Zwentendorf nuclear power plant
A genuine nuclear power plant in nuclear-free Austria
– and that's not a contradiction! The construction of the plant was just finished when Austria took the decision not to go down the nuclear path after all. So the spanking new power station at Zwentendorf never went operational. It has been a well-maintained "ruin" ever since. Sign up for a guided tour and you can even see the inside, including that of the reactor core. Unique in the world!
More background info: Since Austria is a nuclear-free country, it at first sounds like an April Fool's Day joke that it should have a fully-equipped nuclear power plant on its territory. But so it is. Explanation:
By the late 1960s, nuclear power generation was all the rage and was genuinely seen as the way forward to satisfy the world's growing energy needs. The use of the technology was already firmly established in Western countries like the USA
and, especially, France
. So in the early 1970s, Austria no longer wanted to lag behind and intended to jump on the nuclear bandwagon too.
The government actually planned to build four to six such atomic energy generating plants. The first one was to be that at Zwentendorf and it was commissioned in 1971, namely from a major German company (the big one beginning with S), which also built several plants of the same type within Germany
. Construction began on the banks of the Danube in 1972. Its design was of the BWR (boiling water reactor) type and planned to yield an output of ca. 700 megawatts.
However, Zwentendorf was to remain the only nuclear power plant in Austria
ever to be actually built to completion – but it was never switched on. How come?
During the second half of the 1970s, the anti-nukes movement (and environmental awareness in general) was gaining strength and momentum, especially in neighbouring Germany
. The often violent clashes between protesters and police regularly made the news.
So mainly in order to sanction the project properly, the then Austrian government under chancellor Bruno Kreisky decided to hold a referendum about its future and that of Austrian nuclear involvement. The chancellor confidently predicted a "yes" vote in favour of Zwentendorf and even put his own political career on the line for this, saying he would resign if it didn't go through. But it didn't. Very, very narrowly. The referendum held on 5 November 1978 ended with a "no" vote by a whisker: 49.53% voted "yes", 50.47% voted "no" – so less than one single per cent, or a mere 23,000 votes, made the difference.
The chancellor nevertheless did not stand by his word regarding his own career and did not resign, but the decision by the Austrian people (in the first referendum in Austria since WWII
!), narrow as it had been, was fully honoured. What is more, it was not only the end of Zwentendorf, but the end of all Austrian ambitions in the atomic world (a ruling that even became part of the constitution).
For a number of years, though, the plant was preserved and maintained in an operational state, at great expense, just in case public opinion should change again, i.e. from the point of view of the proponents: in case the people finally saw sense after all. But instead, support for nuclear energy was on the wane, especially in the wake of the Harrisburg
accident in 1979 and eventually the disaster of Chernobyl
in 1986, which for many was the final nail in the coffin for the whole nuclear energy idea.
The maintenance of Zwentendorf in such a state that it could potentially be activated had already ended shortly before Chernobyl, though. Mainly due to the high costs. All in all, Zwentendorf cost the country something in the region of a billion euros. All for nothing.
You may well ask this obvious question: why the hell did they spend all that money and complete the building of the plant first and only then ask the people if they actually wanted it, rather than asking first and then start building ... or not (and save the money). But that does not take into account the rapidly changing political context of that time. In fact, had the referendum been held in 1970, it would quite likely have ended in a "yes" vote. Also: had there not been delays, the plant could have been finished in 1976 already, and then would probably have become operational without a referendum.
