Gorleben Revisited – The Power of Polarity
Nuclear Power, the Renewables Industry, and “Limits to Growth”
The Power of Polarity refers to the power which results from delving deeply, very deeply into a subject, having the courage, and persistence of going very deeply into a subject, getting the facts, looking at all the angles, the good and perhaps especially the bad, and allowing these perspectives to co-exist, without defending, or offending, while holding the space and allowing something new to emerge. This process of emergence can be called Dialogue, a dynamic resonance of sorts. The Power of Polarity became clear to me during a recent road trip with my daughter from Berlin to Wendland.
Developing both renewable and conventional energy to fuel the growing needs of a modern society is now the road most travelled by both green and conservative politics, and big business – for different reasons. Our visit to the region of Wendland in northern Germany provided unexpected insights into the Power of Polarity and “Limits to Growth”. We witnessed how community, and more importantly, nature, prevails.
“Look what I found!” she called out over the blue fence posts. Christa Tornow was showing the mussel shell she had just found along the Elbe, Germany’s second largest river after the Rhine. We were sitting in the garden of our host Barbara Tietze, in the village of Vietze, drinking tea, and discussing the environment. “When I arrived here in 1980, the fisherman in the village had a sign: “Fish guaranteed not from the Elbe”, Christa continued, referring to the pollution in the river, “and now this!”. When it comes to the environment, there are indeed good things happening in Germany, especially in renewables, and it’s a good reason to celebrate. I was still high from driving along the old highway five from Berlin the day before. Normally it takes two-and-a-half hours on the autobahn, but we chose to take the slower road, taking us five hours, and not regretting it. Alexandra had just finished her bachelor’s degree in geography and is about to begin her master’s in land restoration, so this was an educational road-trip for both of us. Centenary oak trees line the two-lane country road, often creating long green tunnels only to open and reveal enormous wind turbine parks dotting the surrounding fields of swaying golden wheat on both sides. Germany leads in renewable electricity, with more than 30% supplied by wind turbines, solar panels, and biogas generators. But all is not well in this renewables paradise, as we were about to learn from some of the people we met during the next few days.
Wendland is a region in Niedersachsen that lies south of the Elbe River, west and north of former Eastern Germany, or DDR. It’s just about in the middle of the triangle formed by three of Germany’s largest cities: Berlin, Hamburg, and Hannover. Before German reunification Wendland was in the easternmost protruding “wedge” of Western Germany, being surrounded on the other three sides by the DDR. This came to influence the region, in particular as regards the choice of the town of Gorleben as the site for nuclear waste disposal for Germany. Originally intended for international nuclear waste disposal, the people of Wendland think differently, and they show it.
It was 1977 when the German government began exploring the possibility of locating its nuclear waste site to Gorleben, a town of some 600 souls with agriculture at the time it’s main commercial activity. Protests began in 1980 with the pronouncement of the “Free Republic of Wendland”, a camp of protesters in front of the proposed site that was dispersed after two weeks of occupation. The first casks, or “castoren” arrived in 1995 and mobilized 4000 protesters and 7600 police. Two years later a transport that included six containers attracted 10,000 protesters and 30,000 police (Wikipedia).
This scenario is in stark contrast to the impressive wind turbine parks, solar panel parks, and biogas installations today that as a result seem an even more important sign of a successful transition from fossil fuels and nuclear power to renewables. With “net-generation from renewable energy sources in the German electricity sector increasing from 6.3% in 2000 to about 30% in 2014, Germany has earned the superlative: “the world’s first major renewable energy economy”” (Wikipedia).
Driving from Berlin to Wendland, we passed several wind turbine parks. These clouds were perhaps a sign of the storms that lay ahead in the renewable energy debate.
