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DW staff (df)January 12, 2009

By re-launching a reactor that it recently shut down, Slovakia has violated a pledge to the EU to decommission its Soviet-designed nuclear plants. Austria has urged the EU to take action against its neighbor.

Gas pipelines covered with snow
The energy dispute could make gas levels go under the level needed to heat householdsImage: picture-alliance / dpa

Slovakia, which depends on Russia for almost all of its natural gas that run through Ukrainian pipelines, will re-start a controversial nuclear reactor to cope with a potential shortage caused by the energy dispute between Moscow and Kiev.

Officials fear that the gas supply could fall to such a low level that it would soon be impossible to heat Slovak households during an unusually cold winter with sub-freezing winter temperatures.

The Bohunice plant, which is located a short distance from Bratislava, consists of five Soviet-type reactors, which have been decommissioned under the terms of Slovakia accession to the EU back in 2004.

Violating EU pledge to avoid blackout

Nuclear power plant in Slovenia
A hazardous Soviet-type reactor was shut down in Slovakia 30 years agoImage: picture-alliance / dpa

The Slovak government has justified violating its pledge to Brussels in order to avoid a possible blackout during the gas crisis.

At a special cabinet meeting over the weekend, Slovakia's Prime Minister Robert Fico announced that his country would now restart the reactor, which should be up and running by the end of the week.

Fico told reporters that reneging on the terms of its EU membership was better than taking the risk that his country's electricity grid would collapse.

"We are facing a blackout here, therefore we have to act fast," said Fico, adding that the government would shut the reactor down again "as soon as the situation is stabilized."

Neighboring Austria blasts Slovakia

The last reactor was shut down only a few weeks ago and the decision to re-launch it is likely to draw protests from neighboring Austria, which has campaigned for decades against the hazards of old Soviet style nuclear plants of its former communist bloc neighbors. One reactor that caused a major accident in 1977 led to its shutdown two years later.

"We cannot accept the re-opening of this unsafe reactor at Bohunice," Austrian Environment Minister Nikolaus Berlakovich said in a statement.

"In a community, agreements must be respected. The (plant's) shutdown was a key condition (to Slovakia's entry into the EU) for us and can't just be erased," he added.

"Now it's up to the European Commission to strongly urge compliance with the accession agreement."

The nuclear issue has even united all of Austria's opposition parties making political bedfellows of two far-right parties and the environmental Greens, who have slammed Slovakia, arguing that Bohunice was "one of the three most dangerous nuclear plants in Europe". Opposition leaders are urging the Austrian government and the EU to take legal and diplomatic measures against Slovakia.

EU under Czech leadership sympathetic to Slovakia

Czech Republic's Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek (front R) and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso (front 2-R) pose for a family photo with EU commissioners at the meeting of the Czech Government with the European Commission in Prague
Prague, which holds the EU presidency, defended SlovakiaImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

In Brussels, the European Commission said there was "no legal basis" for the nuclear re-launch, but conceded that Slovakia had a "real problem" with the gas shortage.

The Czech Republic, which was the other half of the former Czechoslovakia and just kicked off its current six month EU presidency, was even more sympathetic to Slovakia's plight.

Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek rejected all criticism on Sunday, pointing out the shortcomings of the EU's energy and security policies.

"At the moment, I take it rather as a demonstration of (Fico's) readiness to tackle an issue that the European Union cannot resolve for Slovakia -- a looming blackout," he said in Prague.