Several miles west of this country town, down a sandy road and around a bend in the woods, is a clearing that has become the rallying ground for West Germany's anti-nuclear power movement -- and for a potentially nasty confrontation.
Tonight, police were reported converging on the area to dislodge more than a thousand protesters who for more than a month have occupied the site, which the government hopes to turn into a nuclear waste storage site.
Taking a lesson from the antinuclear sit-ins at Seabrook, N.H., young german protesters have gone a step further to stage what might be described as a "village-in."
Practically overnight, demonstrators put up a pioneer-style village of huts and tents, using abandoned logs, slivers of wood, strips of canvas, panes of glass and other bits and pieces.
At first encounter the place looks almost medieval, a sort of backfield at a jousting tournament with pennants of various colors and designs strung on thin poles and fluttering above assorted dwellings. The pennants carry the emblems of West Germany's ragtag but widespread antinuclear groups.
"This is our biggest success," observed Birgit, 30, a schoolteacher from Hamburg, who gave no last name. "We have all been able to come together here, groups that have never worked together before, to demonstrate in a passive way."
While makeshift in appearance, with a certain carnival atmosphere, the colony has all the features of a permanent settlement. It includes a church, a friendship house, stores, a health unit information office, even a stand that sells, for $6, a passport to become a citizen of the "Free Republic of Wendland," named after the local district. The passport proclaims itself valid for "the whole universe" and for "as long as the bearer can still laugh."
Government authorities are not laughing. Underneath the village, to be a prime container for radioactive leftovers from atomic power plants.
The protesters do not believe that. They quote experts who say salt is not an especially safe wrapping for the storage of nuclear garbage. Advocates of the project quote experts who say the opposite.
Debate over the potential dangers of nuclear energy has raged in this region for three years. So far, the anti-nuclear groups are winning.
The state government of Lower Saxony, bowing to public concern, a year ago postponed indefinitely plans to build the country's first nuclear reprocessing plant here. The project was to have been the world's largest commercial nuclear complex.
By shelving it, state officials dealt a setback to West Germany's overall plans to move cautiously ahead with the country's already large nuclear power program. However the Christian Democratic state governor, Ernst Albrecht, made clear at the time that test drilling would continue in order to see if the area was safe for an underground waste disposal facility.
The latest episode has pit local politicians, who favor limited nuclear involvement for the economic development it promises to bring their county, against citizen action groups who say anything nuclear is too risky, and area farmers who fear that a nuclear dump in the neighborhood will hurt sales of their crops.
Federal and state officials had hoped to avoid just this sort of wrangle by selecting this spot. It is an out-of-the-way location tucked into the northeast corner of the country, on the border with East Germany, not easily accessible by road or rail and dominated by agriculture.
The local population has dropped by nearly a third, to 49,000 during the past three decades as families and young workers left in search of jobs. Now neighbors and friends stand divided, sometimes bitterly so, over whether having a piece of the nuclear action will be the county's salvation or its curse.
West Germany's nuclear power program, the fifth-largest such program in the world, has been virtually stagnant for the past three years, as courts and local governments have supported both environmental claims and public concerns. No new plants have been authorized in those years.
West Germany has 15 nuclear power plants that supply about 3 percent of the total energy consumption, and eight others under construction that eventually will boost the figure to about 7.5 percent. The country has all but abandoned its original 1985 goal of 24 plants supplying 10 percent of the nation's energy needs.
While Chancellor Helmut Schmidt has made clear his view that nuclear energy is indispensable over the long haul for heavily industrialized and resource-short West Germany, a large faction within his Social Democratic Party, including the party's youth wing, opposes nuclear power.
Authorities now face the delicate task of removing the illegal village at
Authorities now face the delicate task of removing the illegal village at gorleben without provoking a violent battle, a deadline for the demonstrators to vacate the site peaceably expired on Sunday.