VALOGNES, France -- Environmental activists unfurled banners near train stations and on railway overpasses Friday to protest a contested shipment of 123 tons of recycled nuclear waste from France to Germany.
State-controlled French nuclear engineering company Areva said the shipment by rail to a German storage site in the northeastern town of Goerleben was "completely normal" -- and the 11th of its kind.
Greenpeace officials, including its executive director, Kumi Naidoo, said the shipment was "the most radioactive in history" and equaled 11 times the radioactivity of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. Areva sharply denied the claim.
"The reference to Chernobyl is scandalous," said Areva CEO Anne Lauvergeon on France-Info radio. The waste was about the same amount as in the other 10 shipments, she said. Other Areva officials said it was smaller than some.
The shipment was to roll out of a rail station in the town of Valognes on Friday afternoon, across northern France and then into Germany before arriving Saturday in Goerleben.
About 40 Greenpeace protesters unfurled banners near the station and at nearby overpasses as the train prepared to depart.
Areva spokesman Christophe Neugnot said the security measures, following international regulations, involved sealing the solid waste in special glass containers that were encased in 16-inch thick steel containers. He said they were "rolling fortresses," each benefiting from 100 tons of protection.
Protesters were planning to deploy along every station the train was to pass through, and thousands of activists were getting ready in Germany, said Yannick Rousselet of Greenpeace France.
A large demonstration is planned Saturday in Dannenberg, where the waste containers are to be loaded onto trucks for the final stretch of their journey.
The shipments from the reprocessing site in La Hague, France, to Goerleben have been a traditional focus of protests by Germany's vocal anti-nuclear lobby.
This year, a move by Chancellor Angela Merkel's government to extend the lives of Germany's 17 nuclear power plants by an average 12 years has given new energy to activists.
Nuclear energy has been unpopular in Germany since the Chernobyl disaster, and the plan partly rolls back a decade-old decision by a previous government to shut down all German nuclear plants by 2021. Opponents plan to protest Merkel's move in Germany's highest court.
Merkel maintains that atomic energy is a "bridging technology" that will allow the government to focus on further developing renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power and biofuels. Germany has no plans to build new nuclear plants.