So it was a combination of changing times and luck (bad luck on the part of the proponents, good luck for almost everybody else) that the story ended the way it did. Most Austrians are these days quite proud of themselves that "the Austrian people" prevented nuclear energy in their country and that this became a model for other countries. Without wanting to diminish that pride, it still remains the case that the story wasn't quite so simple and could easily have gone a completely different course.
has indeed to be praised for its energy policies since 1978, in particular its resumed focus on hydroelectric power generation, which today covers most of the country's energy needs. In Austria it is even possible to subscribe to completely "green" energy supply packages without any fossil fuel or nuclear components. Very commendable! (But of course this is helped by Austria's Alpine territory ... and its mountains' glaciers feeding its water supplies, at least for as long as they remain ... cf. Pasterze
and climate change
But back to Zwentendorf. It had really been as close as it could have been. The fuel rods had already been delivered to the plant and were poised to be activated. Now they had to be removed again. But at least there had never been any test runs and hence no radiation released at all, so it was at least easy to deal with the now redundant plant (unlike a similar case in the USA
, where a referendum also stopped the running of an already completed plant – but which due to test runs was irradiated so that subsequent dismantling costs made it one of the most expensive never used industrial sites ever).
As it had turned out that Zwentendorf had no future, hundreds of staff who had specifically been trained up for working at the plant, suddenly found themselves out of a job too, and with no prospect of a career that they had expected to see them through to their pensions. Instead they had to either retrain or move abroad. Some went on to work at Zwentendorf's sister plants in Germany
, others ended up working in the conventional thermal power plant constructed nearby to compensate for the loss of Zwentendorf, or in other parts of the energy industry.
It just seems quite ironic that Austria, though nuke-free itself now, is all the same surrounded by nuclear power plants in neighbouring countries, including a particularly dodgy one in the Czech Republic right near the border (as usual): Temelin (cf. Vojna).
After plans for possibly reactivating Zwentendorf were dropped in the mid-1980s, the site continued to be used by the industry nonetheless, namely as a source for spare parts and also as a training centre for staff at the equivalent plants in Germany
. Zwentendorf presented a unique opportunity for training and testing procedures at a real site, but without the risks of radiation and hence no need for expensive security measures, protective suits and the like. There are still training sessions conducted in parts of the plant, but now that Germany has begun its process of phasing out nuclear power too, this will probably come to an end at some stage as well.
The new owners of the whole Zwentendorf site (since 2005), the Lower Austrian energy provider EVN, have begun to push new uses of the premises and to test and promote alternative energy sources, in particular solar power panels. It can thus truthfully be said that Zwentendorf has to be not only the safest but also the "greenest nuclear power station in the world!"
And from a point of view of (dark) tourism, the best news is that since 2009 even public guided tours of the inside of the plant have been made available! This makes it a truly unique attraction for the nuclear tourist!
There are many (active) nuclear power stations that offer a visitor centre and even guided tours (cf. Kozloduy or Forsmark) – but none will take you into the "inner sanctum", as it were, i.e. into the actual reactor hall, since that's obviously too dangerous and too much of a security issue.
As Zwentendorf is the world's only complete nuclear power plant that was never in operation, it does offer this amazing insight … You can literally walk into parts of the plant that normally would be absolutely deadly with radiation, including the reactor core itself.
Of course, the crucial authentic elements are absent: no real fuel rods, and there's no water in the cooling pools either. But it's only because of this that you can see the rest of all the technology so up close.
However, you can only see all this if you can get a place on one of the (not very frequent and quickly booked up) guided tours on offer here – see below
But you may already have seen images of the inside of Zwentendorf on the TV, in particular in the reporting following the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan
in March 2011. Since the stricken reactors there were of a similar type to the one here at Zwentendorf, hundreds of TV and film crews from around the world suddenly began queueing up at the site and asked to film here. The management of Zwentendorf was inundated with such requests for many months. It was probably the busiest the site has ever been since its completion in the 1970s. How ironic!
You may also have seen movie scenes filmed on location at Zwentendorf, as the site has also served repeatedly as a film set, both for German ones (especially a TV production called "Restrisiko") and, astonishingly, for French ones too. The latest, "Grand Central" (by Rebecca Zlotowski, released in 2013), was even a love story set in/around a nuclear power plant (think metaphors like "radiating love" or "emotional meltdown").
Also somewhat ironically, the outdoor parts of the site have been used for music festivals – e.g. the Nuke Festival from 1999 to 2002 ... against the backdrop of the real hull of the nuke of Zwentendorf.
