Published on Friday, September 15, 2000 in the Guardian of London
Czechs Face Green Blockade Over New Nuclear Plant
by Kate Connolly in Temelin
Tens of thousands of environmental activists plans to block the 26 border crossings between Austria and the Czech Republic today in protest at Czech plans to start up a Soviet-designed nuclear power plant in the next few days.
The organisers said they intended to use tractors and cars to prevent traffic crossing the border, and would set off nuclear warning sirens.
The Temelin nuclear power station in southern Bohemia is due to start operating before the end of the month. Situated 90 miles south of Prague, 30 miles north of the border with nuclear-free Austria, and 38 miles east of Germany, it has become the focus of growing anger in the region.
The Czech's western neighbours say it poses a huge safety risk to central Europe. The Czechs, who have spent more than 100bn crowns (£1.7bn) on it - £687m over budget - insist that input by western experts has made it as safe as any in the west. Its safety control system has been upgraded to state-of-the-art by the US company Westinghouse.
But it is is causing diplomatic tension between the Czech Republic and Austria. Earlier this month Austrian MPs called on the government to delay Prague's EU membership talks until the problem was resolved. They insist on EU safety checks being carried out. The EU has demanded an environmental impact study.
An Austrian newspaper survey last week showed that 92% of Austrians believe Czech accession to the EU should depend on it abandoning Temelin. The Czech Republic is one of six countries in the first group of candidates in line for EU membership.
The controversy has become entangled with a long-standing political dispute over the Benes decrees, which enabled the post-war deportation of 2.5m ethnic Germans from Czechoslovakia to Germany and Austria. Many Austrian politicians want the decrees abolished as a condition of Czech membership of the EU.
The Czech foreign minister, Jan Kavan, said this week that independent experts from both sides would visit Temelin before it went on stream to discuss the issues.
The deputy prime minister, Vladimir Spidla, said that Czechs did not want to put themselves or their neighbours at risk. "When putting Temelin into operation, the government will proceed in accordance with national and international habits and regulations, and we see it as our task to spread that message on a diplomatic level," he said.
One of the organisers of today's protest, Rudi Anschober, leader of the Green party in the Austrian upper house, said: "We want an immediate halt to the construction of the station, a six-month break for revision, a thorough environmental impact assessment according to EU standards, publication of all project documentation and neighbouring countries to have access to that information."
Today's blockade follows lower-key protests on the Bavarian and upper Austrian borders. A further blockade of crossings between Bavaria and south Bohemia is planned on Sunday.
The reactor has divided Czech MPs in recent weeks, but as the international pressure has grown, so too has the Prague government's tendency to see the plant as a test of national honour.
Work on it began 16 years ago under communist rule and it was due to open in November 1992, in time for the 75th anniversary celebration of the Russian revolution. But it was interrupted by the fall of communism and shelved as an all-too poignant symbol of Soviet imperialism.
The plant was resurrected by the then prime minister, Vaclav Klaus, on the grounds that additional energy was needed to meet the growing domestic demand. But most of its opponents insist that the republic already has an energy surplus and that Temelin's output will be dumped on the international market at 30% or so below production costs.
"We now export annually 12 terrawatt-hours, or 25% of the electricity we produce, and Temelin would produce a further 11 to 12 terrawatt-hours a year, doubling our overcapacity," said Jan Beranek, a nuclear campaigner for Friends of the Earth in Prague. He and other experts say the plant will never be able to pay for itself.
The Czech energy company, CEZ, defends the safety of the plant, pointing out that 12 missions from the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna have visited it since 1990.
But recently more and more whistle-blowers have been voicing concern about safety issues at Temelin. "Several people, including skilled craftspeople and experts have approached us with information, because they said they couldn't live with a clear conscience about the irregularities they saw taking place," said Jan Haverkamp, an energy expert for Greenpeace.
These allegedly include faulty welding, irregularities in testing and continuing water leaks in valves in the reactor cooling system.
Greenpeace is concerned that at least one whistle-blowers has "disappeared" in the past few days. "We simply can't find him. He might have got scared and gone underground, but we're worried that someone's tried to silence him," Mr Haverkamp said.
Eastern Europe has 60 active nuclear reactors and 13 more under construction. Between 1991 and 1999 the EU invested more than 900m euros in the safety of plants in the region.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2000