Nukes key to accession

30 September 1999

Safety at and closure of Eastern European nuclear reactors is proving to be one of the most difficult issues for countries negotiating entry to the European Union. At the Helsinki summit in December, the accession of former communist countries will be high on the agenda.

With the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary knocking on the EU’s door as part of the first group of countries the EU intends to consider as candidates for entry, and with Slovakia, Bulgaria, Lithuania and Romania part of a second wave of accession countries, the prospect of a European Union as far east as the borders of the former Soviet Union is a very real one. Part of the accession terms demand upgrading or closure of all nuclear power stations in these states.

“The future of nuclear energy in Europe will depend on national politics and its acceptance by the public. It will be up to each member state to decide to continue with the nuclear option,” said the new EU commissioner for energy and transport, Loyola de Palacio. “If the decision is to keep using it, higher safety standards must be in place. New regulations on the protection of public health must be rigorously respected.” The EC is developing closure timetables for Bohunice in Slovakia, Kozloduy in Bulgaria and Ignalina in Lithuania as it considers that none of these reactors are of a quality that upgrades would achieve acceptable safety levels. Their closure is likely to be a key issue in the accession process of these countries. However the plants’ closure would pose each country with major problems in meeting power demand.

While not demanding the closure of the as yet incomplete Temelin plant in the Czech Republic (See NEI July p32 and June p11), safety issues could become a sticking point and Austria remains deeply unhappy. On 25 September Albrecht Rothacher, a representative of the European Commission department for relations with Central and Eastern Europe, said the start-up of Temelin in the Czech Republic should not be an obstacle to Czech entry to the EU.

“Temelin was not assessed as a problematic station, unlike other nuclear sources in the countries of the former Soviet bloc,” he said.

However Austria, a non-nuclear state, is likely to veto the Czech entry should Temelin start producing power. According to Daniel Weselka, deputy director of the Division of General Affairs of Nuclear Coordination within the Austrian government, the Czech authorities have failed to produce an IAEA Issue Book specifying safety issues item by item.

“In particular, convincing answers with respect to containment bypass events are missing,” said Weselka. “I would like to stress that implementing the IAEA Issue Book must not be mistaken as meeting the ‘state-of-the-art’ in the European Union, as requested by the Council of the EU.” According to the EU’s opening statements on accession negotiations, as a condition of EU entry applicant countries must improve nuclear safety “so that it reaches a level corresponding to the technological, regulatory and operational state-of-the-art in the Union”. Austria will argue that the Temelin plant fails to pass the ‘state-of-the-art’ test.

Ondrej Mlady, Temelin’s probabilistic safety manager, dismisses the Austrian criticisms. Mlady claims that the Czech authorities recently answered 40-50 questions put to them regarding Temelin’s safety by Austria.

“Established and accepted safety analysis methodology and acceptance criteria were applied to Temelin, meeting US Nuclear Regulatory Commission and Czech Republic requirements, IAEA guidelines and recommendations,” said Mlady.

Slovakia, which is hoping to join the Czech Republic in the first wave of EU accession nations, has said it is working on a final plan to close the two unit 440 MWe VVER Bohunice plant. Economic minister Ludovit Cernak is reported as saying that Slovakia is willing to compromise with the European Commission over Bohunice and François Lamoureux, the EC’s chief negotiator on accession has said the plant’s closure is the only remaining obstacle to opening talks with Slovakia. The question of compensation for early plant closure is top of the Slovak agenda; plant safety and the possibility of Eastern European nuclear power undercutting Western electricity are the EU’s most pressing concerns.

An initial timetable proposed by Slovakia, closing the units between 2008 and 2012, which would take them to the end of their design lifetimes, has been rejected by the EC. Lamoureux wants a date between 2003 and 2008.

In Bulgaria EU and Bulgarian experts have discussed the problems surrounding the closure of the four 440 MWe units at Kozloduy.

“We want to clarify the technical and economic issues and problems related to the ahead-of-schedule closure of these reactors,” said Enrico Pascuarelli, head of the EU delegation. “We accept that the closure of the four units would result in expenses for the construction of substitute capacities, and for decommissioning. Bulgaria will need support for that and we are ready to discuss how to help.” Bulgaria’s national plan for power sector development indicates closure dates for units 1 and 2 in 2004-5 and units 3 and 4 between 2008 and 2010.

Lithuania is perhaps the most difficult problem. Despite the fact that the two 1500 MWe RBMK units at Ignalina produce as much as 80% of the country’s power, the government has indicated its national energy strategy would see unit 1 close in 2005. Lithuania hopes this announcement will ease its passage to EU membership. The EU has indicated it is prepared to meet about half the closure costs and according to Lithuanian radio the UK has committed to providing closure funds.

Closing unit 1 at Ignalina could cost 2.4 billion euros, according to Lithuania’s economics minister Eugenijus Maldeikis. Replacing the lost power and modernising Lithuania’s power sector would be another 666 million euros.

The EC has welcomed Lithuania’s decision to begin decommissioning at Ignalina. In return for closing unit 1, Lithuania will receive “substantial long-term financial assistance” from the EU, G7 and other international financial institutions, said an EC statement. The Commission said Lithuania could now make use of funding under the EU’s Euratom Loan financing programme and the PHARE programme for prospective EU members in Eastern Europe.

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