These impressive figures come to light as I do some research before writing these lines. Hearing the story of Gorleben and it’s nuclear waste disposal site evolve during a rainy morning “große Stadtrundfahrt” (big city tour) with our host and new-found friend Barbara Tietze, well, I felt a chill run down my spine. The experience in Gorleben illustrates for me the end of the road, the writing on the wall, the final piece of the puzzle in the debate on energy alternatives in this age of growing awareness about sustainability and resilience. And it is by no means over. To date 113 “castor” containers are being stored in Gorleben, part of the 243 containers being stored above ground in Germany. Each of these containers holds as much radioactivity as the total of what was released in the Chernobyl disaster in 1986 (Handelsblatt). I grew up with the Three Mile Island USA (Pennsylvania) partial meltdown in 1979, and besides Chernobyl, we now have the Fukushima Daiichi meltdown in 2011, which is still a ticking bomb. What to do with the radioactive waste?
Confronting these facts while driving through the pristine forests and green fields of Wendland seemed surreal. How do we, a collective society in one of the supposedly most developed and educated regions in the world, manage to ignore this situation? Here is a polarity of extremes. On the one hand, the facts of the nuclear power industry together with the worlds most successful renewables industries, generating power at any cost, and it just not being enough. On the other hand, de-growth, sustainable development, in harmony and balance with the resources available on the planet. This polarity seems clearly on the minds of the people of Wendland, where the resistance to what Gorleben stands for has helped build a strong community, with many inspiring initiatives to bring people together.
Kulturelle-landpartie (http://www.kulturelle-landpartie.de/) is one of the better-known yearly festivals (the week between Ascension and Pentecost), bringing people together to witness the creativity of artisans and local handicrafts, art, music and the beauty of the landscape in Wendland.
It’s clear that a sustainable, harmonious, beautiful, and high quality life style is possible. The UN recently released a report on the efficiency and advantages of organic farming (UNCTAD Report). It’s further clear that we have more energy than we need through renewables – although not necessarily enough for our greed… So what is it that keeps us in the grips of unsustainable business, lifestyles, and behavior?
Could it be that our level of technological development, our material wealth, our comfortable lifestyles (which aren’t as comfortable as they could be) make us choose to close our eyes, forget, and hope for the best? It seems this polarity is growing greater and greater, until the polarity, the distance between the extremes between a planet in balance, and a planet out of control, is reached where the collective consciousness (and nature) has no more choice than to react, a massive popular (and natural) “reaction”. Will this usher in a more mature, responsible, and safe way of working together with nature. How far down the road must we travel, how much destruction is needed before we wake up?
Energy and electricity are two different things. Filling Germany’s electricity needs by 30% with renewables translates to just over 11% of Germany’s “primary energy consumption”, presently accounted for through biomass, biogas, biofuels, hydro, wind and solar (Wikipedia). So this technological “wunderkind” Germany still uses fossil fuels (oil and gigantic amounts of fossil coal) and nuclear to provide the other 89% of its energy needs, in 2015, the year every metric on the planet is saying we have to go “cold turkey” on fossil fuels to have a chance and maintaining conditions for humanity to survive on the planet.
It’s a wake-up call. A big one. Is anybody listening? Not many it seems, at least not the people in the places where decisions are made. Big business is still big on growth, and their political lackeys still repeat their mantra: “We need growth to create more jobs, to create more prosperity, to sustain our life quality…”. Well, do we?
That’s the question. Do we need THAT kind of growth? Or is there another kind of growth? The growth which grows out of insight, out of community, out of people coming together in a common cause – like the survival of the human species on this planet!? This is what I experienced during those days in Wendland. And this is what I realized I had to thank Gorleben, and all the activists, and the local population, for standing up and creating awareness on these questions of such vital importance.
