Zwentendorf and the Austrian Anti-Nuclear Movement

William Buchanan
February 6, 2019

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2018

The Zwentendorf Nuclear Plant

Fig. 1: The Austrian anti-nuclear movement gained traction among students, who led protests outside of the Zwentendorf plant. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

In 1972, the Austrian government permitted the construction a nuclear power plant along the Danube River, north-west of Vienna near the town of Zwentendorf. In the late 1960s, European governments planned massive expansions of nuclear energy production for the coming decade. This commitment to nuclear energy was further cemented by the 1973 oil crisis and growing energy consumption, which led the Austrian government under Chancellor Bruno Kreisky to strengthen its nuclear stance. [1] In Austria, three nuclear reactors were planned to be built, with the plant at Zwentendorf being the first. After the first permit was issued, construction started immediately on the boiling-water plant rated at 730 MW. Construction was wrapping up in 1977, and the Austrian government began a media campaign highlighting the benefits and safety of nuclear energy before the reactor's commissioning. However, this came at an inopportune moment, as a strong anti-nuclear movement developed during the 1970s.

The 1978 Referendum

Small-scale protests took place in Austria in the early 70s as Switzerland proposed building a reactor near the Austrian-Swiss border. However, these regional protest movements were given a national platform through the government's new informational campaign, which included public forums and debates held at universities across Austria. The anti-nuclear campaign turned into a nationwide movement among students groups (Fig. 1). On the day of the last public discussion before commissioning in June 1977, over 8,000 protestors held a demonstration in Zwentendorf near the site of the newly-finished reactor. [2]

In 1978, the government held a referendum on the future of nuclear power. This came as a surprise to many, as although the both public and political elite were divided on the nuclear question, the government was dominated by the Austrian Social Democrats who were strong supporters of nuclear energy. The referendum to stop the development of nuclear power passed by an extremely small margin, and the Zwentendorf plant was never commissioned. However, the extent to which this was a reaction against nuclear energy is debated, as Chancellor Kriesky promised to resign in the referendum did not pass, giving his political opponents a reason to vote against nuclear energy. After voters decided against nuclear power, the government passed a law forbidding the use of nuclear fission for energy production. To this day, Austria has no plans to change the current law or open any nuclear energy facilities, but the completed Zwentendorf plant has remained more or less intact, with some of the parts sold to German nuclear firms but the overall facility still in pristine condition.

© William Buchanan. The author warrants that the work is the author's own and that Stanford University provided no input other than typesetting and referencing guidelines. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] H. Hirsch and H. Nowotny, "Information and Opposition in Austrian Nuclear Energy Policy," Minerva 15, 316 (1977).

[2] Wolfgang Müller and Paul Thurner, The Politics of Nuclear Energy in Western Europe (Oxford University Press, 2017).