“When we squabble over trivialities, we are nothing more than useful idiots to the power elites.”
By Peter Weish
This is Peter Weish’s acceptance speech on receiving the 2018 Nuclear-Free Future Award in the category of Lifetime Achievement, on October 24 in Salzburg, Austria.
The Austrian Atomic Energy Research Organization was founded in 1956, and in 1960 the first research reactor was built, in Seibersdorf. From 1966 to 1970, I worked at the reactor facility, in the Institute for Radiation Safety, where I noticed, with growing concern, how others were handling radioactive substances incompetently and irresponsibly yet seeking at the same time to promote these substances’ large- scale use. When the reactor’s technical director stated one day in a radio interview, “We hear constant claims that radiation causes cancer. The opposite is true – radiation cures cancer,” I had had enough.
Together with my friend Eduard Gruber, a radio chemist, I began developing scientific arguments to counter the pro-nuclear narrative and raise public awareness. It was only much later that I chanced upon a quotation from Jean Jacques Rousseau that neatly summed up my motivation: “I would never presume to educate people if others did not seek to mislead them!” And so it was that in 1969 I published my first critical essay on nuclear energy.
Swayed by the many debates, rallies, large-scale demonstrations and calls for a referendum, Austria’s federal government eventually agreed to hold a plebiscite on putting the nuclear power plant into operation, though it expected it would be an easy win. The referendum was held 40 years ago, on November 5, 1978. To the surprise of many, the people of Austria actually came out against nuclear power – and this in spite of a major pro-nuclear propaganda campaign backed by millions in funding. With a turnout of more than 60%, 49.5% voted in favor and 50.5% against. The margin, though little more than 30,000 votes, was enough to ensure that the Zwentendorf nuclear power plant, although completed, never went into operation. On December 15, 1978, the Atomic Non-Proliferation Act was passed unanimously, banning nuclear power in Austria. And so it came to be that Austria switched from being one of the last industrialized countries without nuclear power to becoming the first industrialized country to eschew it.
There are important lessons to be learned from the narrow victory in that referendum: It is really important to get involved, even if the likelihood of success seems low. Every individual effort here helped to make a difference. Thousands of activists can rightfully claim for themselves that were it not for their own personal engagement, this success might never have come about. Arguably, the most important insight we gained in the anti-nuclear movement was that we could successfully overcome any ideological differences between us by working toward a common goal – much to the consternation and displeasure of the powers that be.
Resistance to militarization of the EU, too, is a factor. In any debate surrounding our future, it is essential that we foster an objective, non-violent culture of discussion. For as the saying goes, “There is no way to peace; peace is the way.”
The treaty banning nuclear weapons passed by the UN in 2017 marks important, ground-breaking progress against the interests of the world’s nuclear powers. It has demonstrated that NGOs, together with government representatives at the international level, can build majorities against the power elites, giving us grounds for hope in the continuing battle against the nuclear threat.
Let me conclude by expressing my gratitude for this award, which I gladly accept on behalf of my fellow campaigners, many of whom have now passed away. I would like to leave you with some wise words from Albert Schweitzer which I think apply to all of us here today. When asked whether he was an optimist or a pessimist, he replied: “My knowledge is pessimistic, but my willing and hoping are optimistic.”