Bettina and Gerhard Boll have been part of the anti-nuclear protest movement for over 30 years and have been campaigning against the Krümmel nuclear power plant, which is situated just six kilometres from their home.

By Philipp Offenberg

28 February 1981: Over 100,000 people meet on the Wilster Marshes to protest against the nuclear power plant in Brokdorf. The demonstration goes down in history as one of the biggest ever in the Federal Republic of Germany.

Gerhard Boll is there. He walks across the marshes with tens of thousands of others towards Brokdorf. When he arrives at the target, he climbs up a dyke and sees a group of police helicopters flying towards him from Hamburg. “They looked like a fighter squadron about to attack,” says Gerhard, recalling those events today. The demonstration escalates into a riot, leaving 128 police officers and 70 demonstrators injured. Despite the protests, the nuclear power plant is completed in 1986. “I remember asking myself back then what kind of state I was living in,” Gerhard says. Now 66 years old and retired, Gerhard lives with his wife Bettina in the town of Geesthacht in northern Germany. Bettina Boll, now 58, has been involved the nuclear protest movement since 1982. “Over time we have played a greater and greater role in the protests,” she says. The Bolls lead a modest life. They buy little, recycle everything they can get from their neighbours, have only flown twice in the past 30 years, and live in a semi-detached house, built in 1918, which they have still not finished renovating. “Germany’s decision to switch to renewable energy sources does not mean that we humans can carry on consuming energy the way we always have,” says Gerhard. “People should consider the switch as a turning point in their own lives too.” For the Bolls, this turning point came in the early 1980s. Back then, there were only a few people who supported their cause in Geesthacht as many of the families made their living either directly or indirectly from working at the nuclear power plant. People would often ask them if they were trying to go back to living in the Stone Age. Bettina started to seriously consider leaving the area.

26 April 1986: A runaway chain reaction causes a reactor to explode at Chernobyl power plant.

When the reactor explodes, Gerhard and Bettina are on holiday with a group of children in the Wendland area of central Germany. The authorities tell them to stay inside. Unsure what to do, the Bolls eventually dare to go out, but make sure the children all take a shower in the evening. “It was a very eerie feeling to know that there was a danger that we could neither see nor smell,” says Gerhard. Unlike the Wendland farmers on the left-hand side of the Elbe who heed warnings from the West German authorities and keep their livestock inside, the East German agricultural production cooperative (LPG) on the right-hand side of the Elbe continues to let its cows graze as if nothing has happened.

The Bolls’ hopes that the disaster would sway German public opinion on nuclear power are not realised, however. “The whole story was quickly branded a disaster at a ‘Russian reactor’ that could never happen here in the West,” says Bettina. Professor Jürgen Scheffran of the KlimaCampus at the University of Hamburg disagrees. He believes that the Chernobyl disaster made people in Germany aware of the risks of nuclear power. “Since then the majority of the population has had a negative view of nuclear energy,” he says. “The disaster also meant that the industry was not able to build as many power plants as planned.”

At any rate, Bettina no longer feels safe in Geesthacht and in 1989 she applies to emigrate to New Zealand. The Bolls’ application is accepted, but in the end they decide not to go. “New Zealand may not have any nuclear power plants or mid-range nuclear missiles, but the next nuclear testing ground is not so far from there either,” says Bettina. Instead, the couple choose to channel their fear of nuclear power into protesting against it.

27 October 1998: The first SPD-Green federal government coalition forms in Berlin.

The Bolls have high expectations of this government, and it does indeed manage to pass several important laws, including the Renewable Energy Act. But the Bolls also have plenty to be dissatisfied about, and feel that Gerhard Schröder’s Social Democratic Party (SPD) is not all that keen on phasing out nuclear power.

At an event in Lüneburg, Bettina enters into a heated debate with Jürgen Trittin, the federal environment minister. “I told him that it was nonsense to set up an interim storage facility at each nuclear power plant and that I would take him to court over it,” she said. In 2004 she is true to her word and goes to court over the interim storage facility at Krümmel. The €24,000 legal fees are covered by donations from sympathisers. However, her case is rejected by the court of first instance, and she does not have enough money left to mount an appeal.

28 June 2007: When a new turbine is started up at Krümmel nuclear power plant, a fire breaks out in the transformer. Vattenfall, which operates the plant, says that the security systems functioned as planned and that the plant was automatically shut down.

“Vattenfall was right. The power plant knew what it had to do and switched itself off of its own accord. It knew that its time was up,” says Bettina. In 2009, she joins Geesthacht town council as a member of the Green Party, and her husband follows in 2010. That same year, a new threat looms when plans are introduced for extending the lifetime of Germany’s nuclear power plants. The Bolls take to the streets once more.

24 April 2010: Around 100,000 demonstrators form a human chain around the Krümmel and Brunsbüttel nuclear power plants.

The Bolls organise the three-kilometre stretch between Krümmel and the Bergedorf district of Hamburg. A succession of incidents at the Krümmel plant and years of campaigning by local activists has led to a change in the public mood in Geesthacht. The Bolls are suddenly heralded as pioneers. The chain is three people deep at some points and includes many people they would never have expected to see there.

28 October 2010: The German Bundestag decides to extend the lifetime of Germany’s nuclear power plants. This includes Krümmel, but the plant remains shut down.


11 March 2011: A deadly accident takes place in the reactors at Fukushima power plant in Japan.

Gerhard vividly recalls that day. “I remember thinking straight away that this would not be easily solved and that a nuclear meltdown was taking place.” The Bolls contact radiation victims in Fukushima. “Their descriptions were very similar to those given by people from Chernobyl,” says Bettina. Since Fukushima, people have understood that nuclear disasters do not just take place in old Soviet reactors, but that nuclear energy can present a danger even in high-tech countries like Japan.

14 March 2011: German Chancellor Angela Merkel announces that the government is reversing its decision to extend the lifetime of Germany’s nuclear power plants. The Krümmel plant therefore remains off the grid.

On Easter Monday the Bolls organize a demonstration of 15,000 people in front of the Krümmel nuclear plant. At precisely 2 p.m., the demonstrators turn away from the plant and walk in the opposite direction. “Until then, we had always protested by the fence around the plant, but we wanted to consciously draw a line under that era,” says Bettina.

30 June 2011: The Bundestag passes a resolution to phase out nuclear energy in Germany by 2022. The motion passes with votes from the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), the Free Democratic Party (FDP), the Social Democratic Party (SPD), and the Green Party.

Despite the switch to renewables, known in Germany as the “Energiewende” or “energy transition”, Gerhard and Bettina do not feel that the struggle is over. They have fought for over 30 years for something that has now become common consensus, but, as they say, challenges remain: “We don’t know how we will get around the problem of nuclear waste. Future generations will be dealing with that for a long time to come,” says Gerhard. The couple now plan to campaign for the dismantling of the Krümmel nuclear power plant.

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