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Czech Republic: Row With Austria Over Power Plant Points Up Nuclear Confusion

  • Tony Wesolowsky

The Temelin nuclear power plant in southern Bohemia could go on line as soon as this month, despite misgivings over its safety. Its Austrian neighbors, among others, say the plant is a risk. The Czechs say the plant is safe. Who's right? RFE/RL correspondent Tony Wesolowsky looks at the murky world of nuclear safety.

Prague, 7 September 2000 (RFE/RL) -- How safe is safe? As a new row between the Czechs and the Austrians heats up over the controversial, yet-to-be-activated Temelin nuclear power in southern Bohemia, that's the question citizens of both countries are left to ponder.

After years of delays and cost overruns, the Czechs finally began loading fuel into one of the reactors at Temelin two months ago (July 5), unleashing a wave of protest from Austria -- one of Europe's staunchest opponents of nuclear power, with a border only some 60 kilometers south of Temelin. Relations between Prague and Vienna, long on edge over Temelin, have become even testier lately as the day for firing up the plant -- possibly later this month -- draws near.

Austrian officials talk of the Czech government's arrogance. Prague fires back, lambasting the Austrians as hysterical. The Austrian parliament has demanded its government hold up the EU's membership negotiations with Prague on energy regulations because of Temelin. The European Parliament was due to debate Temelin today in Strasbourg.

Last weekend, Austrian tractors blocked several border crossing points with the Czech Republic, as anti-nuclear protesters held placards and banners demonstrating against Temelin. Similar protests are scheduled for this weekend. Faced with this barrage of criticism, the Czech government now tends to see Temelin as a kind of test of national honor. Czech Prime Minister Milos Zeman says his government will not budge on opening the plant.

The Czechs argue that a state-of the-art information and control system -- provided by the U.S. Westinghouse company -- will put Temelin's two Soviet-designed reactors on par with anything found further West. Austria and, to a lesser degree, Germany -- as well as anti-nuclear activists -- don't accept such reassurances. They say: once a Soviet reactor, always a Soviet reactor -- regardless of any infusions of Western technology.

So who's right?

David Kyd is a spokesman for the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN-affiliated nuclear watchdog based in Vienna. He says the reactors found at Temelin -- both VVER-1000, a third-generation Soviet design- - are far from ideal, but don't pose a serious safety risk.

"Let's just look at the facts. There are 42 reactors of the same basic design operating today, many of them in their third decade and they have never had a serious accident, otherwise that would be well known. These are reactors not of a very complex design [such as] that exists at Chornobyl."

But Kyd quickly adds that, despite all the improvements, Temelin would not be licensed in the West.

"The VVERs are solid, not elegant designs, and would not be licensable in the West, and let's make no mistake about that. They do not have the full range of safety systems that would be mandatory in Germany, or France, or wherever."

Tobias Munchmeyer, an anti-nuclear campaigner with the international environmental group Greenpeace, says safety concerns stem from the untested mix of Soviet and Western technology at Temelin.

"A lower safety standard will be achieved or is achieved, as far as I can see, at Temelin. There we have this problem with hybrid technology, a mix of Soviet, Czech, and U.S. equipment, and as you know there are a lot of concerns about the equipment quality and a lot of safety-relevant issues."

But Kyd and Munchmeyer agree that defining what is a "safe" nuclear reactor within the EU is not so simple. That's because each of its 15 members sets its own nuclear standards, as provided for in the 1957 Euratom Treaty, which fails to call for specific union-wide nuclear safety standards. A 1994 Vienna Nuclear Safety Convention sets no strict standards and mandatory requirements, either, but rather calls for what it terms "encouragement and peer-review." And even though all the 10 Central and East European EU candidate states have signed and adopted the convention, the document cannot really enforce any particular safety standard.

In the case of Temelin, EU expansion commissioner Guenter Verheugen yesterday reiterated that it would be Prague deciding whether Temelin was safe or not. "The commission, or the European Union as such, has legally no possibility to tell the Czechs what to do or not to do. There is no 'acquis communitaire,' as you know, on nuclear safety."

Kyd explains why EU countries with nuclear power stations have shied away from instituting union-wide nuclear safety regulations.

"To write standards that covers what already exists, without embarrassment, would be extremely difficult, because not all the reactors in all the Western countries could meet any homogenized standards that you would come up with."

A case in point is Britain. Twenty of the country's 35 nuclear power reactors are more than 40 years old and lack a containment unit, which is highlighted as one of the major drawbacks of some of the older Soviet-designed reactors. The lack of such a system caused radiation to spread as far as Japan after the 1986 Chornobyl disaster. The British reactors in question also lack the modern components -- known as I and C systems -- seen as critical for bringing Temelin up to so-called Western safety standards.

But further east, in Ukraine, officials want to complete two reactors--with Western aid -- that would lack such I and C systems, highlighting how the measuring sticks of nuclear safety can suddenly shift. The two reactors at Rivne and Khmelnitsky are of the same design found at Temelin. The Ukrainians say they need the two reactors to replace the power they'll lose when Chornobyl is finally shut down later this year.

To help Kyiv, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. or EBRD, is considering a loan of some $180 million. Euratom, the Atomic Energy Community of the EU, is mulling a $610-million loan to help bring the reactors on line. Yesterday, the EU's 20 commissioners decided on a formal communication to the commission that would support completing R2/K4, as the Ukrainian project is called. The communication -- a copy of which was obtained by RFE/RL -- urges the EBRD to continue cooperation with Ukraine on R2/K4 in order, it says, "that these two reactors are completed to the highest possible safety standards."

The Brussels-based European Voice weekly writes that External Relations Commissioner Chris Patten and Enlargement Commissioner Verheugen are two of the stronger backers for financing R2/K4, despite objections from Sweden, Germany, and Austria, and doubts from Denmark and Belgium. The imprimatur of the commission's communication will now probably make Western financing of R2/K4 more likely.

To Patricia Lorenz of Friends of the Earth Europe, another environmental organization, the commission's communication points up what she regards as the duplicity of EU policy. She notes that it reasserts each member-state's right to determine for itself nuclear safety standards, while calling on candidate states with nuclear power plants to meet "the highest standards."

"This is completely contradictory, the whole thing that the EU Commission is doing here. On the one hand, they say we don't have a say in it [establishing nuclear safety norms], and on the other hand they do things like this. They [want to] finance something so it gets the highest possible safety, but they can't force Ukraine to do it anyway."

But in the international nuclear safety game, it appears, almost anything goes.