"So, you have come to see the world's first nuclear museum," said Walter Roznovsky with a tight smile.
Roznovsky had just welcomed me to the Tullnerfeld Nuclear Power Station, a clump of gleaming steel buildings set in the midst of freshly plowed sugar-beet fields about 25 miles up the Danube from Vienna. The 692-megawatt power plant, completed in 1977, can produce almost enough electricity to light the glittering Austrian capital. But today, more than two years after construction was finished, Tullnerfeld has yet to light a single 25-watt bulb.
The power station instead is in the process of being embalmed -- victim of a peculiar sequence of events that, almost like a runaway fission reaction, saw Austria in December 1978 become the first (and thus far only) country to enact a law banning the use of atomic energy to produce electricity. Since that time, technicians here have been taking apart components they so carefully put together and packing them with lubricants on the chance that Austria will someday change its mind.
It is a depressing exercise, for with each step they take to "conserve" Tullnerfeld, they render the possibility of its operating ever more remote.
"In 1978, we were ready to go," said Alfred A. Nentwich, director of the company set up to build and run Austria's first atomic power plant. "The entire staff was assembled, trained -- we could have been fully operational in six months. Now, even with a go, our guess is it would take us a year and half just to get back to the status of 1978."
In the meantime, Tullnerfeld has very much taken on a museum air. Walking into the control room, I found two men, who might well have been the shift chief and an operator, standing behind the operators' console, closely watching a cluster of white lights blink on and off on the huge monitoring panel. The tableau was museum-perfect -- a nuclear power station in operation. But for Nentwich, the appearance belied the cruel reality. The two men, he said, were an electrician and a mechanic. And the blinking lights? "Ah," said Nentwich, "they are for the central heating and the fire-fighting equipment -- the only systems in operation."
A tour of the rest of the nuclear power station was even more eerie, the only sound that of equipment which pushes hot dry air through the piping. "The whole idea now is to avoid corrosion," said Nentwich. We took an elevator to an upper level of the reactor building, and Nentwich noted that the fuel elements containing the slightly enriched uranium needed to run this boiling-water type nuclear reactor -- all 484 fuel elements -- were already on hand. "Down there," Nentwich said, pointing to an area covered with a plastic sheet, "is the first core, with an energy capacity as great as the entire oil reserves that we have in our country."
The fact that Austria does not have anything appealing in the way of energy alternatives makes Tullnerfeld all the more of a paradox. Historically, Austria has relied heavily on hydroelectric power, but it has now gone just about as far as possible in exploiting the country's rivers and streams. With electricity demand continuing to grow at a rate of about 4 percent, Austria has been forced increasingly to turn to coal, gas and oil. Today, as a result, Austria's own resources meet only about one-third of the country's energy needs. It thus has become more and more dependent on imports -- buying about half of its present needs from eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.
The idea of moving toward greater energy independence through nuclear power thus must have seemed like an appealing one when the government decided to build Tullnerfeld at the start of the 1970s. And as construction got under way and world oil prices began to soar, the decision began to look positively prescient. Austria began making plans for a second nuclear power plant, to be followed by a third.
Ironically, it was the second atomic power station -- scheduled for construction in Upper Austria -- that ultimately became the undoing of Tullnerfeld. The Tullnerfeld plant itself had run into no serious opposition from its neighbors. The site, officials noted happily, was set down in the midst of the enormous holdings of an Austrian baron. Since the baron owned the lush land along both banks of the Danube, he controlled the fishing rights to that stretch of the river, so officials said there wasn't even any debate over whether the plant's plans to discharge cooling water into the river would warm the Danube and harm fishing.
The company set up to build Austria's second atomic power station, however, was not as fortunate. The citizens of Upper Austria collected 60,000 signatures on a petition opposing plans to locate a nuclear plant in that area, and the government of Socialist Chancellor Bruno Kreisky hastily backed down. It was at this point that the Austrian government had a well-intentioned -- if ultimately fatal -- idea. To forestall development of any opposition to the construction of Tullnerfeld, the government would mount a nuclear engergy information campaign.
The results were a nightmare for a consensus politician like Kreisky. The Austrians who seemed most interested in attending the government's informational meetings were anti-nuclear demonstrators, who shouted their slogans, heckled the speakers and turned the effort to convey information about nuclear power into a debacle. Anti-nuclear forces also began making a major issue of waste disposal. What was the government going to do with the used-up fuel when it came out of the reactors? Certainly, none of Austria's provinces wanted radioactive waste stored in its area. In growing desperation, Kreisky's government began negotiating first with Iran and then Egypt to build facilities to accept Austria's radioactive waste, offering to foot the entire bill for a joint waste disposal project if either of these countries would just let Austria ship its waste off to a convenient desert.
With public concern over nuclear power mounting, Kreisky finally decided he had to get this issue out of the way before a general election. So he called a referendum on nuclear power for November 1978, the first referendum of Austria's postwar history.
"This was a brilliant idea, asking the Austrian man in the street to weigh the pros and cons of nuclear energy as opposed to other types of energy," sniped an Austrian official. Even so, it almost worked. Both Kreisky's Socialists and many members of the opposition People's Party, which was in office when Tullnerfeld was launched, basically favored nuclear power. Only the tiny right-wing Freedom Party was militantly opposed.
