Zwentendorf, The Nuclear Power Plant That Was Never Turned On

Apr 6, 2021 0 comments

The Zwentendorf Nuclear Power Plant, located on the bank of the Danube River, about 20 miles northwest of Vienna, is Austria’s only nuclear power plant. It was completed in 1978, loaded with fuel, and ready to start up. But then, the country decided that it didn’t trust nuclear energy anymore, and the project was mothballed. It is the only completely finished nuclear reactor that never went online.

Photo: Isaak/Flickr

The Zwentendorf plant was intended to be the first of three nuclear plants approved by the Austrian government in the late 1960s. With a capacity of 700 MW, it was expected to fulfill about one tenth of Austria’s electricity demand.

Construction of the plant started in 1972, and between that year and 1978, the year it was completed, approximately a billion dollars were spent in its construction. The commitment to nuclear energy was fierce, and this allegiance was further cemented by the 1973 oil crisis, which led Chancellor Bruno Kreisky to strengthen his stance on nuclear power.

The Zwentendorf power plant was designed as a boiling water reactor with a single cooling circuit, meaning that the reactor core heats water which then turns to steam and this radioactive steam leaves the reactor hall to drive the turbines. Zwentendorf did not have the typical cooling towers of a nuclear power plant since it was designed to cool the steam with the water of the Danube river. Although it was meant to be state-of-the-art at that time, the reactor suffered from many security design flaws, such as the emergency backup power being placed outside and thus vulnerable to flooding. Two power plants in Germany with the same design as Zwentendorf have already been shut down permanently by mechanical problems.

Photo: Raimund Appel/Flickr

The Zwentendorf plant had a troubled beginning. Scarcely two weeks had passed after ground was broken, when a powerful earthquake hit the region damaging the power plant’s foundation, which had to be torn down and new concrete was poured. Then, during a Danube flood, water seeped into its containment vessel, indicating the presence of leakages which meant that in the event of a meltdown, the groundwater would not be protected from contamination. Furthermore, no plans were made for the disposal of nuclear waste. The original idea had been to bury it in deep under the Alps, but the villages at the chosen site vehemently protested. The Austrians tried selling the waste to Hungary, Egypt, and China, for reuse, but all refused.

With mounting criticism to nuclear power, the government was forced to hold a referendum to decide whether to start the Zwentendorf plant. On November 5, 1978, 1.6 million people voted against the nuclear power plant, representing 50.5 percent of the voters. The win margin was narrow, but the difference was enough to seal the fate of the power plant.

A visitor inspects the control panel on the control room of the Zwentendorf power plant. Photo: Raimund Appel/Flickr

For the next seven years, until 1985, the power plant was kept in working condition, should the mind of the people change. But the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl in 1986 dashed any hopes of operating the plant ever again. Soon after the incident, the government began partially dismantling the power plant. Some parts were sold to German nuclear firms but the overall facility is still in pristine condition. The plant’s current owner uses the complex as a security training center and occasionally leases it out to event organizers and movie producers to use it as a movie backdrop.

# Donella Meadows, Zwentendorf, A Nuclear Plant that Will Never Be Turned On, Donella Meadows
# Joshua Koeb, Nuclear Power Plant Zwentendorf, Nonument
# William Buchanan, Zwentendorf and the Austrian Anti-Nuclear Movement, Stanford
# Stefan Probst, Tour through the non-operative Nuclear Powerplant “Zwentendorf”, Stefan Probst


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