But for the dark tourist, Zwentendorf is simply a unique opportunity to see a complete nuclear site from top to bottom, in more detail and closer up than would be possible anywhere else in the world.
What there is to see: the full works of a nuclear power plant – including the inner core of the reactor. As a tourist site, that's totally unique in the world! All that at zero risk of radioactivity, since the plant has never been in operation.
Access is by guided tour only, though, and you have to sign up for these well in advance (see below
for details). I had been trying to get a place on such a tour for about two years without success. They were always booked up many months in advance, especially since Fukushima (see above
). But on 2 November 2013 I finally got to see it, namely on a special weekend "Open Day" held to mark the anniversary of the referendum that sealed the fate for Zwentendorf in 1978. For that occasion, several tours spread out over the weekend were offered and so it was comparatively easy to snatch a place.
As an extra bonus, a "nuclear jumble sale" ('AKW Flohmarkt') was also held, in which spare parts and other old "junk" from the plant were given away in return for donations to a cancer charity (how fitting!).
So it was an unusually busy day, with almost a party atmosphere. They even set up a room in which drinks and snacks were given away for free (alas, only sausages, so nothing suitable for vegetarians
– typically Austrian). All manner of information and PR material was laid out for free too. And in a large room in the former visitor centre an introductory film from the 1970s was shown as well. This documentary chronicling the construction of the plant had been made before the referendum, though, and hence ended with the very wrong prediction that Zwentendorf would lift Austria
into the Atomic Age ... famous last words ...
The following will describe the tour as I experienced it. The regular tours will most likely be very similar, even if the order of things shown may vary. The group sizes are always capped at 25 participants, and given that they are always booked up, that will be the number of people to be expected on any tour (unless you request a private one).
The tour began with an introductory talk inside the plant and then passes the inner security checkpoints and gates and the former changing rooms. Typical plant suits, including yellow (!) underwear were hanging from pegs for display too here.
The first highlight then was the old control centre
. It has the familiar look of a spaceship bridge in sci-fi films of the 60s or 70s. Indeed, seeing all that electronic technology of the late 1970s can even be funny or endearing, e.g. all those analogue meters, the telephones with circular dial plates or the old computers with floppy disk or even more "ancient exotic" memory media. On the tour, a technician, clad in the period plant suit and wearing a helmet, explained to the group the basic workings of the control centre. But I found it hard to concentrate on the narrative, too distracting is the close encounter with all this mesmerizing vintage technology (especially from a photography
point of view!).
Next we were led to the control rod insertion mechanism – i.e. directly under the reactor core! (Incidentally: that was another potential weakness of the Zwentendorf design if there had ever been a serious accident ... in other designs the control rods are inserted from the top so that gravity could be utilized as a backup component in case things went wrong, whereas at Zwentendorf gravity would have been a counterforce).
Many of the control rod inlets are exposed, only a few still have their electric motors for moving them in and out. Surrounding the control rod mechanism you can spot all manner of technology whose exact purpose largely remains a mystery to the non-expert – but that does not make them any less photogenic.
Some of the cable contacts hanging from the ceiling/walls have been protected by plastic bags and cotton balls to protect them from moisture that could cause corrosion. These are subtle indications that you are actually in a "museum" of sorts ... A much more obvious one is the very fact that you can stand here without wearing radiation-proof suits. That alone makes for a truly eerie atmosphere.
Most impressive, apart from the control rod block itself, however, I found those access hatches – heavy round steel doors that look like oversized submarine hatches. It is here that the whole experience is at its most science fiction-like!
The next stop on the tour required taking a lift to the very top part of the plant building: to the main reactor hall. It's a huge cavern, brightly neon-lit and at its heart are the fuel-rod changing mechanism and the spent-fuel cooling pool. You can climb onto the fuel-rod changing apparatus (called a "Katze", i.e. 'cat'). From here you can look straight down into the top of the reactor core.
