When eight central and eastern European countries join the European Union in May, they will bring a number of problematic nuclear reactors with them. The Czech Republic and Slovakia are receiving particular scrutiny.
Austrian environmental activists are strongly opposed to the Czech Temelin nuclear power plant.
Although the EU is imposing strict rules on everything from farming to food safety on the acceding countries, Brussels would strangely appear to have a rather casual approach to the topic of nuclear reactors. Despite plenty of concern about old soviet-era reactors, it would appear the West’s political or economic interests are taking priority.
Of all the former East Bloc countries, the Czech Republic and Slovakia are coming in for most of the criticism over safety due to their proximity to old western border of the EU. Wedged next to Germany and Austria, what was once Czechoslovakia was already an industrialized country during communist times.
Steel and coal, heavy industry, weapons and mechanical engineering, chemical and auto industries were all important areas of production. Energy consumption was correspondingly high and was met above all by means of nuclear power.
Today there are four nuclear power sites on the territory of the former Czechoslovakia: Temelin and Dukovany in the Czech Republic, plus Jaslovske Bohunyitze and Mochovtze in Slovakia. In the Czech Republic three new nuclear reactors are to be built in the next few years, if the government’s plans are implemented. And that has some Czech activists concerned.
“It seems to us that the Industry Ministry intends to re-introduce the planned economy,” Marta Heveryova of the European Forum for Effective Energy Use in Prague said. “Both energy consumption and production are being dictated. It’s the same as under communism.”
The technology of the nuclear power plants operated in the Czech Republic and Slovakia today also stems from communist times. Nonetheless, there are big differences: although the southern Bohemian Temelin produces most of the headlines because of its proximity to Austria and Bavaria and a string of mishaps, it is one of the newest and is considered one of the safest nuclear power plants in what was the Eastern Bloc.
The International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna even considers Temelin to be safer than a number of Germany’s older reactors. But opponents criticize above all the mix of Soviet reactor technology and American safety technology. Much more problematic than Temelin is Dukovany, whose reactors are not protected by a safety shell. A plane crash would have disastrous results here and a military airbase is situated just nearby.
In Slovakia, there are two fairly new reactors in Mochovtze, which the German Siemens concern helped to modernize. In Jaslovske Bohunyitze, two Chernobyl-type reactors are in operation. This Slovak nuclear power plant is one of the few examples where the European Union has made its early closing down a condition for membership to the bloc. One reactor is to be switched off by 2006 and the other by 2008.
Meanwhile, people in the Czech Republic are also stepping up their resistance to new atomic power plants and to the planned nuclear waste depots. Numerous local authorities have already rejected such depots in their vicinity.
In the Czech Republic, running the country’s own nuclear power plants was long seen as a question of national sovereignty and eco-activists were considered nutcases. The sometimes militant actions by Temelin opponents from Austria have intensified this perception.
“Blockading borders, for instance, is clearly harmful,” said Vladimir Halama of a Czech anti-Temelin initiative. “It would be more helpful if local authorities in other countries gave us some advice – authorities that have experience with the production of alternative energy.”
But there are economic arguments to consider, since the Czech Republic and Slovakia export large quantities of electricity.
“Last year, she says, the Czech Reopublic exported a record 19 terawatt hours, corresponding to the annual production of Temelin’s two reactor blocks,” said Halama. State monopoly structures in both the Czech Republic and Slovakia have remained in place nearly 15 years after the fall of communism and there is little or no competition in the energy sector. Unfortunately, that will not change after the forthcoming privatization of the industry. Both the Czechs and Slovaks only want to sell their power plants as a package. Possible bidders are the French company Eléctricité de France and Germany’s E.on.