Society

Austria's 1970s-Era “Ghost” Plant That Never Opened, Now A Global Symbol Of Nuclear Resistance

Long before Fukushima, or even Chernobyl, Austrians pulled the plug on nuclear power with a 1978 referendum. The physical legacy of that narrow vote is a completed - but never used - power plant called Zwentendorf, now open to the public.

E.ON has already unplugged several of its nuclear facilities
Austria's abandoned Zwentendorf nuclear power plant
Joëlle Stolz

ZWENTENDORF, Austria – Finding the Zwentendorf is no easy task. Located south of the Danube, about an hour's drive from Vienna, the abandoned nuclear power plant is tucked away in a rural landscape that looks almost fake. Cold and concrete, the building is a mausoleum of sorts, a monument to Austria's thwarted nuclear ambitions, which died on the vine thanks to a 1978 referendum.

Nowadays this same area of lower Austria features an almost complete range of energy alternatives -- projects that presumably would not have been needed had the Zwentendorf been allowed to operate. There is a hydroelectric plant, a bio-ethanol station operated by the multinational sugar company Agrana, and plenty of solar panels. There is also a waste incinerator built opposite the abandoned nuclear plant.

Back in 1978, the rest of the world commiserated with Austria – which had invested millions in the project and was suddenly obliged to give up its dreams of joining the nuclear elite. But since Japan's Fukushima nuclear disaster, people are now looking at Austria as a pioneer. Austria's chancellor, Werner Fayman, recently called for "a major public debate on nuclear energy not just in Europe, but in the world as a whole."

Awakened by the Japanese nuclear crisis, journalists and inquiring minds are looking not just at the 33-year-old referendum, but at the physical legacy of that vote: the Zwentendorf. There, visitors can see the same kind of pressurized water reactor as the ones Westinghouse made for Fukushima. Except that Zwentendorf's was built between 1972 and 1976 by the German firm Siemens, and uses a technology that is supposed to be "three times safer," says Stephan Zach, a spokesperson with EVN, the Austrian energy company that bought the facility and recently opened it to the public.

EVN acquired Zwentendorf "because it was a piece of Austrian history," said Zach. The company's goal was turn it into a symbol of Austria's decision to reject nuclear power and embrace renewable energy sources.

A spooky maze, private parties

Polls suggest an overwhelming majority of Austrians support investment in renewable energy sources, which already meet 27% of the country's electricity needs. In the European Union as a whole, renewables account for just 9% of the power grid.

For now, visitors mainly focus on Zwentendorf's spooky entrails. Inside the old plant is a maze of metallic pipes, gloomy corridors and blind alleys. Abandoned radiation suits hang at the entrance like ghosts of bygone times.

Perched precariously on a metal platform that stretches across a 40-meter-deep fuel pit, one man explains the workings of the facility to two German film directors looking for locations. Except for a recent visit by film star Dolph Lundgren, Hollywood has yet to take much notice of Zwentendorf. The facility has, however, become a popular place for private parties, for which EVN occasionally rents out the space.

Nevertheless, most people continue to associate Zwentendorf with the 1978 referendum battle. "The state and the industries imposed their choice as if it was an unquestionable necessity," Freda Meissner-Blau, 85, recalls. Meissner-Blau represented the Green Party in the 1986 presidential election, which she lost to conservative Kurt Waldhein.

In the early 1970s, Meissner-Blau was "euphoric about nuclear power." Quite by accident, however, she stumbled upon the thorny issue of nuclear waste while translating documents for Euratom. That was enough to change her mind and join the anti-nuclear movement, which had been launched by doctors and scientists and was supported by Nobel prize-winning biologist Konrad Lorenz.

The Chancellor at the time, Social Democrat Bruno Kreisky, planned to build seven nuclear plants. The idea enjoyed backing from the Conservative party, business leaders and unions. Aware of the nuclear waste issue, however, Kreisky inquired with Iran and China about possible solutions. In the end he agreed to organize a referendum, which he lost by a narrow margin.