This other growth has to do with values, living values, taking responsibility, being respectful, compassionate, and loving, to myself, others, and the environment for which my life depends, the air, the water, the soil, and other beings. This growth can be very rewarding, and comes from making choices; sometimes they are choices that go against the “normal”. I believe that we all have these choices, all the time, but we don’t necessarily always listen to them. Part of my personal growth happened while living in California, on the west coast of the USA in the mid-eighties. I remember one day driving down the highway in convertible and thinking: “wow, this is the life”. I was writing screenplays and working three other jobs to pay the rent, and was very happy. My then wife Kathrin was also working hard at growing in her career as a travel agent, working overtime, weekends. We lived one block from the Pacific Ocean and would walk down in the evenings with a glass of wine and together with the neighborhood applaud the sunset, each one better than any before. We were living the American dream! And Kathrin was pregnant. We had it all planned: a “day mom” would care for the baby while we both worked at getting ahead and becoming even more successful at our “American Dream”. And then Christiana was born, and everything changed! This precious, beautiful, miracle of a child had chosen us to be its parents! We were not going to hand her over to someone else to raise, not even for a few hours a day! Six months later we said good-bye to the American Dream and moved back to Spain, where my mother lived, and closer to Kathrin’s family in Austria. For all the material wealth and great times, and many friends, the USofA was just that, too material. Twenty-eight years later, I’m still learning, but what we discovered then with the birth of our first born (and reminded again with Alexandra, born two years later), that there are certain values we want to live in our lives, is still the guiding principle for my choices.
Another insight from these days in Wendland was the “all-inclusive” cost of the renewables, in other words, including externalities; the costs that don’t show up on a corporate balance sheet. A large proportion of the fields we drove past were planted with corn. Enquiring, I was told it wasn’t food corn, but rather biomass for the biogas plants. When harvesting time comes, hundreds of trucks rumble by on the small country roads, delivering the stalks to be ground up and thrown into the fermenting vats. Besides the damage to the roads, it’s a noisy, smelly, and dangerous business. Sustainable? How many acres of land would need to be planted to provide enough biogas to make a difference? A similar paradox is to be found around the wind parks, with an incessant humming which can be heard from a remarkable distance, so far in fact that laws are being heatedly debated to limit the number and positioning of the wind turbines. One suggested legislation is the “x10” rule (ten times the height of the wind generator minimum distance), another is forbidding wind turbine parks to be erected less than seven km. apart. This legislation will limit how many wind turbines are installed and puts in question how Germany will be able to fulfill it’s promise of removing its nuclear power plants completely (announced by Chancellor Angela Merkel after the Fukushima Daiichi meltdown) (Handelsblatt). What I’m getting at here is that you do the math, and even though in theory we could compensate for the other 89% of energy needs in Germany (more difficult in other countries) now being supplied by fossil oil and coal, where would we put the solar panels, and wind parks? And what would be left to grow food? Do the math, infinite growth on a finite planet doesn’t add up. And while we do the math, what will be done with the 400 tons of nuclear fuel waste every year, or if the phase-out plan announced by Angela Merkel should hold, the 17,200 tons of spent fuel rods which will be left, and remain radioactive for thousands of years (Spiegel Online)?
In Germany in the early eighties, the nuclear power industry was hard at work helping German industry grow, and didn’t think much about the needed storage for its spent nuclear, and radioactive fuel rods. Millions of years ago salt deposits were formed deep under the pine forests of Gorleben, and this was thought a safe resting place for the casks containing the spent radioactive fuel rods, each with the energy equivalent of sixteen Hiroshima bombs (or what leaked out of Chernobyl). It has since been repeatedly established that the salt dome is geologically unstable, and therefore highly unsuitable and dangerous for the storage of this radioactive waste. It has also come to light that it was perhaps, more than a geologically suitable place, rather a politically suitable place, considering the sparse population and proximity to the former East Germany (DDR). A real and present danger to the local population (and Chancellor Helmut Schmidt) at the time was the possible annexation by the then hostile East Germany (DDR) (Der Spiegel). But the politics prevailed, and considerable “gifts” were received by the local politicians; a flood-lit football field so that farmers could play night soccer after plowing their fields (which also served as a helicopter pad – just around the corner from the nuclear waste site), a conference center fully equipped to handle simultaneous translations (perhaps for the migrant workers to better communicate with their hundred or so farmer bosses?), and an “information center” for the nuclear power company which pays a very, very generous rent which goes into the towns budget and pays for the needs – or perceived needs – of its public servants. There were fully paid cruises and other “gifts” which all helped pave the way for the final storage under the salt dome, with a few exceptions. The biggest exception was the refusal by two owners of large pieces of land – with its salt and mineral rights below – to sell to the nuclear waste company, at the time “Kernbrennstoff Wiederaufarbeitungs-technik GmbH” (KEWA). Now the transport cask storage installation, the waste storage installation and the pilot conditioning plant (PKA) are operated by the “Brennelementlager Gorleben GmbH”, a subsidiary of the “Gesellschaft für Nuklear-Service” (GNS), which in turn is majority owned by the energy companies E.ON, RWE and Vattenfall Europe (Wikipedia).