The core is fully exposed, i.e. there is no water in the basin above it, nor in the spent-fuel holding basin next to it. Normally, water would have contained the radiation (which in turn would have given the water its typical eerie bluish hue). Of course, at Zwentendorf there are no real fuel rods in the core, so no water is required. That in turn allows a full, unobstructed and non-refracted clear view down into the reactor. Another totally unique highlight of the Zwentendorf site!
Next to the reactor basins, the lid that would normally have been placed on top of the reactor core during operation has been put on supports for display, high enough so that you can walk under it. It's a strange feeling standing under this massive contraption, knowing that it weighs a whopping 60 tons.
Various components of the reactor are on display here too, including control rods as well as fuel rods, both complete and half opened to show the actual uranium rods inside the bundles. Another technician was on hand to explain how it all worked ... or would have worked, had the plant ever been used for real.
A couple of floors down the staircase then took the group to a section by the upper portion of the primary containment vessel. That's the steel hull around the whole reactor pressure vessel and the associated technology. This floor is directly under the portion with the opening at the top in the reactor hall where the fuel rods would be inserted and changed when spent. At this level the steam and water flow would be controlled.
A round service access hatch in the primary containment vessel now stands permanently open, so you can peek inside.
From a small balcony on the opposite wall you can see down into the turbine hall.
Actually going down there was not part of the tour that I was on. And it wasn't clear if it's ever part of the public tours or whether access to the turbines is for officials and training staff only. But I didn't mind so much that we couldn't get close to the turbines. That part is not unique to nuclear power stations but rather a common feature of all electricity generation through steam turbines. So it is somewhat less exciting anyway.
Another top highlight followed, however, namely at a lower level of the primary containment vessel, where an access hole has been cut into its hull so that you can step straight into the condenser section inside. Nowhere else in the world would that even be physically possible. Normally this is a self-contained, water-filled part of the system. But without the water and the hole cut into the casing, you can just walk inside.
What you get to see there is possibly the strangest part of the entire tour: black tubes hang from the ceiling – which itself is invisible in the dark gloom. Some end in shiny steel condensers, which themselves look strangely other-worldly. This is really like being on a film set for another instalment of "Alien" or an episode of "Doctor Who" or some such science fiction. Totally mesmerizing.
And that was basically it. After this the group is walked back past the inner main security checkpoint, where you return your helmets (if you'd chosen to wear one – which at least for people of my height is advisable or else you'll bang your head on some of the narrow access hatches).
Back outside the plant, there is not that much more to see. There are a couple of rusting transformers and the beginning of the power lines that would have taken electricity generated at the plant into the national grid but which these days remain silent and idle.
So back through the outer gate and to the car park it will be from here – except when you're on one of those Open Days, when you could also go back to the "nuclear jumble sale" inside a service part of the reactor building.
Incidentally, if you come here without being signed up for a tour there's not much to see. There is a set of info panels outlining the history of the plant and its present and future uses. And a large-scale LED display presents the figure for the electricity generated by the solar panels on and next to the old plant.
But from the outside this is not an especially dark site at all. The plant building is of a rather plain design. If you're expecting the typical monstrous cooling towers, you'll be disappointed. Zwentendorf never had any (not necessary for this type of reactor design), only a sleek concrete chimney.
On the banks of the River Danube you can see the water inlets and outlets for the plant's water needs, but they are hardly spectacular to look at either. No, to really get what sets Zwentendorf so apart from any other nuclear site, you have to go on one of these guided tours of the interior.
The downside is, these tours are regularly only offered in German. Still, even if you don't know (much) German it's still worth going (there were several non-German speakers on my tour and they seemed pretty much as thrilled with it as the rest of us). Some of the guides will speak English to a degree so you can ask questions, but the actual commentary and the technical explanations will all be in German only.
