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Austria's Nuclear Fear: Much Ado About Nothing?

Close to a million Austrians say they wanted the Czech Republic to shut down a nuclear power plant near the border. Nuclear experts are asking why.

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Temelin's technology is safer than many like to admit

To some Austrians, the Temelin nuclear power plant is a horrific hazard, lurking 50 kilometers from their border with the Czech Republic.

Memories of the Chernobyl accident in 1986, which contaminated Austrian soil and forced the country to conduct regular radiation checks still linger bitterly in the minds of many in the nuclear-free country.

Last week, close to a million citizens affixed their signatures to a petition demanding that the Austrian parliament discuss a possible veto to Czech membership in the European Union if the government in Prague refuses to shut down the plant.

The petition caused a diplomatic furor between Vienna and Prague and strained the relationship between parties in Austria's coalition government, while raising eyebrows in Brussels.

Former Soviet plants in good shape

But most surprised have been Europe's nuclear physicists – especially those manning the central control rooms of East European nuclear plants, who have spent years putting stringent Western-style safety standards in place.

Experts from the EU countries agree.

"They are quite in good shape, they are very safe," said Bal Raj Sehgal, a Stockholm-based nuclear safety expert who has worked with the EU, bringing nuclear safety standards in candidate countries, like the Czech Republic, up to snuff. "And we have noticed that they are operating them quite well."

Membership in the EU has been a huge motivation for candidate countries, Sehgal said in an interview with DW-World.

With the help of funding from the EU and the United States, many countries have set up regulatory agencies to monitor the plants, something unheard of in Soviet times.

"There is an eagerness to join the union," he said. "Because of that, some plants will even have to be shut down."

This includes one of two reactors at Lithuania's massive Ignalina nuclear power plant, which supplies roughly 82 percent of the country’s electricity.

Working to make at-risk plants safe

Many of the plants can’t be shut down easily because of the support they give to their country's infant free market economies. Thousands would lose their jobs and already fragile democracies in Eastern Europe could face further instability.

As a result, international nuclear organizations are forced to work with governments to bring Soviet-era plants up to speed.

The main problems stem from the lack of attention Soviet nuclear plant designers gave to back-up safety. The designers, motivated by speed and short of funds, failed to build in fire-control and cooling systems that could adequately prevent reactor cores from overheating.

"It was easy to make [the safety regulations] weaker, to save money and time," Kim Söderleg, Eastern Europe project manager for STUK, Finland's nuclear regulator.

Safety measures in place, in Temelin as well

The more back-up systems and diversity in disaster control a plant has, the less likely it is to suffer a nuclear disaster, experts said.

"It’s more a question of logic and the construction of these systems than outdated technology," Sehgal said, adding that the safety regulations have been the same since 1980.

Additional safety measures, like containments, are standard in all new plants. Hermetically-sealed, leak-proof covers encase the reactors and prevent harmful radiation gases from escaping in the event of meltdown or a fire.

There is still more to be done but many of Eastern Europe's plants are on the way, said experts, including Temelin.

"Basically, I think it's a reasonable plant," Seghal said. "It's a new design and newly built."

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