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Central Europe keeps the nuclear faith

May 2, 2017

The financial and geo-political risks attached to nuclear power are rising, but Central Europe's belief is unshakable. Tim Gosling reports from Prague.

Nuclear power plant Temelín in the south of the Czech Republic
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Sterba

Nuclear power is facing a fight for its life. Increased safety concerns, weak energy markets, and shifting technological potential look to be pulling the rug from under the 20th-century dream of a nuclear future of clean, cheap and plentiful energy. Struggling projects across the Visegrad region illustrate the difficulties.

In spite of the shadows cast by Chernobyl and Fukushima, and the pickle in which US-Japanese giant Westinghouse finds itself, nuclear remains at the forefront of national energy strategy in the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia.

The projects have spent years treading water, and many are thought unlikely to ever become a reality. Yet in contrast to many countries to the west, it's not public opinion but hard cash that's the problem.

"Nuclear is a religion in Visegrad," announces Jan Haverkamp of Greenpeace CEE (Central and Eastern Europe). "There is no discussion of investment risk or real safety concerns. The only thing discussed is who will pay for the initial project."

 No business for private investors

That sticking point has seen a longstanding political scrap in the Czech Republic flare up again ahead of elections later this year. The expansion of the nuclear fleet is the central plank in the country's long-term energy strategy, but no one wants to stump up the 300 billion Czech crowns (11 billion euros; $12 billion) it would cost.

Despite the shifting sands, public opinion in Visegrad still sees nuclear as the future.

"Nuclear energy is still regarded as modern … and as a seemingly simple way to protect the climate," says Martin Durdovic of the Czech Academy of Sciences.

A poll commissioned by the Polish energy ministry and released in January reported that 61 percent of Poles support a nuclear solution for their country's energy needs.

Some suggest such support can be traced to communist days, when the state and energy companies ran the show together, building huge futuristic projects that sent cash washing throughout the system.

Durdovic notes a deep-seated confidence in scientists and other experts. There's also "an old-fashioned sense of national prestige connected to nuclear power," suggests anti-nuclear activist Ewa Dryjanska.

Misunderstandings also persist over safety, campaigners say. Many in the Visegrad countries believe Fukushima was purely the result of a tsunami, and point out that tidal waves do not plague the Baltic Sea.

Read: The illusion of normality at Fukushima

More recent lessons have also been taken to heart. "There is no belief in renewables in Visegrad," says Havercamp, noting a series of scandalous state support schemes - such as for solar power in the Czech Republic - that have left bills that consumers will be paying off for years.

"People in the region simply don't see an alternative to nuclear power for cleaner energy," the Greenpeace researcher says.

Too rich for the region

While the public may be convinced, nuclear projects are too rich and too risky for private investors. Prague's efforts to push Czech state-controlled energy group CEZ into building new units face a "big obstacle" in the form of private shareholders, says Petr Bartek, an analyst at Erste Group.

However, squeezed by financial constraints and EU regulation, states are not keen either. The Czech government insists it will not offer power price guarantees - a stance that saw CEZ scrap an eight-billion-euro tender in 2014.

Even when the state is ready to play a role, it doesn't necessarily work out. Slovakia's project to expand the Mochovce plant is hugely over budget and delayed by several years. The problems provoked a bitter spat with project partner Enel, and the Italian utility plans to exit the country, handing local oligarchs greater leverage over the energy market as it goes.

France sticking with nuclear power

It's a conundrum that state actors to the east are looking to exploit. Russia and China are both keen to prove the credentials of their nuclear exports.

Read: UK gives the green light to Hinkley Point nuclear plant

Hungary received the green light from the EU in February on a deal that will see Russia's Rosatom expand the Paks plant. Moscow agreed in 2014 to hand Budapest 10 billion euros in funding to evade EU rules demanding a tender.

The Russian company is keen to repeat the trick in the Czech Republic. "Rosatom will be able to participate in any solution chosen by the government," Vadim Titov, head of Rosatom Central Europe told DW.

Chinese suitors are also reported to be seeking a contract without a tender. The Czechs are busy chasing investment from the eastern giant.

Crooked or crazy

While Prague insists an open tender remains the preferred route, analysts are skeptical that the cash for new Visegrad nuclear plants will be found anywhere but Moscow or Beijing.

However, not everyone is keen on help from outside. Fearing leverage from abroad, the nationalist Polish government has recently gone back to the drawing board on financing plans for the country's first nuclear plant, which would cost around 10 billion euros.

Read: Iran begins work on Russia-supported nuclear plant

That will push an already long delayed project back further. Geoffrey Rothwell, principal economist at the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency, doubts Poland will manage to build a plant in the coming decades.

However, Warsaw remains keen. It sees nuclear as the best option to allow Poland to work within EU environmental targets while also sticking to a pledge to put the country's massive coal industry at the core of its energy strategy.

A nuclear plant would produce annual savings of at least 24 percent of current CO2 emissions, suggests the OECD, while Poles remain wary of renewables.

Many see ecologists as "crooked or crazy," says Dryjanska.

Headshot of a bearded man (Tim Gosling) with gray hair and glasses in a red rain jacket
Tim Gosling Journalist covering politics, economics and social issues across Central and Eastern Europe