Prague, 3 September 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The peaceful use of atomic power to generate electricity was hailed in the 1950s as a brilliant scientific achievement which would liberate mankind forever from energy shortages. Then doubts arose.
Where could the deadly waste products be safely stored for centuries? What about the overall health risks of living near a reactor? And worst of all, what if one these wonders of modern science blew up?
In the spring of 1986, in Ukraine, a Russian-designed plant provided an answer to that last question. The Number 4 reactor at Chornobyl caught fire and exploded, showering Europe and much of the rest of the world with radioactive particles. Radiation killed and sickened some people near the site. It contaminated the food chain and the countryside, evidently leading to health problems for others in Ukraine and Belarus. It may have increased health risks over a broader area of the continent.
Since then, the safety of Central and East Europe's Russian-designed nuclear power plants has been of major concern to the world, and especially to the neighboring EU states. Now 10 Central and Eastern countries are applying to join the EU, and one of the EU's priorities is to ensure greater nuclear safety in the applicant states.
The front-running applicant group consists of the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Slovenia and Estonia. The second-tier applicants are Romania, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Lithuania and Latvia.
A senior EU official involved with nuclear issues in the accession process, Timo Makela, says there are both problems and successes.
"In general the EU is pleased and not pleased. I think the EU is not pleased with the pace of planning the closure of the most dangerous reactors. And there it still remains to be seen how seriously the candidate countries are ready to take this clear message from the EU."
Makela cites specifically reactors in Ignalina in Lithuania, Kozloduey in Bulgaria and Mochovce in Slovakia. He says the EU regards such reactors as impossible to upgrade to the required safety level.
These reactors illustrate the scope of the problem facing some of the applicant states.
Ignalina, one of the biggest nuclear power plants in the former communist states, produces almost 80 percent of Lithuania's electricity. Closing it would plunge the country into darkness. The government lacks funds to build conventional plants to replace Ignalina. Lithuania says improvements funded by its Scandinavian neighbors have made the plant safer. Still, the EU remains adamant that Ignalina must close. Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus says it will take 15 years to phase out Ignalina.
In Bulgaria, the Kozloduey plant produces 40 percent of the country's electricity. The government hasn't money to replace the plant, and has long tried to make it safer through foreign-funded technical improvements. The government says it plans to continue operating the plant for years.
In Slovakia, the controversy surrounding Mochovce reached new heights earlier this year when the plant's first reactor went on line. Slovakia's neighbor, EU president Austria, demanded that it close. Bratislava rejected the demand. The controversy was further complicated by a finding by the Vienna-based U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency that improvements in Mochovce have brought the design up to Western safety standards. International doubts about Slovakia's democracy already mar Slovakia's chances for EU membership. The Mochovce issue can't help.
Still, the EU believes much has been achieved by applicant countries in improving safety standards, with the help of hundreds of millions of dollars from the EU.
Makela says: "A lot has already been done. A lot of assistance from the EU has been channeled to the countries from the time of the collapse of the old system. And of course bilateral EU programs, and the nuclear safety account at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, have played an important role."
But, he says, more needs to be done. The message to applicant states now is, first, that they should upgrade national legislation to incorporate all EU safety requirements. Second, they must develop strong institutions to monitor implementation of safety measures.
As an institution, the EU neither opposes nor favors nuclear energy. It sets safety standards, and leaves to the individual member states the issue of whether to build nuclear reactors. Some EU members, like Austria and Denmark, are anti-nuclear, while others, in particular France, have enthusiastically supported it for decades.
Meanwhile the broader debate about nuclear energy goes on around the world. The Chornobyl accident was a turning point, when world opinion for the first time appeared to turn against nuclear power. Since then, however, concern over global warming caused by fossil fuel has renewed the credibility of the nuclear industry as an alternative. In any event, progress in technology probably will make the debate irrelevant at some point. Green, meaning environmentally acceptable, energy sources like wind and solar power may come into vogue. Or nuclear fusion may replace the present nuclear fission process. Fusion doesn't produce the hazardous wastes that trouble the present technology.
(This is the second of a five-part series dealing with environmental issues in Europe, East and West.)