By then, even the fuel rods—which fuel the reactor—had arrived at Zwentendorf. The company that built the plant, GKT, couldn’t believe what had happened, says Zach. “They thought the politicians would change their mind.” For seven years, he adds, GKT spent 500 million euros keeping the nuclear power plant on standby and paid 200 employees to go to work every day.

But Austria’s nuclear position became entrenched. One month after the referendum, the country passed a law prohibiting the generation of nuclear energy in Austria. Now, Zach says Zwetendorf has paid for its own upkeep by hosting training for German engineers who need to learn how to close down active power plants. Greenpeace activists, who once protested at Zwentendorf gates, now use the site to learn how to occupy power plants elsewhere, says Zach. A “hard dance” music festival is also held next to the power plant every year. 

Austria has been racing to find alternatives to Russian gas—which made up 80 percent of its gas supplies before the war in Ukraine. But even if Austrian attitudes to nuclear power radically changed, it would be impossible to resurrect Zwentendorf as an energy source because of recent modifications, like a door cut into the nuclear reactor so visitors can see inside. Instead Gewessler, the energy minister and Green party politician, preferred to propose reopening Austria’s mothballed coal power plants to guard against blackouts this winter—a suggestion that was rejected in parliament. “I would never say opening a coal power plant is a good option. It’s a terrible option, but it’s an emergency measure,” she tells WIRED.

Long-term, Austria is aiming to run 100 percent on renewables by 2030. Wind, solar, and hydro power currently account for 77 percent of the country’s power generation. “You cannot be in politics in Austria and be pro-nuclear,” says Patricia Lorenz, an antinuclear campaigner with the environmental group Friends of the Earth Europe. 

Austria is now agitating to spread its antinuclear message on an EU level. Officials have criticized nuclear power plants not just in Slovakia, but also in other neighboring countries, including the Czech Republic and Hungary. On New Year’s Eve 2021, the European Commission released a proposal which defined nuclear as well as natural gas as “green investments.” In response, Austria launched a legal challenge, calling for the inclusion of the two energy sources to be annulled. “Neither nuclear energy nor fossil gas are green investments,” says Gewesseler.

Zwentendorf and Mochovce demonstrate the extremes of Europe’s nuclear power debate. But between those extremes, it’s messy. The EU might have agreed to become the first climate-neutral continent by 2050, but consensus on how that will happen remains elusive. Weish, the Austrian scientist, believes there’s a lot more debating to be done. “The EU needs to have the debate Austria had back in the 1970s,” he says.

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