Austrian nuclar policy under the ÖVP-FPÖ government

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 

Little has changed in Austria's nuclear policy since the SPÖ(Social Democrat)-ÖVP(Christian Democrat) coalition was replaced by an ÖVP-FPÖ(Freedom Party) government in February this year.

(534.5200) PLAGE - The real big chance for Austria to influence the course of international nuclear policy was before and at the Helsinki summit on EU enlargement. This unique chance was miserably given away despite excellent preparation. Austria's isolation due to the nationalist "Freedom" Party's entry into government led to a standstill of activity. As the isolation seemed to somewhat fade away, some life is getting back into official Austrian nuclear policy. It is the antinuclear groups as well as regional parliaments and governments that kept "the flame burning" during the standstill. Funding of antinuclear NGO activities has been maintained at about the same level as under the former government.

In recent years, real cornerstones of a consistent official antinuclear policy by the Austrian government had been laid as a result of years of NGO work: in particular, the July 1998 new Nuclear Liability Law; the July 1999 Law for a Nuclear-Free Austria (as a part of the Constitution); and the July 1999 Antinuclear Government Action Plan, i.e. the practical policy guidelines and steps to be taken on the basis of the two laws and of several important all-party parliamentary resolutions (see WISE News Communique 515, AAI Page: "New 'Action Plan' of the Austrian government" ). This provided the Austrian (SPÖ-ÖVP) government with a sufficiently sound, coherent argument to take a sober, but firm position on nuclear issues during the preparatory talks to the December 1999 Helsinki summit on EU enlargement and during the summit itself.

Nuclear power, the FPÖ & Haider

In the seventies, the big governing parties, SPÖ and ÖVP, were advocates of nuclear power and wanted Austria's first nuclear power plant at Zwentendorf. The FPÖ, much smaller in size and still with liberal policies then, was the only party in Parliament that opposed nuclear power. A 1978 referendum had made Zwentendorf the first and last and non-operating NPP with 50.47% "no" votes. In a SPÖ-FPÖ government coalition at the beginning of the 80's, it was Vice-Chancellor Norbert Steger (FPÖ) who upheld the 1978 referendum "no" against heavy pressure from the SPÖ to topple that result through a second referendum. FPÖ party chief Steger, who was clearly more a liberal than a nationalist, was later on defeated and ousted by Jörg Haider.

Under Haider and now under Ms Riess-Passer, the FPÖ has remained strongly antinuclear. But with a few exceptions, FPÖ politicians often seem little interested in arguments, the loud and populist stance prevails. Back in 1983-84, Haider demanded a remake of the 1978 referendum while party leader Steger and active antinuclear groups desperately struggled to keep the floodgates tight against this. At that time, joining the chorus (SPÖ, large ÖVP portions, the Industrialists' Union, the big ÖGB Workers' Union) for a second referendum clearly meant to play the game of the pronuclear lobby (knowing full well that they would not be taken off guard once again and would very likely win thanks to their overwhelming financial resources). That is a very early example of Haider's populist, or opportunist, character, licking the heels of the industry at a time when Austrians as a whole were highly uncertain whether their narrow "no" to Zwentendorf had been the right decision.

Haider and the FPÖ have really become big at a time when the Austrian population, after Chernobyl (1986), was already welded together in antinuclear consensus. And ever since, Haider, too, has taken a strong stand against civil nuclear plants. At present, no other influential Austrian politician puts it so plainly: "Either the Czech Republic won't start up Temelin, or it won't get into the EU." He is of course also playing on nationalist sentiments. On the other hand, SPÖ and ÖVP and their previous coalition government could have taken such a clear, determined stand, too, without playing on the nationalist or xenophobic drum.

However, right after the 1999 Law and Plan had been endorsed by Parliament and the Government, members of the latter started an amazing slalom off the white Alpine slopes: one day it was the Chancellor conceding there would be "certainly no veto to starting EU enlargement negotiations with the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Lithuania, Bulgaria if they fail to declare that they will comply with NPP closure dates they formerly promised"; next day it was "Austria does maintain the option of vetoing..." by the Consumers and Nuclear Affairs Minister, of the same coalition party as the Chancellor; and maybe a minister from the other of the two parties saying more or less the opposite; then one official would say one thing in Vienna, while another would say a different thing in Brussels; senior officials were reported to make concessions behind the EU scenes that their ministers, at least officially, hadn't endorsed or allowed. You can imagine the mess.

Thus the anti-nuclear position patiently built up over years was wrecked by the former SPÖ-ÖVP government within weeks. There was a feeling of paralysis creeping around among Austrian antinuclear organizations. It was obvious that there would be next to no sense e.g. in pursuing AAI's (Anti Atom International) Non-Nuclear Countries Coalition (NoNuC) efforts on the official international level in the foreseeable future.

