Fatality fuels anti-nuclear protest

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

The death of an anti-nuclear protester, run over this weekend by a train carrying radioactive waste, has prompted new unease in France about the transportation of nuclear materials through the countryside.

Environmental campaigners say that the death of Sebastien Briat, 21, who had chained himself to the franrailway track in front of a train carrying 12 containers of radioactive waste, illustrated the dangers of this kind of transportation. Activists said the accident showed how difficult it was to guarantee the security of the cargo as it travelled along the nation's rail network.

"A train could hit something at any moment, and there's nothing that the SNCF nor the organisations which are meant to provide security can do about it," the local Green leader, Serge Billon, said.

Briat died on the way to hospital after his leg was severed by the train near Avricourt in Eastern France. He had been with a small group of protesters, who were unknown to more established anti-nuclear campaigners in the area.

The group appears to have been relatively inexperienced and failed to follow several unofficial guidelines, used by radical demonstrators mounting this kind of protest. The symbolic gesture of protesters chaining themselves to the tracks has been widely adopted by campaigners hoping to disrupt the rail transportation of radioactive waste, since the practice was restarted again in 2001 after a three year moratorium.

Most crucially, the group made the mistake of positioning themselves shortly after a bend in the track, near a forest, so visibility for the train driver was not very good. More experienced protesters make a point of not chaining themselves to the track until they are sure the train has already stopped. Groups usually alert the driver several hundred metres ahead to the presence of a protest group, waving smoke signals at the driver - which Briat's group failed to do.

"The driver noticed a group of people sitting on the tracks. Some of them got up. He pulled the emergency brake, but one of the people remained sitting, and one of his legs was cut off and he has died," a spokeswoman for SNCF said.

"These youths - eight or ten of them - had hidden behind a small hill and wanted to place themselves after a bend in the tracks to chain themselves up," government prosecutor Michel Senthille told the Associated Press. "They got caught by surprise when the train arrived as they were chaining up." Briat's friends tried to pull him off the track, but failed. At least one other demonstrator was injured.

Although he had not meant to die, Briat's action was designed to highlight the danger of these transportations and green groups yesterday said that his death showed how easily things could go wrong. Campaigners asked how it was that despite claims that security was high all the way along the track, no one had spotted the presence of Briat and his colleagues. Officials said hundreds of police officers had been patrolling the tracks near Avricourt, but that Briat's small group of protesters had managed to slip past them unnoticed.

There was also renewed debate about the speed limits imposed on trains carrying radioactive material. Local officials said that the train was travelling at around 98km/h and although the driver braked sharply, he was unable to stop before hitting Briat. But an article in Liberation, the left-leaning daily, quoted Gilbert Poirot, an anti-nuclear activist, who travelled to the site of the accident and said that he believed the train should have been able to stop if it had been travelling at such a speed. Poirot raised the possibility that the train, which had already been stopped several times by similar protests, might have been going faster to make up for lost time.

The convoy had already been brought to a standstill for two hours at Laneauville-Devant-Nancy, by two protesters who were chained to the track. The train set off again at 1.20pm local time (1220GMT), and hit Sebastian Briat a little after 2.30pm near Avricourt station.

One railway union said that perhaps the train should have been under instructions to travel at a "prudent speed" - which means no more than 20 or 30 km/hr on bends - so that it was able to stop at any obstacle. "There is a real incoherence on the part of the local authorities and SNCF, who knew that there was a real risk of anti-nuclear protests in the Alsace-Lorraine region. There were a lot of press releases announcing this, and despite everything no special measures were taken. What if the obstacle had been a truck and not a protester?" a spokesman for the Sud Rail union asked Liberation.

A helicopter that was flying over the train to check the route had been diverted to refuel so it was unable to spot the presence of the protest group.

The hermetically-sealed convoy arrived at the temporary storage point at Gorleben, in northern Germany, yesterday. Police had to cut several more protesters from the railway track, but the mood of the protest was much more muted than expected in the wake of the death. Thousands of police officers were called out to guard the last stretch of track.

However anti-nuclear protesters still managed to get on the track near Göttingen, forcing the train to slow down as a precaution, and around 60 tractors flying black ribbons in mourning for the protester killed on Sunday blocked the roads near the plant. A memorial service held on Monday was attended by about 2,000 people.

Although the demonstrations were smaller than usual, in a mark of respect to the dead campaigner, protest groups said they would continue to make their resistance clear. "We won't send any signal that we're giving up here," Dieter Metk said.

Germany's environment minister expressed "dismay" at the death and has called for an investigation. He warned other protesters to take care.

Spent fuel from Germany's nuclear plants is sent to France and Britain for reprocessing but contracts stipulate that Germany must take back the waste. Shipments to the temporary site at Gorleben have led to numerous clashes between police and protesters, who argue that the location is unsafe. Greenpeace has warned that the Gorleben storage site, in a disused salt mine, is unsafe over the long term and risks contaminating ground water.

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