After a lengthy discussion in Brussels, Austria and the Czech Republic have finally come to an agreement on the future of the Czech nuclear power plant Temelin.
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The EU-mediated talks concluded late Thursday when Austria agreed to accept strict safety assurances from the Czech Republic. Thereby ending a long-standing conflict over the power plant which had threatened to block Czech entry into the EU.
The EU Commissioner on Enlargement, Günter Verheugen, spoke to reporters after the conference saying, "It has now been possible for us to put aside differences between Austria and the Czech Republic.... We had to end a blockade of the accession process and at the same time ensure that a sovereign nation like the Czech Republic is free to choose its own energy sources."
Years of intensive debate ended when the two countries consented to a list of 21 safety guidelines, most of which were presented in a "Technical Position Paper" submitted by a group of Austrian nuclear experts in July. The Czech Republic agreed to do whatever was necessary to meet the guidelines before the power plant is privitized and resumes operation.
Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel said the agreement was "an example of good neighborliness" in Europe.
"The Czech Republic will commit itself to the highest possible level of nuclear safety. It will commit itself to resolving all problems identified in earlier talks," Schüssel said, referring to discussions on emergency preparedness information dissemination.
Czech Prime Minister Milos Zeman echoed his Austrian counterpart saying the talks had produced a "very reasonable compromise."
In the past, Austria has been an adamant opponent of the Soviet designed nuclear power plant which is located just 50 kilometers from the Austrian border. As a self-proclaimed nuclear-free zone, the Alpine republic has frequently voiced concern that Temelin's outdated technology falls below current safety levels.
Since the plant began conducting tests last year, the reactor has had to be shut down several times due to technical problems.
The Austrian government has demanded the permanent closure of the plant, claiming safety failures in the construction endangered Austrians. The far-right Freedom Party of Jörg Haider has even threatened to veto the Czech Republic's entry into the EU if Temelin is not shut down.
Austria's concerns over Temelin arise out of negative experiences following the Chernobyl accident in 1986 when much of Austria underwent radiation checks for secondary contamination. Vegetables from Austrian gardens could not be eaten, sand in playgrounds had to be changed, and even 10 years later people have to avoid eating certain types of mushrooms from Austrian forests.
The Czech Republic has rejected such fears and comparisons as unfounded. It has said that the $2.6 billion Temelin plant meets all international standards and that there is no need to shut it down or impose extra safety regulations.
At the beginning of the week the International Atomic Energy Agency, the world's nuclear watchdog, confirmed that Temelin was safe to operate.
In the past Temelin was a stumbling block to EU enlargement. Now the new agreement between Austria and the Czech Republic can be integrated into the Czech Republic's EU accession treaty
By next month Prague should be able to wrap up talks on energy policy and will then be right on track for the first wave of EU enlargement, Verheugen said on Thursday.
All 12 candidate countries to the EU are required to align their laws with those of the other EU states in 31 different policy areas, such as energy, before entering the EU.
Up until now the EU has not required a common policy on nuclear power plant safety as a stipulation for entry. But Verheugen predicts that stricter regulations for the use of nuclear energy will become a bigger issue, especially as several of the candidate countries like Lithuania and Bulgaria have Soviet-era plants
Belgium, which is currently leading the EU Presidency, has suggested that a common set of nuclear safety guidelines be established for the EU.