In the history of nuclear power, there are four place names forever burned into the world’s collective memory. These are Fukushima in Japan, Chernobyl in the Ukraine, Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania and Zwentendorf in Austria.
The first three names are infamous because of the nuclear disasters that happened there. The fourth, Zwentendorf, has become immortalized as the place in which nuclear power was rejected.
Zwentendorf was the subject of the world’s first national nuclear power referendum, held in 1978, and was the location of the world’s first nuclear power plant to be completed, but never to have gone into operation due to public opposition.
The story began four decades ago, when the then-ruling Social Democratic Party of Austria (SPO) became unnerved, after an energy crisis in the 1970s, by Austria’s reliance on imported energy. Subsequently, the SPO initiated plans to construct three nuclear power plants.
Despite objections, such as protests at the planned site of the second plant at St Pantaleon — much like the protests by environmental activists and residents of New Taipei City’s (新北市 ) Gongliao District (貢寮) against the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant — protesters failed to orchestrate a national anti-nuclear movement.
Nevertheless, as the first plant, at Zwentendorf, neared completion, the dangers of nuclear power gradually morphed from being an abstract idea to an actual threat.
A group of mothers decided to take a stand, followed by experts who also began to voice reservations. The SPO decided to pump out propaganda highlighting the advantages of nuclear energy, but omitting mention of its dangers.
This plan backfired and instead united an initially disparate group of people, with little political common ground, in forming the Initiative of Austrian Nuclear Power Opponents.
This group quickly grew, attracting people from all walks of life to its cause. Gradually, the anti-nuclear movement moved from remote rural areas to Vienna and other major towns and cities in the country.
Some of the protesters started demanding a referendum.
Initially, there was little chance of this happening, but the SPO came to see it as a way to remove itself from responsibility if something did go wrong with the nuclear plants. After all, who could guarantee problems would not occur? As it turned out, the Three Mile Island meltdown was only one year down the road.
The issue was potentially politically toxic and the SPO did not want to exclusively take the blame. The party could not have known that the referendum result would be 49.5 percent for and 55.5 percent against the plant.
As the ruling SPO were in favor of the plant, the posed referendum question was positively expressed: “Do you agree with having the Zwentendorf nuclear power plant?”
Unlike other nations in Europe, which did not set any minimum voter participation threshold for a referendum to be declared valid, the Austrian government could not fall back on this as a way to influence the outcome of the vote.
After the referendum rejected the plant, the 14 billion Austrian schilling Zwentendorf Nuclear Power Plant was written off, and the planned second and third ones were left dead in the water.
Austria has kept its anti-nuclear policy ever since, becoming a model non-nuclear western European nation along with Norway and Denmark.
The world realized just how prescient the Austrian people had been eight years later when the Chernobyl nuclear disaster hit the headlines.
How will the name Gongliao go down in the history of nuclear power?
Lin Yu-hsiung is a professor in the College of Law at National Taiwan University.
Translated by Paul Cooper