Temelin gets go-ahead

28 May 1999

The latest twists in the 20 year history of the Temelin nuclear plant in Bohemia are worthy of the Czechs’ talent for political farce.

On 12 May the Czech cabinet voted by 11 to 8 to continue and complete the two 1000 MWe units at the Temelin nuclear power plant. The first power from the station should be supplied in August 2000.

Since its inception over 20 years ago the plant has been dogged by cost overruns and delays, the most significant of which was due to a decision made following the collapse of communism in 1989 to introduce Western safety standards. CEZ, the state power company and investor, brought in Westinghouse to overhaul the control and instrumentation system. As a result of the cost of the plant has risen to 100 billion crowns (about $3 billion).

The government has decided to complete the plant on the basis that it will put the country in a strong long-term position.

“I am trying to push for what, according to my opinion, is most effective and best for the national economy and for industry,” said Trade Minister Miroslav Gregr, the government’s most vociferous supporter of the project. “In this case, it was completing construction of Temelin. I can say that I am satisfied. Reason triumphed over ideology or new-age religion.” A Russian designed VVER, Temelin was originally planned when Czechoslovakia’s demand for electricity was growing rapidly and the country depended on dirty power stations burning lignite in the northern Bohemia region. Temelin’s production would allow the country to close some of its most environmentally damaging coal stations. However following the 1989 revolution a large proportion of the industrial base shut down and electricity demand dropped sharply. Critics of the plant argue that Temelin’s power is not needed, the coal fired stations have been cleaned up and that the plant will remain a political and economic white elephant for the country. Opposition to the plant’s completion has come not only from within the Czech Republic, but also from Austria which is threatening to block the Czech Republic’s entry into the European Union should Temelin go critical. The border between the two countries is 100 kilometres from the plant.

The most high profile critic in recent weeks has the the Czech President Vaclav Havel. Speaking shortly before the cabinet decision he argued that as cost of the plant had inexorably risen over the years he had no reason to trust CEZ’s figure of 100 billion crowns as a final total.

“They [CEZ leading managers] have already let me down nine times and I cannot see why I should believe that they will keep their promises this time,” he said.

“There are a number of issues I am seriously concerned about. First and foremost, I am worried that the total costs of the project will climb up to 140 billion crowns; that is if they manage to complete it successfully. Furthermore, I fear that even if they do manage to complete the project, the nuclear plant will be put into operation a year of two later than originally promised.

“I also fear that our grandchildren will not have the 90 billion crowns necessary for the liquidation of this nuclear plant when the time has come to close it down and they will not be able to dismantle it without harming the environment.” Gregr criticised Havel, a figurehead without political authority, for not arguing from a realistic position.

“Mr President spoke of it more on a philosophical level,” he said, “these kinds of instigations and suggestions are not compatible with rational behaviour and rational decision-making. We decided on the basis of concrete figures and concrete studies.” Austria’s opposition is based on environmental concerns; a recent EU report criticised Temelin’s management for being less than open over safety and environmental concerns (See NEI, April p4). The EU has stated Temelin will have to meet Western safety standards for the Czech Republic to be accepted into the organisation.

“The Czech Republic could hardly have paved a worst path for its way to the EU,” said Austrian foreign minister Wolfgang Schuessel.

However many in the Czech Republic suspect that interests within the EU do not want to see Temelin start up because it may allow the Czech Republic to export power more cheaply than EU nations.

“One reason for this fight is possibly the industrial lobby from abroad,” said a representative of Energoproject Praha. “Temelin’s power will be cheap and we will be able to export power to Austria and Germany.” Given that both countries now have anti-nuclear policies, this would obviously be a political problem.

Czech groups opposed to Temelin are likely to attempt to delay the project further through legal procedures. In particular, the Czech high court recently ruled that non-governmental organisations (NGOs) had a right to demand an environmental impact assessment (EIAs) of the plant. NGOs have demanded that EIAs be carried out on hundreds of modifications to the plant design which have been implemented in recent years. Should these actions take place, opposition groups are confident that they can delay plant start up by years and significantly increase the costs.

While Temelin remains on track, there are few who are totally confident that it will eventually produce power. The Czech government has a minority in parliament and is politically weak. Former environment minister Martin Bursik said the decision was not based on economic reality.

“The Social Democrats have taken on the responsibility for the completion and the losses to the national economy which will arise from this,” he said. “It is neither the first nor the last cabinet to make a decision on Temelin.”

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