The moment Austria turned
Peter Weish was a graduate student at the prestigious University of Vienna. He was supposed to be studying molecular biology but got pulled into the national referendum to stop the Zwentendorf reactor. It was Austria, it was 1978, and it would prove to be a defining moment in the nation’s political history, and it happened on a train.
Austria is a tiny country, currently with a mere 8.5 million people and a geographic size about that of South Carolina. It is also a country with tremendous self pride, especially in feats of engineering. In the early 1970s the Germans had jumped onto reactors in a big way, and Austria was doing what it could to catch up.
The Zwentendorf ground breaking was in 1972, immediately after construction began an earthquake destroyed the initial foundation which had to be laid again. And after 4 years and about a billion Euros (or the equivalent in Austrian Schillings at the time) the reactor was completed.
Opponents of the the widely popular reactor challenged it and the then Chancellor (like President) Bruno Kreisky decided to bet his political future on the project. He agreed to a referendum of the reactor complex which was nearly finished. Kreisky was a socialist. The labor unions were backing him and the project. Austrian heavy industry was backing the project. The technocrats, which the country has an abundance of, thought this was a lovely plan. What could go wrong?
Turned out it was the train from Salzburg to Vienna that changed history. On his train was the industrious Peter Weish, grad student at U of Vienna. He knew Austria’s only Nobel Prize winner, Konrad Lorenz, because he had taken a class from him. Lorenz was riding in first class, Weish walked through on his way to the dining car. Lorenz recognized him and asked what he was up to in Salzburg. An animated Weish told of the organizing work he was doing around stopping Zwentendorf. Lorenz and his wife were fascinated by Weiss’s thinking and critique. The story has it Lorenz paid for an upgrade to Weiss’s ticket so he could ride first class and continue his story.
At the end of story Weish mentioned that there would be a big rally in Vienna on Sunday. “We should go.” Konrad said to his wife. “And you should speak.” His wife advised.
Turns out in some things technocrats are the same the world over. Often when justifying their fantastically expensive adventures they turn to lines like “Oh it is too complex, you would not understand it, you should trust the experts, they will do the right thing.” Lorenz found this reasoning infuriating.
“If a scientist tells you something is too complex to explain they are either incompetent or lying. ” Lorenz boomed at the rally. It was a turning point for the country. If the most respected scientist in the land was saying the technocrats were misleading the public, then clearly the reactor should not be build.
The referendum was very tight. Over 60% of the country voted and 50.5% voted to stop the reactor. Within months of this vote, the Three Mile Island accident in the US occurred and many Austrians felt vindicated in their “no” vote.
But the amazing thing is that the country having been so divided, quickly became the most powerful and unified voice in the EU parliament for nuclear safety and blocking other reactor initiatives. It is thought the referendum woke up the whole country and gave it unified direction.