The Czech Republic's troubled Temelin nuclear power plant has received a new blow. The German government is calling for Temelin, which is still undergoing start-up tests, to be shut down entirely. RFE/RL correspondent Jolyon Naegele reports that Prague views Germany's new stance with far more concern than Austria's longtime opposition to the plant.
Prague, 17 July 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The Czech cabinet of Prime Minister Milos Zeman was meeting today to discuss the Temelin nuclear power plant in southern Bohemia, which had been beset by problems long before last year's start-up.
The German government yesterday confirmed news reports that it had called on the Czech government in a letter last week to shut down the entire plant.
A few brief excerpts of the German note have been leaked. These include the opening passage which states: "The federal government recognizes the Czech government's right to decide about the use of nuclear energy for production of electricity in the Czech Republic. But just as much, the erection and start-up [of the Temelin plant] only 60 kilometers from the German border are grounds for particular concern and attention."
The note then goes on to mention several technical aspects of the plant that it says do not conform to German law and international standards. It also expresses doubts that investigations and analyses of faults have so far been sufficient.
Czech government officials at first insisted that they had not received the letter through official channels. But the German Embassy in Prague this afternoon passed the letter to the Czech Foreign Ministry. The Czech cabinet will discuss the letter tomorrow.
German government spokeswoman Charima Reinhardt described the letter as representing her cabinet's position. She added, "As far as I know, the Czech side actually asked the German side to express itself on Temelin."
German Environment Ministry spokesman Michael Schroeren said the German government wants safety issues at Temelin addressed "to complete the [EU] process of accession." He said that "until Temelin's security problems are cleared up, Berlin will not conclude negotiations on [Czech] accession into the EU."
But in Brussels, German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer rejected Schroeren's remarks. Fischer said that there had been no formal declaration but merely "an appeal" by the German cabinet for the Czech Republic "to consider removing the nuclear power plant from the grid."
Moreover, Fischer said, Germany sees no link between nuclear energy and EU expansion. Fischer noted that he had said as much to his Austrian counterpart, Benita Ferrero-Waldner. She said on Sunday (15 July) that the German government's letter clearly supports Austria's position and that "Austria and Germany, as far as Temelin is concerned, are on the same wavelength."
Austrian politicians and other Temelin opponents welcomed the German government's stand as support for Austria's position. But the Viennese daily "Die Presse" warned Austrian politicians not to take credit for the German government's letter, which it says has been in the making for some time. The paper notes that Berlin's letter was preceded by Germany's recent withdrawal of its security experts from an environmental impact test at Temelin, as well as by a decision of a key German electric power supplier to cancel its contract with CEZ -- Temelin's owner and the main electric energy producer in the Czech Republic -- to purchase electricity from Temelin.
The Soviet-designed Temelin plant has Western safety systems. It has been marked by delays and increased costs throughout the 1980s and 1990s and is not yet fully on line. The plant was activated last 9 October, and two weeks later suffered a failure of its pumping system. Then, in November and December, there were failures in a test of its cooling system. This year the plant has suffered turbine problems, a fire, and oil leaks.
The German government's confirmation of its opposition to Temelin sent CEZ stock plunging by 20 percent yesterday on the Prague bourse. That drop is likely to play into the hands of potential investors, because the Czech government intends to privatize CEZ together with its regional distributor companies.
The state's share in CEZ is estimated at about $7.7 billion. According to the Czech business daily "Hospodarske noviny," two German firms -- E.ON and RWE -- are vying for control of CEZ. But the Czech government, seeking to ensure that Temelin is not shut down, is likely to favor the French power company EDF (Electricite de France), Europe's largest operator of nuclear power plants. Germany intends to shut down all its nuclear power plants.
CEZ spokesman Ladislav Kriz says the company is continuing work on completing Temelin.
"We are resolving technical matters -- power-plant security -- and because of this there is no relevant reason for us to consider not putting Temelin on line."
Kriz says closing down the plant would cause a loss to the company of nearly $3 billion. Writing off Temelin, he says, would probably mean CEZ's collapse.
CEZ's deputy chairman Frantisek Hezoucky, who is the director of Temelin, said in an interview published in today's issue of the Prague daily "Mlada fronta Dnes" that the content of the German government's letter is "extraordinarily unqualified."
Hezoucky says the letter is "emotional, with outdated information that does not correspond at all to the results of security analyses by international institutions." He says the information appears to be derived mainly from Austrian anti-Temelin activists. Hezoucky also says it is now up to the Czech government to show whether it is the government of a sovereign state or whether "we are mere subordinates."
Similarly, the chairwoman of the Czech state office for nuclear security, Dana Drabova, says there is no safety reason to shut down Temelin any more than to shut down any power plant in Germany.
German-Czech relations improved markedly after 1989, and Temelin has not been an issue until now in relations between Prague and Berlin. Some analysts say the Austrian government last year began using opposition to Temelin as a tool to build up public support that had dissipated as a result of Vienna's conflict with the EU over the presence in the government of the far-right Freedom Party of Joerg Haider. But Austria's threats of complicating the Czech Republic's EU accession talks were soon rejected in Brussels by EU Enlargement Commissioner Guenther Verheugen.
Verheugen repeatedly came to the Czech Republic's rescue. He said that because there is no common EU policy on nuclear power standards, they fall within the competencies of individual member states. Therefore, Verheugen concluded, opposition to Temelin could not be used to block or delay Czech membership.