For instance: the Temelin case
That was the situation with the old government. With the new government in February this year, the situation worsened to almost hopeless as far as international antinuclear activities were concerned. While the ÖVP-FPÖ government did declare its commitment to the former coalition's Antinuclear Action Plan, it was nearly paralysed in practical external policy. As the severity of the country's international isolation slowly faded away, the new government gradually scrambled back on its feet, in the nuclear and other fields of international policy. And NGOs, after the stunned initial moment, got back to pressuring the government and the Parliament. After the big Helsinki opportunity to generally tighten EU nuclear safety and operation criteria was given away (see above), we are, however, back to bilateral issues, i.e. conflict about individual nuclear plants.

The most important among these is the Temelin NPP conflict with the Czech Republic. Here, under pressure from public opinion, NGOs and several federal regions (especially Upper Austria which is nearest to Temelin), chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel (ÖVP) finally declared at the end of August that Austria would block the Czech Republic's EU accession negotiations in the energy chapter if long-standing minimum conditions were not fulfilled by the Czech national utility CEZ and the Czech authorities (e.g. access to all relevant safety documents, which has constantly been refused so far; no reactor start-up before the whole Temelin NPP environmental impact assessment procedure is carried out, with a possibility for Austrian citizen and NGO participation; etc.). This strong stand by the government in Vienna comes "one minute before twelve", instead of much earlier, when completion of the Temelin NPP was still a long way off. At that time, as Foreign Affairs minister of the former SPÖ-ÖVP government, Mr Schüssel had repeatedly softened and weakened Austria's official position on the matter. So should Austrians be glad that at long last the present chancellor takes a stand that his predecessor SPÖ chancellor Viktor Klima could and should have taken but didn't, when Schüssel himself didn't take it then, and now does so when it is almost too late?

A mixture of light and dark
So the ÖVP-FPÖ picture is a mixture of light and dark in many other respects of nuclear and energy policy, too - and in this again resembles the SPÖ-ÖVP coalition policy a lot:

  • Like the previous one, the present government unambiguously opposes nuclear power as a solution to the global climate problem: In November in The Hague, Austria will be among the countries that want to exclude nuclear energy from the Clean Development Mechanism.
  • Nuclear power imports have been rapidly growing: ca. 1.5% of Austria's electricity consumption was of nuclear origin before liberalization, and Austria's "clean" hydropower exports then outweighed by far the nuclear portion in overall import. At present, nuclear power imports seem to account for around 12.5% of the country's consumption. While this development is due to a lack of environmental provisions within the EU liberalization framework and not specific of the present ÖVP-FPÖ government, it is a perversity of Austrian antinuclear policy that governments past and present and their coalition partners SPÖ, ÖVP and FPÖ have constantly avoided debating with the NGOs and the Greens, who have warned about this ever since the EU accession debate began in this country more than ten years ago.
  • But again, there is some light on the horizon: the new Austrian electricity law (ElWOG) contains a provision (§13) which allows the government to reject contracts for electricity from power plants outside the European Union that are not "state-of-the-art" (see WISE News Communique 531, In brief: "Luxembourg bans electricity imports from the East"). While this provision is hypocritical in itself since it does not apply to EU power facilities that are not "state-of-the-art", it could at least put a brake on nuclear power dumping from Eastern Europe.
  • However, at least one of the nine regional utilities, Wienstrom, has evaded the ElWOG provision with the complicity of the Ministry of Economic Affairs, and is importing nuclear electricity from CEZ. This electricity was declared to be from hydropower, but Czech hydropower is relatively expensive, with generating costs higher than the price Wienstrom was paying. As a result, CEZ was accused of dumping. In reply, the Czech Prime Minister Zeman and CEZ were forced to admit that the electricity actually came from the Dukovany nuclear power plant.
  • Such double-dealing has led to increasing pressure on Austrian utilities and authorities to tackle the long-standing scandal of overt and hidden subsidies for nuclear electricity in the EU. In his answer to a demand by the Salzburg Platform Against Nuclear Perils (PLAGE), the Federation for the Protection of Nature (ÖNB) and others, the head of the supervisory board of the Salzburg City Utility writes that the Austrian utilities are in fact "examining the possibility" of legal proceedings at the EU level against such distortions of competition rules. And more concretely still, and as a spin-off from the anti-Temelin movement, the Upper Austrian public utility Energie AG has announced it will file suit against electricity dumping by the would-be Temelin operator CEZ. Hopefully, this could spark the first broad debate, and conflict, within EU institutions on competition rules, subsidies, privileges and true cost in the electricity sector.

Source and contact: Heinz Stockinger at PLAGE (Plattform gegen Atomgefahren), c/o Arenbergstrasse 10, 5020 Salzburg, Austria
Tel: +43-662-643567; Fax: +43-662-643734