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Czech Republic: Temelin Nuclear Plant Prepares To Go On-Line

After years of delays, it appears the Temelin nuclear plant in southern Bohemia will soon start producing power. But doubts remain about the plant's safety and whether the country even needs another nuclear plant. NCA's Tuck Wesolowsky reports.

Prague, 12 July 2000 (RFE/RL) -- For years, the only things to come out of the Temelin nuclear power plant in the southern Czech Republic were cost overruns and scheduling delays.

The four cooling towers loomed idle over an otherwise idyllic countryside some 100 kilometers south of the capital Prague, as engineers grappled with problems associated with grafting Western safety technology onto Soviet-era reactor hardware. The delays fed doubts over the project's viability and fears of a nuclear accident, should Temelin ever go into operation.

That day now appears to be fast approaching. The Czech government seems to be making up for lost time, with a series of quick moves over the past week making Temelin's future all but assured. Last week, workers began loading fuel into one of the two reactors at the plant, only three hours after the Czech Republic's State Office for Nuclear Safety gave permission.

Plant spokesman Milan Nebesar said 92 tons of nuclear fuel will be loaded in the plant's first reactor within 10 to 12 days. He said the fuel will be activated after another two months and the first power should be generated this fall. Temelin will then join the country's other nuclear power installation at Dukovany, which generates some 20 percent of the country's energy. CEZ, the majority state-owned utility, hopes the two plants will generate 30 percent of the country's energy in the future.

But public pressure is mounting for a referendum on the fate of the controversial power station. A group called Referendum 2000 -- which opposes the project -- has collected some 117,000 signatures supporting such a plebiscite, and it presented them to the Czech parliament on Tuesday. President Vaclav Havel has given his backing to the idea of a referendum, even though the country lacks legislation allowing for such a motion. Prime Minister Milos Zeman, who made a referendum on Temelin a key plank in his Social Democrats' party platform two years ago, now opposes it -- as do other leading politicians, like former premier Vaclav Klaus.

Klaus has long been one of the biggest backers of Temelin. It was his conservative government in 1993 that awarded the nuclear division of Westinghouse a contract to outfit Temelin with a state-of-the-art information and control system.

Critics have long feared that such an untested hybrid, fusing Soviet and Western technology, will only spell trouble. They say it also fails to address serious shortcomings of the Temelin reactor type -- the VVER-1000 -- namely, that its reactor vessel is too small, and its containment unit is not strong enough.

But Hans Meyer, a spokesman for the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, says nuclear nightmares conjured up by Temelin are unfounded.

"I would say that the mix of Eastern and Western technology in that reactor is good, in the way that there are more eyes not only of one constructor, but also of other suppliers, that this plant will run safely," he says.

Nevertheless, there has been a flurry of diplomatic activity -- some would say quixotic -- to throw sand into the gears of Temelin. Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel sent a letter to Czech Prime Minister Zeman asking him to delay the start-up of the plant even while the fuel loading was under way.

Austria is displeased about the prospects of another Soviet-designed reactor on its doorstep. It fought a losing battle to halt Slovakia from finishing construction at the Mochovce nuclear power in 1998. That plant, too, is equipped with Soviet-designed reactors.

Austria, ostracized within the EU for its inclusion of a far-right party in the government, has found a ready ally against Temelin in Germany, where the Greens' anti-nuclear stance has already led to a German pledge to shut down its own nuclear installations within 32 years. German Environment Minister Juergen Trittin said the Czechs began fueling up Temelin before all questions on its safety had been answered. He also accused the Czechs of failing to uphold an agreement not to fuel the reactor until at least mid-August.

On Monday, the topic of Temelin was raised at a meeting of European Union foreign ministers in Brussels, mainly due to the prodding of Austrian Foreign Minister Benita Ferrero-Waldner. The EU's executive body has been tasked with preparing a report on Temelin, although it's unclear what impact such a report would have. EU legislation does not allow for other members to interfere in the energy decisions of a sovereign state, a pointed repeated on Monday by the EU Commissioner for Enlargement Guenter Verheugen.

Temelin also raises economic as well as environmental concerns in the EU, as European parliamentarian Mercedes Echerer, an Austrian Green, points out.

"They already have much more energy than they need and they [the Czechs] have it much cheaper, and they definitely will also sell it within the EU. And that has to be looked at by the European Commission," she says.

The Czechs are already net exporters of energy, most of which is sent to Germany, as well as to Italy, Switzerland, and Slovenia. And with energy markets liberalizing, exports are bound to grow. The European Commission estimates that by 2003, third-party utilities will be responsible for 33 percent of electricity sales in the EU. The Czechs, along with Poland and Hungary, are well situated to take advantage of the newly evolving liberalized energy market, with all three connected to the Western electricity grid UCPTE.

Because countries like the Czech Republic lack the financial means to pay for their upgraded nuclear capacities, exports are seen as a way to pay back loans for the work. But will Temelin pay for itself? Critics say no. They contend Temelin will produce so much extra energy that the Czech Republic will be forced to sell the energy abroad at below cost.

Temelin has already cost the Czech government more than $2 billion. The final price tag could be as high as 3 billion. But the high costs should not have come as a complete surprise. Germany halted construction of two similar reactors in Stendal, in former East Germany, following reunification in 1990. Assessments showed that upgrading and finishing Stendal's VVER-1000 reactors -- the same found at Temelin -- would cost between $2,3 billion and $2,9 billion. For Germany, much better off financially than the Czech Republic, the cost was too high.

Most of the money hemorrhaging from Temelin has made its way to the Western nuclear lobby. Contracts in Central and Eastern Europe have been a boon for companies like Westinghouse and Siemens, which have faced hard times in the West in the wake of the 1986 Chornobyl accident and the 1979 accident at a Pennsylvania nuclear power plant at Three Mile Island.

The bidding for contracts at Temelin was fierce, and Westinghouse emerged the winner after what were seen as some dubious actions. Czech officials never fully explained why a second round of bidding -- a highly unusual move -- was called on the contract for the information and control system.

There is little risk for Westinghouse if anything goes wrong. It is only acting as a "supplier" at Temelin, while Czech company Skoda Praha is the main contractor. That means the Czechs assume all responsibility should the hybrid reactor malfunction.

The fact that the Czechs are already exporting and will export more energy if Temelin goes on line prompts the obvious question of whether the extra energy-generating capacity is needed. The government says a growing economy will need to be fed by more energy. But a team of international experts last year disagreed. They said that the Czech Republic, like other Central and Eastern European nations, is not very energy-efficient and could do more with the energy it has.

The rush to get Temelin up and running also comes as the state mulls selling its 67 percent stake in CEZ. There have been reports that the French energy concern, Electricite de France, may be interested. Getting the albatross (eds: in this context, heavy weight) that is Temelin off the neck of CEZ, makes the utility all the more attractive to future investors.

Whether the average Czech consumer needs Temelin is debatable. But with loans to repay and investors to attract, the utility CEZ certainly does.
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    Tony Wesolowsky

    Tony Wesolowsky is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL in Prague, covering Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, and Central Europe, as well as energy issues. His work has also appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists.