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Czech Republic: Controversial Nuclear Power Plant Starting Up

Prague, 10 October 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Czech officials have taken the first step to activate the controversial Temelin nuclear power plant.

The country's State Office for Nuclear Safety gave formal approval yesterday to begin activation at block 1 of the plant, which lies 100 kilometers south of the Czech capital Prague. Activation will lead to the first actual nuclear chain reaction, which could happen as soon as today. The plant will become fully operational next year.

The decision to begin activation was broadcast live in the Czech Republic, with officials from the utility company CEZ, the government, and the nuclear safety office on hand. Prime Minister Milos Zeman was in a celebratory mood. Czech nuclear safety official Karel Bohm said his inspectors had not found any major faults in the reactor that would warrant any further delay.

But major doubts remain over Temelin's safety, stemming largely from its untested mix of Soviet and Western technologies. Yesterday, Czech President Vaclav Havel publicly lamented he had not spoken out more firmly against Temelin. In an interview with Czech Radio, Havel said he considered his relative silence on the nuclear power station "his biggest mistake" during his 10-year presidency.

Anti-nuclear protesters continue to blockade key Czech-Austrian border crossings in what have become routine demonstrations over the past six weeks. Non-nuclear Austria has been the most vocal critic of Temelin. Austria scrapped plans in 1978 to activate its own nuclear power plant following a public referendum. Vienna has also voiced strong opposition to Slovakia's plans to bring the Mochovce nuclear plant on line.

Austria's opposition to Temelin is backed by Germany, which last year announced plans to gradually phase out nuclear power. In Western Europe, only France remains enthusiastic about nuclear power, with other countries either scaling back or scrapping plans to enlarge their nuclear-energy capabilities.

The Austrian government had threatened to link Temelin with the Czechs' bid to join the European Union. Czech Premier Zeman yesterday rejected that threat as "unsuitable." But he did say he would be willing to meet with Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel to discuss the issue later this month in the Czech Republic.

Environmentalists have accused the Czech Republic of a lack of nuclear "glasnost" about Temelin. Friends of the Earth -- an environmental non-governmental organization -- points out that five weeks ago the European Parliament passed a resolution calling on the Czech government to provide information on Temelin and to carry out an environmental-impact assessment as required both by Czech law and international standards.

Zeman and his government say all the safety work has been done and the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA, has given its seal of approval.

Zeman said yesterday: "If I'm not mistaken, the International Atomic Energy Agency has its seat in Vienna, so the relevant Austrian bodies do not have far to go in order to ask whether this nuclear power station is up to the safety norms or not."

IAEA officials characterize Temelin as, on the whole, "safe." But they say the plant would not be licensed in Western Europe where safety norms are stricter. In fact, Germany scrapped plans to finish a similar reactor in Stendhal, in eastern Germany, after safety inspectors deemed the project too costly.

Environmentalists believe the plant at Stendahl could serve as an example for Temelin. They say Stendahl was the first case where a Soviet-designed reactor was considered for inclusion in the EU -- and was rejected.

It's unlikely the EU will make Temelin an issue in the enlargement question. EU Commissioner for Enlargement Guenter Verheugen recently reiterated the EU's long-standing rule that nuclear safety standards should be left to each member or candidate state. That has left the EU powerless to influence the Czech decision on Temelin.

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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.