Zwentendorf - Factsheet

Extract of a paper presented at the second international Eurochernobyl seminar in Kiew, 21-25 April 1991, updated in February 1994.

Author: Peter Weish, Human Ecologist at the Vienna University, chairman of Anti Atom International

In the late 60s the Austrian government decided to start a nuclear energy program. A planning company for nuclear power plants (NPP) was established.

The German "Kraftwerks-uni-on" (AEG and SIEMENS) began the construction of the first nuclear power plant in Zwentendorf on the Danube, about 20 miles upstream of the capital, Vienna, in 1972. It was designed as a boiling water reactor with a capacity of 700 MW(e), that was expected to generate about 10 % of the Austrian electricity production.

In early 1974, a company was founded to build a second (NPP) in Austria. The small but steadily growing antinuclear movement, which had existed since the late sixties, now concen-trated its ef-forts on this second nuclear plant.

The major political parties - the ruling Socialist Party and the conservative People's Party (which at that time was the major opposition party) - were harmoniously pro-nuclear. Only the small opposition Liberal Party took a critical position with respect to nuclear power.

In 1975, the official energy plans projected that by 1985 there would be three nuclear power stations with a total capacity of 3000 MW.

In the winter of 1974, plans to begin construction of the second NPP were postponed, partly because the increase in electricity demand slowed down and partly because of the massive local protests against the project.

In autumn 1976 the government launched an information campaign about nuclear power with a view to justifying and palliating the nuclear program. The outcome however, was just the contrary. For the first time some newspa-pers featured articles critical of nuclear power, and the antinuclear movement was enormously stimulated. It turned out that, contrary to previous concepts, Austria could not "solve" its nuclear waste problem by export to other countries. The issue of nuclear waste storage stimulated massive local opposition in the regions proposed for that purpose. Newspapers be-gan to cover the nuclear issue extensively. For the first time it was possible to publicly que-stion in earnest the starting up of the almost completed plant in Zwentendorf without being branded as an utter idiot.
Many activities took place. In April 1977 for example, there was an International Conference for a Non-Nuclear Future , held in Salzburg, Austria, organised by several non-governmental organisations from different countries. The final document of this conference is still of high relevance.
In autumn 1977, big demonstrations in Zwentendorf and several Austrian cities took place. In December 1977 the opponents uncovered plans for secret fuel imports for the Zwentendorf reactor announcing acti-on to prevent the transport. To avoid trouble with opponents, the ship-ment was postponed to early 1978, and military helicopters were used to transport the fuel elements to the site, which was barricaded by police forces. It is important to note that all anti-nuclear demonstrations and activities in Austria have been completely non-violent.

Nuclear power in general and starting up the first nuclear plant in particular had become a burning political issue. The government passed the deci-sion on nuclear power on to parliament. The Socialists were sure they would come to a mutual agreement with the major opposition party because the latter's most influential groups were clearly in favour of nuclear power. A report on nuclear energy was submitted to parliament by the government. This report was presented as the summary of an impressive mass of written material and information which had accumulated in the information campaign. It was extremely pro-nuclear and biased and proved that the government had completely ignored a number of important facts that had come up in its own information campaign. The early charge by nuclear opponents that the official information campaign had been planned to deceive the public thus turned out to be true.

In the subsequent parliamentary hearings several questionable safety aspects of the Zwentendorf site and plant construction and also the lack of important studies (e.g., there was no radioecological expertise) were disclosed by nuclear opponents. The People's Party reconsidered its position. Its leader, Dr. Taus, declared that while he was still in favour of nuclear power, he was for the time being against the Zwentendorf nuclear plant because of a lack of safety in a number of aspects.

The anti-nuclear minority among voters was by now big enough to tilt any general election against any party that could be regarded as the culprit for putting Zwentendorf into operation. The Socialists under Chancellor Kreisky did not now dare to bring the decision before parlia-ment since support from the People's Party was uncertain and the Socialist MPs from the western most province (Vorarlberg) were not in a position to support their party's nuclear policy. The Vorarlbergers had just successfully fought a despe-ate fight against neighbouring Switzerland's Rüthi project; Switzerland prop-sed to construct a nuclear power station in the immediate proximity of the Austrian border. The Vorarlberg population was overwhelmingly anti-nuclear and fearing that the opening of an Austrian nuclear power station would weaken their negotiating position with Switzerland.

In June 1978 the Socialist Chancellor, Dr. Kreisky, who had earlier called the nuclear issue an extremely inappropriate one for a referendum, announced a referendum for November 5 declaring that he was sure there would be a clear majority in favour of nuclear power.

The pro-nuclear forces went into the battle with enormous backing. The state owned utilities alone spent AS 30 million (US$ 2 million) of taxpayer's money. Further tens of millions were poured into the campaign by the industrialists' association, by the trade union umbrella organisation and the Socialist Party. The anti-nuclear groups had only their own savings and their commitment at their disposal but their action was very effective. An impressive diversity of groups joined in, e.g. Mothers against Nuclear Power, Teachers against N.P., Physicists against N.P., Biologists, Geologist, Physicians, Pupils, Catholics, Artists, Trade Unionists against Nuclear Power and others. A number of coordination centres - one of them run by the Austrian Students' Union - and two umbrella organisations were established. Cooperation between scientists and citizen groups was excellent.

The nuclear problem was covered extensively in the large newspapers, where experts from several fields discussed the most important issues from all angles.

There was little hope for an anti-nuclear majority. But the unthinkable happened: on November 5, the referendum resulted in a narrow majority against the plant. Nearly two thirds of the voters went to the polls. Of these, 3.26 million 49.5 % voted for, 50.5 % against nuclear power. The enthusiasm and the dedication of the anti-nuclear movement had won, the propaganda machinery - and the pressure exerted by the establishment - were defeated. This was in itself a remarkable event in Austria's postwar history.

A tiny majority of less than 20.000 votes brought the rejection of nuclear energy in our country.

The (Socialist) government and the political parties reacted promptly: a few weeks after the referendum, on December 15, 1978, the Austrian parliament unanimously passed a law prohibiting the use of nuclear energy for the production of electricity in our country.

This democratic decision turned Austria from one of the last industrialised countries without nuclear power into the first industrialised country without nuclear power.

Only a few months after the referendum the accident at the Three Mile Island plant near Harrisburg, USA, occurred, and many people in our country realised that the No“ had been a wise decision.

Several initiatives have been made by the nuclear lobby, the electricity companies and trade unions to overcome the ban on Zwentendorf, but they have not succeeded. The definitive end of their dreams came with the Chernobyl accident.