To sum up: Zwentendorf is totally unique, and hence for anyone with at least a passing interest in anything nuclear it is an absolute must-see. But you'd have to plan very well ahead and book a tour in advance as soon as you can, and be prepared to wait. But if you can get on a tour I promise you it's a totally incredible one-off experience like no other anywhere on Earth. Absolutely outstanding!
on the banks of the river Danube in Lower Austria
, to the north-west of the village of the same name, which lies ca. 6 miles (10 km) to the west of the nearest bigger town on the Danube, Tulln.
Co-ordinates and Google maps locator:
Access and costs: quite restricted.
: Getting to the village of Zwentendorf isn't too difficult – there are buses from nearby Tulln, which can easily be reached from Vienna
by regular trains (from Franz-Josefs-Bahnhof). The buses are somewhat less regular (for exact times check on www.vor.at). From Zwentendorf village you can walk it. It's about a mile (1.5 km) – orientation is easy, just follow the landmark of the plant's tall chimney (just don't get it confused with that of the conventional power station Dürnrohr further inland to the south).
You could also cycle there (e.g. from Tulln) – as the plant lies directly on the cycle path that runs along the southern Danube bank.
Obviously a car would provide the easiest access: from Tulln follow the L112 road west, which roughly follows the course of the Danube upstream and passes through Zwentendorf village. Shortly after leaving the village on the L112 in the direction of Traismauer, a side street is signposted "AKW Zwentendorf" and will lead you along the access road straight to the plant gate and the car park. The address is: Sonnenweg 1, 3435 Zwentendorf.
The nuclear power plant can be viewed from the outside at all times. However, to see the inside of the power plant you need to be on a guided tour and these are not particularly frequent: They take place only one day a week, namely each Friday at 1 p.m. and 3:15 p.m. – and you have to sign up ahead of time. Very well ahead of time, in fact! The tours are typically booked up many months in advance (usually between three and eight months ahead!). So it takes quite a bit of determination to get to go on one.
So far tours are apparently offered only in German (for English the website says "visits are only possible in exceptional cases" – you'd have to enquire).
So access is really quite restricted. But the guided tours as such are at least free of charge if you can get a place on one of the scheduled tours.
Otherwise you have to arrange a private tour
– and these are seriously expensive (ca. 600 EUR). But the compromise is to share the cost between a group. (I can help in organizing such a group visit
– contact me!)
In addition to the regular tours, there have also been Open Days in some years, namely to mark the anniversaries of the referendum that ended nuclear power in Austria. So they typically take place in early November (I went on 2 Nov 2013). On those days dozens of tours are offered during a whole weekend, which gives those interested a lot more convenience, choice and a much better chance of getting a place on one of these tours. But you still have to sign up in advance.
There will probably be more Open Days in the years to come – you can follow what's going on by monitoring the Zwentendorf plant's own website (zwentendorf.com) or, if you can read German, it's best to sign up for the newsletter to be kept up to date automatically.
Time required: Tours nominally last about an hour and a half to two hours, but can (happily) overrun beyond that. Also add a little extra time for viewing the site from the outside … and of course for getting there.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
– the immediate vicinity does not offer anything else for the dark tourist. Going back to Vienna
is probably the best thing the dark tourist can do. If you have your own car, you could also plough on westwards to Mauthausen
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
In general see Austria
– to the west of Zwentendorf, just beyond Krems, lies one of the country's most picturesque areas, the Wachau stretch of the Danube, famous not only for its magnificent scenery, picturesque villages and castles, but also for the quality of its wine (and indeed I would rank some of them at the very top, worldwide! – see food & drink
Nearby Tulln to the east is also worth a look, especially for those into the works of artist Egon Schiele, who was born here. The town's Schiele museum – housed in a former prison (!!) – is possibly Tulln's premier sight. On the much quirkier side, there's also a "sugar museum" (as Tulln is also home to the country's largest sugar factory).
And of course the splendours of Vienna
aren't far away either, if it's more culture in a bigger city setting that you're after.
