A Tale of Two Nuclear Plants Reveals Europe’s Energy Divide

Dec 13, 2022 7:00 AM

A Tale of Two Nuclear Plants Reveals Europe's Energy Divide

An upgraded power plant in Slovakia has angered neighboring Austria and fueled the debate over nuclear power and independence from Russian gas.

view of Mochovce nuclear power station in Slovakia.

The Mochovce nuclear power plant in Slovakia.Photograph: Stefan Sutka/Getty Images

A forest of wind turbines rises out of the fields on both sides of the highway running east out of Vienna. But at the border with Slovakia, which stretches between Austria and Ukraine, they stop. Slovakia gets only 0.4 percent of its energy from wind and solar. Instead it is betting its energy transition on nuclear power.

At the center of Slovakia's nuclear strategy is the Mochovce power plant, an orange and red building flanked by eight giant cooling chimneys. There used to be a village here, before the Soviet Union relocated it to make space for the power plant in the 1980s. All that remains is a small boarded-up church. Cars slide in and out of the guarded security gate, and the cooling chimneys belch a stream of water vapor out into the sky. Inside, workers are preparing a new reactor—where nuclear fission will take place—for launch in early 2023. The 471-megawatt unit, which spent years mired in controversy, is expected to cover 13 percent of the country’s electricity needs, making Slovakia self-sufficient, according to Branislav Strýček, CEO of Slovenské Elektrárne, the company that runs the plant. Slovakia is expected to reach that milestone as its European neighbors scramble for energy supplies after cutting ties with Russia, a major exporter of natural gas.


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Without Russian gas, Europe has been racing to avoid blackouts. Every day, Paris is turning off the Eiffel Tower’s lights an hour early, Cologne has dimmed its street lights, and Switzerland is considering a ban on electric cars. Nuclear power advocates, like Strýček, are using this moment to argue that Europe needs nuclear technology to keep the lights on without jeopardizing net-zero targets. “It provides an immense amount of secure, predictable, stable baseload, which renewables are not able to provide,” he said at the World Utilities Congress in June.

The energy crisis is not a deal breaker in Europe’s nuclear debate, but in some countries it is boosting the pro-nuclear side of the argument, says Lukas Bunsen, head of research at consultancy Aurora Energy Research. Since Russia invaded Ukraine, Germany has announced it will keep the country’s three remaining nuclear power plants open until April 2023. Belgium proposed to keep its nuclear plants running for another 10 years. In October, Poland signed a deal with the US company Westinghouse to build its first nuclear power plant.

But Europe remains deeply divided on the use of nuclear power. Of the European Union’s 27 member states, 13 generate nuclear power, while 14 do not. “It’s still a very national debate,” says Bunsen. That means public attitudes can drastically change from one side of a border to the other. Surveys show that 60 percent of Slovakians believe nuclear power is safe, while 70 percent of their neighbors in Austria are against it being used at all—the country has no active nuclear plants.

For the two neighbors, Mochovce has become a focal point in the debate over how Europe should transition away from fossil fuels. To supporters in Slovakia, Mochovce’s expansion—the launch of Unit Three is expected to be followed two years later by Unit Four—demonstrates how even a small country can become an energy heavyweight. Unit Three will make Slovakia the second-largest producer of nuclear power in the EU, after France. But neighboring Austrians cannot ignore what they consider to be the drawbacks: the mammoth costs associated with building or improving aging facilities, the problems associated with disposing of nuclear waste, and the sector’s reliance on Moscow for uranium, the fuel which powers the reactor. Last year, the EU imported one fifth of its uranium from Russia.

For years, politicians and activists in Austria have also alleged that Mochovce is not safe, with local newspapers using maps to illustrate how close Mochovce is to Vienna: just 150 kilometers. “It's a Soviet design from the 1980s, without a proper containment,” claims Reinhard Uhrig, an antinuclear campaigner with Austrian environmental group GLOBAL 2000. The containment is one of a series of safety systems that prevents radioactive material being released into the environment in case of an accident. “Apart from these inherent design problems, there have been major issues with the quality control of the works,” he says, describing nuclear power as a dangerous distraction from real solutions to the climate crisis.

