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Czech Republic: Temelin Squabble Symbolizes Nuclear Power Politics

A long-lived controversy between the Czechs and the Austrians may be nearing its end. The Czech government reportedly has agreed to spend millions of additional dollars -- on top of funds already invested -- to upgrade the Temelin nuclear power plant near the Austrian border, reducing Austrian fears for the plant's safety. RFE/RL correspondent Don Hill describes the background and history of this long-simmering dispute.

Prague, 29 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel and Czech Prime Minister Milos Zeman met in Brussels today. There is no word yet on the outcome of the talks, but by all reports, they carried with them enough authorization from their respective governments to resolve what often has seemed an insoluble dispute.

The Czech government approved a preliminary deal yesterday on the future of its controversial Temelin nuclear power plant. Spokesman Libor Roucek said last night the Czech cabinet approved proposals agreed to by Czech and Austrian negotiators to settle their dispute over the plant.

Ukraine's Chornobyl nuclear power plant disaster in 1986 created waves of controversy over nuclear energy and its safety. Since the mid-1990s, those waves have been crashing against Temelin.

Russian engineers built the original Temelin plant to now-discredited Chornobyl standards during communist times. But the plant opened a year ago only after the U.S. firm Westinghouse practically tore it down and rebuilt it to Western standards -- from fuel rods to safety dials.

David Kyd, spokesman for the UN's Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), likened the job to treating a patient in intensive care: "It was almost like a bypass operation for a heart patient, but in which also all the veins and arteries were replaced."

Industrial and developing countries began a love affair with nuclear energy in the 1970s. In that decade, world consumption of electricity produced from nuclear energy grew by 700 percent. In 1979, however, an accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in the eastern U.S. state of Pennsylvania dampened enthusiasm.

Then came Chornobyl. The growth rate of consumption of electricity produced by nuclear power slowed to 200 percent in the 1980s and to just 20 percent in the 1990s. The U.S. Department of Energy forecasts only a slight increase in the first two decades of the 21st century.

But that's just the surface of the story. The DOE forecast says major industrial countries are engaged now in slashing their usage of nuclear energy. What growth is expected is coming from nations pushing hard for industrial expansion -- China, South Korea, and India.

In the Czech Republic's neighborhood, countries such as Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, and Switzerland have committed themselves to phaseouts of nuclear power. Turkey, which was gearing up to invest in nuclear power, has dropped the idea.

Austria decided in a referendum in 1978 to ban nuclear energy. The closest Western European country to Ukraine and Chornobyl, Austria has carried its enmity toward nuclear power so far as to oppose its use in the Czech Republic and Slovakia. In fact, among European nations, only France and Finland remain nuclear enthusiasts.

The rebuilding of Temelin did not lessen Austrians' deep mistrust of nuclear energy near their borders, not even after a team of experts dispatched by the IAEA declared recently that the plant fully conforms to Western standards. IAE spokesperson David Kyd says: "The Austrians, who oppose any nuclear power plant being built near their borders -- and they have done this in Slovakia, as well as in the Czech Republic -- have been vigorously attacking Temelin, saying that it is unsafe, and trying to get it to shut down permanently without its ever really having been attached to the Czech grid."

No matter how unreasonable the Czechs may have considered Austrian demands for reassurance, they remained ready to bargain. That's because any continuing dispute with Austria, and by extension with the European Union, could damage the Czech Republic's drive to enter the EU.

One key compromise the Czechs reportedly are agreeing to adopt is stringent German standards regarding the building of safety walls between the water and other lines that join the reactors to the electric generators. The IAEA says these standards far exceed those of the United States and most other Western nations.

Even though the Czech and Austrian governments may be achieving agreement on Temelin, the controversy still boils at non-governmental levels. Steffan Nichtenberger, nuclear campaigner in Vienna for the eco-activist organization Greenpeace, says his group remains dissatisfied: "First of all, the Czech government stated yesterday [it] won't fulfill all the demands of Austria, and, on the other hand, the decision made in the Austrian parliament one week ago doesn't say anything about possible sanctions if the Czechs don't fulfill the Austrian demands."

As Nichtenberger describes it, the Greenpeace position seems to be one of opportunity. Temelin seems vulnerable and therefore remains a target: "Well, Temelin is not the worst power plant in Europe, but if you compare it, for example, to Bohunice or Mochovce [in Slovakia], Temelin is still being built, and we have the chance to stop Temelin now."

But also, he says, Temelin's technology is something of an unknown quantity: "You have this East and West technology mix in Temelin that is not really -- there's not really a lot of experience with [this] technology mix. And you never know what may happen."

The states of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union remain among the world's largest -- and most problematic -- users of nuclear energy, with 59 reactors operating at 29 nuclear sites. In the early 1990s, the G-7 group of industrialized nations created a fund of $2 billion to help close existing plants or make them safer.

However, throwing money at the problem has had little impact. The European Commission promised Lithuania almost $178 million to help shut down its Chornobyl-type Ignalina reactors. European donors have taken aim also at Bulgaria's Kozolduy and Slovakia's Bohunice plants. So far, though, the only reactors that have actually been deactivated are those at Chornobyl itself.

Kyd says the Russian-designed reactors scattered about the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe have such staying power because safety considerations are overridden by economics, a lack of viable alternatives and sheer need: "First of all, you have to realize that many of the countries they are thinking of are critically dependent on nuclear electricity, be it Ukraine, Bulgaria, [or] Lithuania. Lithuania gets something like 75 percent of its electricity from two reactors."

If the Austrian-Czech Temelin controversy is, indeed, over, Temelin may come to be remembered as a step toward ameliorating a much larger and tenacious problem. But only a small step.