- Zwentendorf 02 - at the gate to the plant
- Zwentendorf 03 - visitor centre in the foreground
- Zwentendorf 05 - outer security gate
- Zwentendorf 06 - outside info panel with a picture of the very content-looking caretaker
- Zwentendorf 07 - these days they are into solar power
- Zwentendorf 08 - current clean energy production
- Zwentendorf 09 - open day open gate
- Zwentendorf 10 - security gate to the inner sanctum
- Zwentendorf 11 - clothing that was to be worn inside
- Zwentendorf 12 - yellow underwear
- Zwentendorf 13 - control room
- Zwentendorf 14 - 11th hour
- Zwentendorf 15 - control rod status display
- Zwentendorf 16 - control rod controls
- Zwentendorf 17 - just follow the coloured lines
- Zwentendorf 18 - analogue meters
- Zwentendorf 19 - old electronics
- Zwentendorf 20 - ancient memory media
- Zwentendorf 21 - ancient phone
- Zwentendorf 22 - I wonder if you would know what to do with that red button
- Zwentendorf 23 - redundant expertise
- Zwentendorf 24 - very narrow referendum decision
- Zwentendorf 25 - as time goes by
- Zwentendorf 26 - main hatch to the control rod machine room
- Zwentendorf 27 - standing directly under the control rods
- Zwentendorf 28 - control rod inlets
- Zwentendorf 29 - pipes, labels and wheels
- Zwentendorf 30a - contacts protected from moisture
- Zwentendorf 30b - valves of some sort
- Zwentendorf 31 - super-secure hatches
- Zwentendorf 32 - hatches like in a big submarine
- Zwentendorf 33 - see no evil, speak no evil, hear no evil
- Zwentendorf 34a - in the main reactor hall at the top
- Zwentendorf 34b - a combination that is hard to enforce in Austria
- Zwentendorf 35 - fuel rod changing device
- Zwentendorf 36 - the basin above the reactor
- Zwentendorf 37 - view down into the reactor
- Zwentendorf 38 - exposed top of the reactor core
- Zwentendorf 39 - reactor lid
- Zwentendorf 40 - under the reactor lid
- Zwentendorf 41 - inner top of the reactor lid
- Zwentendorf 42 - reactor hall with parts exposed for display
- Zwentendorf 43 - fuel and control rods explained
- Zwentendorf 44 - nuclear tunnel vision
- Zwentendorf 45 - diagrams of the system
- Zwentendorf 46 - empty cooling basin
- Zwentendorf 47 - another cool piece of old machinery
- Zwentendorf 48 - top of the inner containment casing
- Zwentendorf 49a - sensors on the inner containment vessel
- Zwentendorf 49b - pipes galore
- Zwentendorf 50 - opened hatch allowing a look into the containment vessel
- Zwentendorf 51 - looking into the reactor
- Zwentendorf 52 - another view into the reactor
- Zwentendorf 53 - technology of the 1970s
- Zwentendorf 54 - between the inner and outer containment hulls
- Zwentendorf 55 - this is how reinforced the conrete of the walls is here
- Zwentendorf 56 - only here you can even walk into the condenser section
- Zwentendorf 57 - ladder into the reactor core
- Zwentendorf 58 - pipes down into the condenser section
- Zwentendorf 59 - eerie
- Zwentendorf 60 - condensers
- Zwentendorf 61 - heavy metal
- Zwentendorf 62 - former inlet
- Zwentendorf 63 - pipes with and without condenser
- Zwentendorf 64 - steam controls
- Zwentendorf 65 - turbine hall
- Zwentendorf 66 - exposed turbine
- Zwentendorf 67 - whole body radiation measuring device by the exit
- Zwentendorf 68 - no electricty going out
- Zwentendorf 69 - last of its kind left
- Zwentendorf 70 - water in- and outlet by the Danube
- Zwentendorf 71 - jumble sale on the open day
- Zwentendorf 72 - nuclear jumble sale
- Zwentendorf 73 - old gear in the jumble sale
- Zwentendorf 74 - star-wars-like screws
- Zwentendorf 75 - shoe covers
- Zwentendorf AKW