European neighbors see red over nuclear plant

Austrian protesters end border blockades today after agreement on inspections.

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Until Thursday night, two dozen tractors parked higgledy-piggledy on the border crossing here symbolized the peak of a decade-long dispute between Austria and the Czech Republic.

For two months, Austrian protesters blocked border crossings, demanding that the newly opened Czech nuclear power plant at Temelin, some 30 miles away, be shut down and reassessed for safety. Vienna went as far as threatening to veto Prague's application to join the European Union. Traffic was expected to get back to normal today, after environmentalists said they had succeeded in raising the issue to a European level.

"If we had only demonstrated, nothing would have happened," says Josef Neumuller, initiator of the blockade at Wullowitz. "Evidently the blockade worked - there was no stronger form of pressure." Accusing their own government of ignoring their interests, citizens from the border region called the blockades last month as the first of Temelin's two reactors went online.

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At a meeting Oct. 31, Czech Premier Milos Zeman and Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schussel agreed to have an EU-sponsored commission of experts check Temelin's safety. Yet it is only a partial victory for the protesters, who want the reactor shut down until the inspection takes place - and ultimately closed for good. Austria has been officially nuclear-free since a referendum in 1978.

At the same time, the EU Commissioner for Enlargement Gunter Verheugen has said that in the end, Temelin is Prague's decision.

"The Austrians are trying to convince partners in the EU that it's necessary to adopt nuclear-safety standards. We don't have a problem with that. We'll be prepared to respect them," says Bedrich Kopecky, head of the Central Europe desk in the Czech Foreign Ministry.

What Czechs object to, is perceived bullying by their Western neighbor on an issue of national sovereignty, and an imposition of Western values - distrust of nuclear energy. The Austrian side, meanwhile, insists that nuclear power is an international issue concerning all of Europe.

It's an odd twist in their relationship: Earlier this year, the Czech Republic joined the EU in isolating Austria diplomatically for including a far-right party in its government. Austria declared that was no one's business but its own.

Construction of Temelin began in 1986 using Soviet guidelines. After the collapse of Communist rule, the Czech government decided to complete the plant using technology from the US company Westinghouse. The project faced numerous delays and a price tag of nearly $3 billion.

Temelin opponents say this hybrid of Soviet and Western technologies has never been tested. Austrian activists claim Czech authorities have refused to provide information on safety or to supply inadequate documentation. The Czech government flatly rejects considering environmentalists as partners in a dialogue.

In addition, the Austrian environment minister told protesters that his office only found out about minor incidents at Temelin through the media.

Petr Krs, deputy chairman of the State Office for Nuclear Safety in Prague, allows that the Czechs had problems with the "transfer of information" in the past, but says that cooperation with other foreign experts, particularly from Germany, has been good.

While Mr. Krs agrees that Austrians have a right to protest, "they have to accept the arguments. Maybe I'm afraid of flying, but if someone shows the possibility of an accident is small, I have to accept that."

Prague is defensive of its long-term energy strategy, which foresees increasing reliance on nuclear power to 40 percent of total needs and decreasing use of coal plants that have ravaged the North Bohemia region through acid rain and strip mining.

Critics point out that even without Temelin, the Czech Republic runs an energy surplus and exports electricity. Should consumer demand grow with economic development, says Dalibor Strasky, it will be offset by the increased energy efficiency of industries competing on the EU market. An adviser to the Czech environment minister and a former Temelin technician, Mr. Strasky says the plant is superfluous: "It's short-sighted thinking, nothing else. There is no rational reason why it should go online."

A second meeting between the Austrian and Czech premiers is scheduled later this month, but protesters in Wullowitz are skeptical of the results. "There is a big disappointment and bitterness in the region that the EU doesn't help us," says Mr. Neumuller, the blockade organizer. Another activist expects the blockades to resume in three weeks.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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