Driving right up to the safest nuclear power plant in the world

9w ago


I like to spend my spare time exploring interesting places around my (current) home by car. Right now, I live in Austria (even though that's about to change at some point in the near future as well. Austria is a beautiful country though. Many people spend their holidays hiking, skiing or mountain biking. Others simply come for the spectacular alpine roads and views. But since you can find articles and photos of these places all around the web, I wanted to show you "the one[s] less traveled by" (cheap Robert Frost reference, I know).

This may not be an entirely car-related article, but you guys seem to be interested in all kinds of tech and since electricity is about to play an even bigger role in future automotive design and demand for sustainable energy sources is rapidly growing, I wanted to share this with you.

All of you have heard about Chernobyl and Fukushima. They are stories of what can happen to any nuclear power plant in the world at any given time. Of course, technology has evolved since Chernobyl, but we are still talking about huge amounts of heat and radiation being controlled in concrete blocks all around the world. And we haven't even figured out what to do with the waste products of nuclear reactors. That's going to be a problem for generations to come!

And yes, my dear EV-friends, even your electricity is partly nuclear power. Even if your supplier insists on providing energy from sustainable sources, you should look up how power grid management works these days. It's always a mix of all sources involved. Yes, your country may not even have a nuclear power plant, but are you sure it's not importing power from elsewhere as well?

But let's get back into our car and take it to the action! It's about a 45-minute drive up along the Danube from Austria's capital Vienna. But to find the place, you really have to know what you are looking for. Only very few road signs hint towards the existence of a power plant. This was all I came across when my satnav told me I had only 500 meters to go to my destination: a good old Claas Dominator doing its summer duty before being converted back to a flame-throwing snowplow. (Top Gear series 16, episode 5 if you want to re-watch it)

There is no exclusion zone. No security. Nothing but a barbed wire fence around the property. When I arrived though, I found the gates wide open. So I did what every responsible person would have done and drove right in.

Now some of you may think, the place is simply deserted and I'm making this sound worse than it is. But then: There are people working there. I even saw someone fiddling around with a radiation suit. The power infrastructure seemed a bit small, but it was there. What is this place?

I stopped the car in the parking lot and took a couple of photos. There were some information panels explaining the history of the AKW Zwentendorf (AKW = Atomkraftwerk = nuclear power plant). But before I got the read them, I saw this digital display:

But this was actually counting the generator output of a solar power plant. Then I had another look at the roof of the building and I did find some solar panels around the edge of the tallest block.

Isn't it odd to put solar panels on a nuclear power plant?

Then I read the story and this is the quick version:

The Austrian government decided that nuclear power was a good idea, so they built a fully functional nuclear reactor starting construction in 1972. The people however disagreed with the government and protests quickly formed. In 1978, after the build was completed and before actually powering the reactor, Austrian chancellor Kreisky, who was convinced of a positive outcome, initiated a referendum about the reactor. Well, needless to say, it failed - by a 0.47% margin. (For some reason this referendum reminds me of Brexit, just with a more positive outcome...) And since 50.47% of the Austrian people were against it, the Austrian parliament introduced a law prohibiting nuclear power altogether in December 1978.

And remember: all of this was happening way before the catastrophe of Chernobyl!

So what do you do with a fully functional nuclear power plant? Well, the nuclear fuel was sold, the qualified workers found a job elsewhere and that was about it. But it's not just the fact that it never went into service that makes this place the safest nuclear reactor on the planet. It is now actually also used to train personnel for similar facilities. They can even train in areas where they could never train in a working environment and simulate scenarios to prevent accidents. All the infrastructure (apart from one turbine which was sold as a spare part) is still there, one of the guys told me.

To make good use of the power grid infrastructure that was already built, solar panels were fitted across the property. You can actually take part in a guided tour through the reactor as well, which is yet on my to-do-list. For those of you, who are also interested: www.zwentendorf.com/englisch/

In my opinion, the current way of generating nuclear power is not sustainable, so we need to get rid of it one way or another. But while we still have working reactors, we may as well make them as safe as possible. Maybe one day we'll come up with a better, safer and more sustainable version of nuclear reactors. Until then, Zwentendorf will draw its power from the sun and be there for you to visit!

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