Besides the thousands of protesters, and several smaller farm owners, these two land owners still stand in the way for Gorleben to become the final resting place, in the unstable and leaking salt dome, for the nuclear waste of Germany, Europe, and perhaps the world. These are the Protestant Parish of Gartow, which owns some of the land and mineral rights of the proposed site, and the von Bernstorff family, who owns the larger part of the land (600 ha.) and mineral rights under the proposed site. It was the parish and Andreas Graf von Bernstorff who refused to sell to the nuclear power companies in 1978, in the case of the Bernstorff family, citing family statutes written by Andreas Gottlieb von Bernstorff in 1720, which prohibit any sale of any part of the 6,800 hectare property, the largest cohesive privately owned forest in Germany. In the words of Andreas Graf von Bernstorff (from one of the information posters at the site):
“”For our family it’s not about preventing a final repository in the Gorleben salt dome, just because it lies in our own back yard, but rather our concern is to develop in a transparent manner for all citizens an approach and criteria for a fair selection procedure, which offers the highest possible safety of a final repository in Germany. We are talking about the livelihood of future generations – just as our ancestor Andreas Gottlieb von Bernstorff whose work laid the foundation for our future.”
The price offered was considerable for the 600 ha. needed for the nuclear waste disposal site, something in the region of then German Marks DM 35,000,000.- (ca. €17,500,000.-), this in 1978 (Zeit Online). More importantly Andreas Graf von Bernstorff purportedly leased parts of the family’s land to some hundred fellow protesters for symbolic amounts, making it both time consuming and costly if the government should choose to go to court and attempt to force the lease-holders and owners (now numbering more than one hundred and two potential legal suits) of the land to sell.
Since 2013 it’s Andreas Bernstorff’s son Fried who has been handed the reigns of the “Bernstorff’sche Betriebe”, the family company that manages their properties. It was after watching a documentary from German television on Fried Graf von Bernstorff’s field trials using biochar that I became interested in the region, and the work of this young German Earl. The biochar field trials are ongoing, and have not yielded the expected results, yet. Nevertheless Fried Bernstorff has made the decision to make the considerable family holding 100% organic, going against the advice of many local conservative farmers. Whereas Andreas Graf von Bernstorff went against big business in the power sector, his son Fried (which translates to “Peace”) seems to go against big business in the agro sector. Could it be that the “Power of Polarity” has already switched to the silent hum of the fields and forests? And how will it be for the grandchildren of Christa Tornow, will they be harvesting fresh mussels in the Elbe?
In Wendland, people still see, and hear, and feel nature, or as Fried’s father Andreas said when being interviewed by Germany’s daily “Zeit Online” in 1994:
“Come, let’s drive out into the forest.” You have to see these hundred-year old pines and young spruces, growing for the generations of our grandchildren. One should wander the wonderful forests, and look to the future as it asks to be cared for. One should smell the pastures and fields behind the dikes of the Elbe, where in the summer storks teeter and on beautiful autumn days hundreds of cranes come to rest.”
To summarize, these days in Wendland allowed me to experience “The Power of Polarity” in action, a concept that has been developing in my head for a few years, and come to maturity thanks to a real situation which is not resolved, but being “held” in a space. There are different views, different perspectives, and a level of respect between the people, while the Dialogue continues, and we can look forward to something new emerging, if we allow something new to emerge.
My deepest gratitude goes out to the people of Wendland for their tireless dedication to preserving this little corner of paradise on earth for the generations to come.