In the Shadow of the Reactors

Twenty-five years after the nuclear disaster in Chernobyl, the old fears are back -- and Austria again says no to nuclear power

On The Town | Sarah Rabl | May 2011

It is 6 p.m. on a mild Easter Monday in downtown Vienna. I slowly but steadily stroll up to Stephansplatz from Rotenturmstraße, watching children with their grandparents slurping some ice cream. I take a spoonful of the frozen treat while the sun warms my skin, and I decide that spring has finally come.

All of a sudden, the bright rays of sun are dimmed as a shadow passes over head.  It seems somehow right. A crowd is gathering to speak about our being plunged once again into a shadow of nuclear danger darkening the country. Austria is surrounded by 14 nuclear power plants, and after the recent accident in Fukushima, this all feels suddenly very immediate once again.

From the distance I spot an enormous stage set up on Stephansplatz, right opposite of the Haas Haus, covered in yellow and black lightening??? and welcoming dozens of protesters. Arriving in throngs from all the U-Bahn exits, from the Graben and Kärntnerstraße, the anti-nuclear activists march up raising their home-made banners high over head: "Truth instead of the Lies of the Atom Lobby"; "Turn it off Now!" or  "Get Out of Atomic Power!" and an array of banners by Global 2000, an Austrian environmental NGO that initiated the event. All the banners have one thing in common: demanding the immediate end to the use of nuclear energy.

But it is not only activists that are gathering under the cathedral, tourists and passer-bys alike stop and immediately engage in conversations.

"You see, I’m completely against nukes, it’s so dangerous," states a young Austrian student, while her friend counters fiercely shaking her head: "No, no it is such a clean form of energy!" before mingling with a bunch of demonstrators.

As for me, I feel slightly out of place. It is my first event of this kind, so I impatiently scan the vast space trying to find someone I might accidentally know. A student with a warm smile on his face comes over to me and hands me a huge yellow sticker with a reddish smiley on it saying "Youth Against Atomic Power" which I stick onto my black coat. Now I’m in uniform and  ready to mingle with the crowd.

The soft classical sounds of the Lucis Quartett of four Japanese students studying in Vienna, are playing in tribute to their fellow countrymen and victims of the nuclear disaster in Fukushima. It sets the emotional scene for the event and underline the psychological impact of the catastrophe. The chattering in the crowd fades with every cord and as Stephansplatz is plunged into applause, the host for the evening, Barbara Stöckl, enters the stage.

As she welcomes the activists and thanks them for their Zivilcourage an elderly man taps my shoulder, handing me a sheet of paper. Confused at first, I carefully read and suddenly understand – it is the demands of an anti-nuclear energy activist group. I emphasize with their anger; the demands seem like a schedule to change the world from one day to the other, to go without nuclear energy within no transition period. I remain skeptical. How could that be done? My mind keeps spinning around this idea, while the string quartet send Bach fugues echoing across the square. Dusk sets as the last cords fade. The reflections of the mass on the silvery facades of the Haas-Haus let me guess the number of people present. It is more than I expected, although the exact number will remain unknown. Some come and stay for a little while, others leave.

"On Apr. 25 1986, people did not know that this night would change their lives." announces Stöckl, letting her eyes scan the audience, an audience that has come to commemorate this very night in history. "Maybe it is not a coincidence that the Easter weekend and 25 years Chernobyl are at the same time. Sometimes it is necessary to believe in the unbelievable. There must not be an alternative to the nuclear phase-out!" A cheering crowd indicates their full support.

A diverse group of speakers has convened on stage: Despite representatives from Global 2000, the initiating organization of the event, and representatives from the catholic church, and the world of politics were on hand: Eva Glawischnig from the Austrian Green party next to Chancellor Werner Fayman from the SPÖ underlined that common interests supported by public demands can render ideological and political differences meaningless. Their message is the same – Austria does not need nuclear energy.

"It is the sad reality that people regard Austria as being "an island of the blessed" when it comes to not using nuclear energy. That is not entirely true: We are surrounded by 14 nuclear plants, and Austria is also importing nuclear energy.

"We are calling for a complete nuclear phase-out!" says Global 2000, Clubobmann Kastenbauer galvanizing the activists.

Under the patronage of the Stephansdom and a crystal clear sky, the Kundgebung took its end. The illuminating of 2000 candles in the form of the nuclear symbol with a 25 in the middle marked a touching ending-ceremony to commemorate those tragic events in history, where human error made the entire globe suffer. With the candles slowly burning down, the crowd dispersed, their demands would not fade so easily, however, highly resistant to pressures from the outside.

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