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How Chernobyl Led to Austria’s Nuclear-Free Utopia

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If envy is a deadly sin then many of us were guilty of it last month when we congregated in Manchester, England.  We were there for the Beyond Nuclear conference on the terrible legacies of the Chernobyl and Fukushima nuclear disasters.  (The fifth anniversary of Japan’s Fukushima nuclear accident was March 11.  The 30th anniversary of Chernobyl is April 26.)

It began with a hefty dose of Mancunian envy.  Manchester, it turned out, was and is “The Radical City.”  On day one we visited the historic Manchester Town Hall, where presentations were made to some of the 95 city council members, every last one of whom is a member of the Labour party.

In the entranceway, radical Mancunian women had “yarnbombed” four of the exclusively male statues with crocheted masks representing a quartet of Manchester’s top female boffins.  Scenes from the Harry Potter films, we learned, were filmed in the Victorian gothic building.

The mosaic floors feature images of bees — a nod to the city’s industrious past — and cotton flowers.  Cotton milling was the region’s big industry, but when the U.S. Civil War broke out, Manchester chose to boycott imports of cotton from the pro-slavery South, at great sacrifice to jobs and livelihoods at home.  A statue of Abraham Lincoln stands in the square outside, a gift of thanks to the city.

The Trades Union Congress started — and is still headquartered — in Manchester.  The modern cooperative movement began in nearby Rochdale.

The atom was first split here, in 1917, by Ernest Rutherford, (although in our group this was not necessarily a cause for pride or cheer).

Manchester has the first Gay Village in Europe.  There are 200 different languages spoken in Manchester, making it the third most ethnically diverse city in the world.

But all this evaporated into a meaningless miasma as soon as we met the Austrians.

After hearing presentations by two representatives from that country, we confronted our own nations’ lamentable anti-nuclear inadequacy by wallowing in extreme Austria Envy.

Even the wonders of Germany’s wonderful Energiewende, ably articulated by Angelika Claussen of IPPNW Germany, were eclipsed once the Austrians got started.

As we learned from David Reinberger, from the Vienna Ombuds-Office and Cities for a Nuclear Free Europe Network, and from Reinhard Uhrig, who is German but lives and works in Vienna with Global 2000 and Friends of the Earth, Austria is a kind of nuclear-free Utopia.

Nuclear power plants are banned in Austria under the country’s constitution after a 1978 referendum.  (Yes, Virginia, it is actually illegal to build nuclear power plants there.)

Nuclear weapons are also banned.  So is the storage of nuclear waste.

Transportation through Austria of civil or military nuclear materials or waste has been outlawed.  Any attempt to revive nuclear power in that country cannot happen without a national referendum.

Austria has taken strong action against the proposed new Hinkley C reactor in England by filing a legal challenge at the European court of justice against EU-granted state subsidies which would be lavished on the $35 billion boondoggle by the British government.

Austria’s chancellor, Werner Faymann, spoke out against nuclear energy during the COP21 climate talks in Paris last December.  Nuclear energy is not included in the climate agreements made there.

Austria’s Director for Arms Control, Nonproliferation, and Disarmament, Alexander Kmentt, is leading the call for global nuclear weapons abolition at the United Nations.

Not content simply with a nuclear-free Austria, the Vienna-based Cities For A Nuclear Free Europe is demanding “an immediate Europe-wide moratorium on nuclear power plant construction (including plants that are already under construction).”

Uhrig and Reinberger attributed this Austrian atomic enlightenment in large part to the legacy of the radioactive plume from Chernobyl.  Austria, it turns out, was and remains something of a hot spot.

“Thirty percent of the land in Austria was contaminated,” explained Uhrig, recalling the April 26, 1986 disaster in Ukraine.  Radiation contamination levels were found to be “740,000 becquerels per meter, the same as Belarus,” the hardest hit of the former Soviet countries.

“Chernobyl is roughly 1,000 kilometers away so people were shocked at how many counteractive measures were necessary in 1986,” said Reinberger, who trained as a physicist.  These included “removing and replacing sand in playgrounds, restrictions on the consumption of vegetables, fruit, milk, mushrooms and game, and the canceling of outdoor activities at schools,” he said.

After that, any official efforts to claim nuclear power was safe met with more than a little skepticism from the Austrian population.  And they continue to feel the effects of Chernobyl today, Reinberger said.

“There are still significant findings of cesium-137 in mushrooms, wild boar, and roe deer in some regions of Austria, at levels up to 10 times higher than the limits for food,” he said.

In rejecting nuclear power, Austrians, did learn the lessons of Chernobyl that other countries shun.  Better still, the country has turned its attention to renewable energy and could go “100 percent renewable by 2030,” Uhrig said.

This message resonates with the public and even in the press which actually listens to the anti-nuclear crowd.  “The media covers us,” Uhrig said, evoking yet more envy.  We have good contacts.  We stay in touch.”

The same is true for government ministers.  Because Austria is such a small country, Uhrig can have a beer — or two — with top government officials.  There is one, he says, with whom he drinks, “even though we don’t agree on anything at all.”  But keeping those channels open clearly allows the Austrian government to stay in touch with the pulse of the people.  And for now, that pulse beats for no nukes.

When it was all over, and on the advice of council (not a typo) — specifically Edinburgh City Councillor, Nick Gardner — André Larivière of the Réseau sortir du nucléaire and I joined him at a cool bar in Manchester’s Northern Quarter called Matt and Phred’s.  There, for a truly tiny cover charge, we were treated to a parade of extraordinarily talented jazz(ish) bands comprised of students from the Manchester Royal Northern College of Music.  We could have been at Montreux.

Since André and I were about three times the age of the performers, (and practically everyone else in the bar), we assumed (hoped) we would be taken for the parents of one of these musical prodigies.  If that were indeed the case, how would we react to such glorious achievement?  We would not be envious, we agreed, but proud.  I imagine that’s about how the Austrians feel. They should.

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Linda Pentz Gunter is the international specialist at Beyond Nuclear. She also serves as director of media and development. 

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