” said Sebastien Berg, of Belgium’s federal nuclear safety authority, FANC. “But our decision has nothing to do with a position about the future of nuclear energy in Belgium,” stressing to DW that both reactors at Tihange were found by FANC to be “completely safe” based on “extensive technical and scientific studies”.
“We will not ever accept such hogwash,” said Frank Reichel, 42, wearing a reflective vest with anti-nuclear symbol on the back of it. The message on his poster, “Stop Tihange NOW,” made it rather clear what he thought about the Belgian watchdog’s appraisal.
As vehement as he appeared, however, Reichel’s assessment has been backed by leading experts in Germany. Simone Mohr specialises in nuclear facility safety at the Oeko-Institut, and she told DW that such concerns are more than justified.
“From my point of view, it simply isn’t correct to assert that Tihange 2 is 100% safe, because to make this assertion you would have to examine within the walls where the cracks were observed. And to do that, you would have to destroy the reactor vessel. This is not an option.”
A question of standards
Mohr said that reactors with comparable deficits like the ones at Tihange wouldn’t be allowed to run in Germany. Such components, she told DW, would even have been rejected after manufacturing.
“The material problems observed in Belgium were found in the pressure vessels, the heart of the nuclear reactor where the nuclear fuel is located. With regard to safety, this is by far the most important part of the reactor. Ultrasound inspections are able to detect and localise flaws but they are not able to characterise them sufficiently. If a German plant showed results like those found at these Belgian reactors, I would be very surprised if it were deemed operational.”
Tuesday’s demonstration, just two days ahead of Christmas Eve, ended with the moderator thanking everyone for coming out during the holiday season to support the cause and keep the Aachen anti-nuclear tradition alive.
Just before a musical act got going that featured a rap about how Aachen is the “most beautiful city in the world”, the 1,500 present vowed again to “stop Tihange!” and that it would be back at the start of 2016 for more demonstrations – and that they wouldn’t stop until they get what they came here to achieve.