When Austrians aren’t relaxing on the laurels of their social welfare state (minimum 25 days of vacation a year plus 13 public holidays, anyone?), they are vigorously protesting atomic power. The gemütlich Austrian people are so atom averse that back in the 1970s they voted in a referendum to liquidate a nuclear power plant that was already built rather than let it go online (at a cost of about €1 billion). Politicians were quick to pick up what the Volk was putting down and wasted no time in drafting a atomic ban that was eventually elevated to the status of a federal constitutional law for an atom-free Austria.
So it’s easy to understand why hassling its neighbor the Czech Republic over its sovereign decision to operate its own nuclear reactor with roadblocks at border crossings and invasive monitoring isn’t just an Austrian national pastime, but also official policy: border blockades are the democratic expression of the “right of freedom of opinion and of assembly” and “it has always been [the Austrian] position that the safety of Temelin is not solely the concern of the Austrian population.” (The Czechs were no doubt slow to appreciate their stake in their own affairs prior to this enlightenment.)
And so it was with bated breath that I opened this week’s Austrian news magazine profil to read the interview with top nuclear watchdog (Hey, I can place sole emphasis on safeguards and verification while studiously ignoring the pillars of safety and security and science and technology with the best of them!) Mohamed ElBaradei where he had the following to say (my own translation):
Question: [What’s your position on Temelin]?
Answer: Atomic energy will become an ever more important energy source in the future at the global level. China for instance by 2020 will produce five times as much atomic energy as it does today. We are experiencing an increasingly uncertain energy supply from oil and gas. And then there’s the problem of climate change. Already six of Austria’s seven neighbors have nuclear power plants. I would advise the Austrians not to focus on the fact that nuclear power plants exist but on their safety.
Question: The overwhelming majority of Austrians is against atomic energy as a matter of principle.
Answer: These days being an opponent of atomic energy accomplishes absolutely nothing. For the next 20 to 30 years you will be surrounded by nuclear power plants. At the end of the day it doesn’t matter if the plants are in Austria or on the border to Austria. We at the IAEA make sure that the best possible safety and security measures are implemented. I would like to assure the Austrians that the reactors surrounding Austria have nothing to do with Chernobyl. Of course there’s no 100% guarantee. It’s like flying–it’s very safe but there’s always an element of risk. I don’t worry about Temelin in the slightest. I can say that with a clear conscience because I live here in Austria.
That’s what I like about ElBaradei–he’s eminently reasonable.