The turning point, however, came two weeks before the referendum, when it began to appear that nuclear power would win. On Oct. 23, 1978, Kreisky announced that a vote for atomic energy would be an endorsement of him personally. Whatever the level of their understanding of nuclear power, many Austrians understood all too well the game that Kreisky was trying to play. On election day, many members of the People's Party who favored nuclear power voted "no" to Kreisky -- and Tullnerfeld. The result: a narrow 1,606,308 to 1,576,839 defeat.
With Kreisky now primarily worried about saving his own political skin (ironically, he won the following year's general election handily), the chain reaction against nuclear power raced on. The government, eager to align itself with the referendum majority, immediately proposed legislation banning the use of nuclear energy to produce electricity in Austria. Parliament quickly adopted the law, unanimously.
The first question that arose with the new law was what to do about Tullnerfeld. The plant represented, after all, a 9-billion shilling ($700 million) investment, and now by law could never operate.
Anti-nuclear campaigners were eager to have it dismantled as quickly as possible, and sold off piece by piece. "That would have been the worst thing to do," said Nentwich. Nevertheless, while he was able to "conserve" all of the physical parts of the plant on the site, he was not able to prevent the breakup of the 200-member team he had assembled to run it. The first to depart were the control-room operators, who had spent two years training in the United States, Switzerland and West Germany.
A second widely discussed idea was to convert Tullnerfeld from a nuclear to a coal-fired power plant. But that proposal, on close inspection, did not look very attractive. "Look," says Nentwich, "you can do anything. I could convert it into a hospital. But there are only a few parts you can use." Even the huge turbine at Tullnerfeld would have required major modifications for use with a coal power station.
So the decision was finally made to "conserve" Tullnerfeld, though for what nobody was really prepared to say. This option -- the combination of putting a $700-million atomic power plant into storage and buying elsewhere the energy it would have produced -- is proving costly in several ways.
"First," said Friedrich Staudinger, financial director of the company that owns Tullnerfeld, "the utilities that had planned on the power have to continue using some of their gas-fired and oil-fired plants. These are old plants. In addition, they are importing electricity. Between paying the interest and capital on Tullnerfeld and the cost of buying the electricity it is not providing, it is running 2 billion shillings a year."
In effect, Austria's decision to build and not operate a nuclear power plant is thus costing it $250,000 a day. Little wonder that when an Austrian official went to Saudi Arabia several months ago seeking concessions on oil, the Saudis told him that a country so rich that it could discard a brand-new atomic power station should look elsewhere for sympathy.
So where is Austria looking for its future electricity?
Plans have been made to build a new coal-fired power station about a mile and a half from Tullnerfeld. The first of two units, each of which will produce about half the power of the atomic station, is projected to be ready by 1983. Austria is planning to buy coal for the new power plant from Poland.
But this proposal, too, may be headed for trouble. Environmental opposition to the idea of building a new coal-fired power plant only 25 miles from Vienna has recently started to grow. The building controversy has been fueled by publication of a 66-page study, ordered by the Vienna city government, concluding that prevailing winds would blow the sulfur dioxide produced by a coal plant at Tullnerfeld directly toward Vienna, and that this could result in a 2.9 percent increase in deaths from lung cancer.
Some Austrian government officials feel, perhaps a bit too hopefully, that mounting concern over the dangers of coal could yet bring nuclear power back to life. After all, they argue, Austria is hardly in a position to isolate itself -- even if it wanted to -- from nuclear power's risks and benefits. All of the countries that surround Austria -- Switzerland, West Germany, Italy, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia and Hungary -- either have or are planning to build nuclear power stations.
In a bit of irony, residents of the province of Vorarlberg in the far west of Austria, who voted heavily against nuclear power in the referendum (84.4 percent "no"), get most of their electricity from atomic power stations in Switzerland.Those who voted most strongly in favor of nuclear power, the citizens of Burgenland in the east (59.8 percent "yes"), live close to one of the more worrisome types of atomic power plant -- an early facility built by the Soviet Union in Bohunice, Czechoslovakia, which lacks an outer containment that would prevent the spread of radiation in the event of an accident.
Backers of nuclear energy in Austria also took heart from last Sunday's referendum in Sweden, where voters overwhelmingly rejected a proposal to phase out that country's atomic power stations.
But whatever the level of interest in the Austrian government in reviving the nuclear energy option, the major political parties appear to have locked themselves into an agreement that a two-thirds majority in parliament would be required to authorize any new referendum. A group is trying, however, to gather the 10,000 signatures needed to put the question of a new referendum before the parliament. It is slow work. Unlike in the United States, a person signing such a petition in Austria must accompany the circulator to the town hall to have his signature certified.
Even if the petition makes it to parliament, there seems little hope that a new referendum will be scheduled this year. At Tullnerfeld, however, officials cling to all straws. "There still is no real alternative to this power station," said Nentwich. "I am still somewhat optimistic." A gleam came into his eyes as he went on. "You know, the plant as it stands is absolutely up to the moment in safety. We went through the Kemeny report [the report of the U.S. Presidential Commission on Three Mile Island] and I didn't find anything we had not already done. To my knowledge, nothing has to be changed to operate."
Nothing, perhaps, except the minds of the Austrian parliament and the Austrian people. At that suggestion, Nentwich's enthusiasm dimmed. "It will take a lot of time to change this attitude again," he said finally. And for the moment, the struggle is not being helped by the recent arrival in Vienna's theaters of a new movie -- "The China Syndrome."