Meissner-Blau recalls: "It was unbelievable: we had won against all the big powers."

Read the original story in French (paywall).

Photo - egm

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Economy

Air Next: How A Crypto Scam Collapsed On A Single Spelling Mistake

It is today a proven fraud, nailed by the French stock market watchdog: Air Next resorted to a full range of dubious practices to raise money but the simplest of errors exposed the scam and limited the damage to investors.

Sky is the crypto limit

Laurence Boisseau

PARIS — Air Next promised to use blockchain technology to revolutionize passenger transport. Should we have read something into its name? In fact, the company was talking a lot of hot air from the start. Air Next turned out to be a scam, with a fake website, false identities, fake criminal records, counterfeited bank certificates, aggressive marketing … real crooks. Thirty-five employees recruited over the summer ranked among its victims, not to mention the few investors who put money in the business.

Maud (not her real name) had always dreamed of working in a start-up. In July, she spotted an ad on Linkedin and was interviewed by videoconference — hardly unusual in the era of COVID and teleworking. She was hired very quickly and signed a permanent work contract. She resigned from her old job, happy to get started on a new adventure.


Others like Maud fell for the bait. At least ten senior managers, coming from major airlines, airports, large French and American corporations, a former police officer … all firmly believed in this project. Some quit their jobs to join; some French expats even made their way back to France.

Share capital of one billion 

The story began last February, when Air Next registered with the Paris Commercial Court. The new company stated it was developing an application that would allow the purchase of airline tickets by using cryptocurrency, at unbeatable prices and with an automatic guarantee in case of cancellation or delay, via a "smart contract" system (a computer protocol that facilitates, verifies and oversees the handling of a contract).

The firm declared a share capital of one billion euros, with offices under construction at 50, Avenue des Champs Elysées, and a president, Philippe Vincent ... which was probably a usurped identity.

Last summer, Air Next started recruiting. The company also wanted to raise money to have the assets on hand to allow passenger compensation. It organized a fundraiser using an ICO, or "Initial Coin Offering", via the issuance of digital tokens, transacted in cryptocurrencies through the blockchain.

While nothing obliged him to do so, the company owner went as far as setting up a file with the AMF, France's stock market regulator which oversees this type of transaction. Seeking the market regulator stamp is optional, but when issued, it gives guarantees to those buying tokens.

screenshot of the typo that revealed the Air Next scam

The infamous typo that brought the Air Next scam down

compta online

Raising Initial Coin Offering 

Then, on Sept. 30, the AMF issued an alert, by way of a press release, on the risks of fraud associated with the ICO, as it suspected some documents to be forgeries. A few hours before that, Air Next had just brought forward by several days the date of its tokens pre-sale.

For employees of the new company, it was a brutal wake-up call. They quickly understood that they had been duped, that they'd bet on the proverbial house of cards. On the investor side, the CEO didn't get beyond an initial fundraising of 150,000 euros. He was hoping to raise millions, but despite his failure, he didn't lose confidence. Challenged by one of his employees on Telegram, he admitted that "many documents provided were false", that "an error cost the life of this project."

What was the "error" he was referring to? A typo in the name of the would-be bank backing the startup. A very small one, at the bottom of the page of the false bank certificate, where the name "Edmond de Rothschild" is misspelled "Edemond".

Finding culprits 

Before the AMF's public alert, websites specializing in crypto-assets had already noted certain inconsistencies. The company had declared a share capital of 1 billion euros, which is an enormous amount. Air Next's CEO also boasted about having discovered bitcoin at a time when only a few geeks knew about cryptocurrency.

Employees and investors filed a complaint. Failing to find the general manager, Julien Leclerc — which might also be a fake name — they started looking for other culprits. They believe that if the Paris Commercial Court hadn't registered the company, no one would have been defrauded.

Beyond the handful of victims, this case is a plea for the implementation of more secure procedures, in an increasingly digital world, particularly following the pandemic. The much touted ICO market is itself a victim, and may find it hard to recover.

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