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Concerns in Austria about Mochovce’s safety were exacerbated by Mario Zadra, an engineer turned whistleblower who worked on Mochovce units Three and Four between 2009 and 2018. Zadra alleges the plant’s emergency diesel generators were suffering serious technical issues and cooling towers fundamental for safety were built with the wrong material. “Other components important for safety, like the main steam isolation valves, were in a shameful condition,” says Zadra, whose video and photo evidence have been verified by GLOBAL 2000. Since Zadra and other whistleblowers went public in 2018, Mochovce has been accused of corruption, raided by police, and inspected by the International Atomic Energy Agency. “I'm sure things have improved since the inspections,” Zadra says, but he still doesn’t believe the plant is safe due to what he calls the company’s “poor safety culture.” Slovenské Elektrárne declined to comment.

Despite Zadra’s allegations, organized opposition to Mochovce’s expansion inside Slovakia is almost nonexistent. The local branch of Greenpeace does not run any campaigns against nuclear power, and the only local environmental group interested in nuclear power, We Want a Health Country (Chceme Zdravú Krajinu), focuses on the industry that imports radioactive waste from overseas. We are “neither antinuclear or pronuclear,” says its director Michal Daniška.

“Slovakia is a very pro-nuclear country, especially the people who live around nuclear power stations,” says Martin Venhart, vice president of the Slovak Academy of Sciences. “The main reason is typically these power stations employ a lot of people. Nearly everyone knows someone or has a close relative that works in the power station.” Slovenské Elektrárne claims the plant has created 15,000 jobs.

Instead, fierce opposition to Mochovce originates outside the country. “Of course we respect national sovereignty,” says Austria’s energy minister, Leonore Gewessler. “But with nuclear in our neighborhood, we feel obliged to voice our concerns.” Asked if she believes Mochovce is safe, she reiterates: “We have strong concerns.”

Slovak nuclear scientists have described Austria’s allegations as “nonsense.” “Our nuclear power plants are safe,” says Venhart, adding that they are monitored by the International Energy Association. “There is no rational reason for thinking that our nuclear power plants are more dangerous than the French or German.”

If Mochovce’s expansion represents Slovakia’s attitude to nuclear power, then the Zwentendorf plant does the same for Austria. Less than three hours' drive from Mochovce, it is the world's only nuclear power plant to have been completed but never used. The building’s ugly gray facade towers over the Danube river, which slowly trudges past on its way toward Vienna. Unlike Mochovce, this place is eerily quiet. The security hut at the power plant’s entrance gate is empty, and the only activity is in a small room where two cleaners, an electrician, and the power plant’s one full-time member of staff huddle around a small table drinking coffee out of a machine. Since the power plant was finished in 1976, this place has sat empty.

The company that now owns the building, the Austrian electricity company EVN, maintains the power plant as a monument to the country’s staunch antinuclear views. Stepping into Zwentendorf is like stepping back in time. More than 90 percent of the plant’s original equipment is still here. Rows of white ceramic sinks and showers, where workers should have washed off radiation, remain unused but in place. Even the toilets ooze '70s decor, with brown and white paisley tiles.

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The man in charge of the plant, EVN’s Stefan Zach, was 13 when Zwentendorf was caught in a political maelstrom, and he remembers his parents debating the issue at home. Through the '70s, Zwentendorf was at the center of billboard campaigns, protests, even hunger strikes. “I was concerned about genetic effects and the long-term effects of radioactive waste,” says Peter Weish, an Austrian scientist and environmental activist who took part in the anti-Zwentendorf protests. After years of debate, Austrians were given a chance to vote on Zwentendorf’s future in a 1978 referendum. In a surprise twist, the pro-nuclear government lost. It was close. Less than 30,000 votes decided Zwentendorf’s fate.

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.

Morgan Meaker is a senior writer at WIRED covering European business. Before that, she was a technology reporter at The Telegraph and also worked for Dutch magazine De Correspondent. In 2019 she won Technology Journalist of the Year at the Words by Women Awards. She was born in Scotland, lives… Read more
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