Czech Pursuit of Nuclear Power Combines US, Soviet Technology

Prague argues need to replace old, dirty utilities; activists see potential for Chernobyl-style disaster

THE Czech Republic's push to complete a new type of nuclear plant is generating concerns of a Chernobyl-type accident among environmental groups and neighboring nations.

Located in Temelin, about 60 miles south of Prague and 35 miles north of the Austrian border, the new two-reactor plant will be built according to an old Soviet design, while containing control and safety systems installed by Westinghouse Electric Corp. The project marks the first attempt in the history of nuclear power to combine Soviet and Western technologies on such a large scale.

Officials of the Czech national utility, known by its initials CEZ, insist there is no reason to worry about the plant's safety standards. But activist groups such as Greenpeace and Rainbow, a Czech organization, are skeptical. Greenpeace says not enough testing has been done to determine how well the Soviet and Western systems will interact at Temelin.

``It's not a well-tested mix. The chances that something could happen are relatively big,'' Vera Frankova, a Prague-based Greenpeace nuclear-energy expert said in a telephone interview.

Austrian officials also vigorously oppose Temelin's construction, but Vienna's attempts to halt the project have strained relations with Prague. Czech Minister for Industry and Trade Vladimir Dlouhy has criticized Austrian actions as interference in the Czech Republic's internal affairs.

Originally planned as a four-reactor plant, the Temelin project cleared its largest hurdle March 11 when the US Export-Import Bank board approved a $317 million loan guarantee to help cover the costs of construction. CEZ has a roughly $425 million contract with Westinghouse for control and safety systems, and provisions of nuclear fuel

The Czech utility had worked out a financing deal for Temelin with a consortium of commercial banks, led by Citibank International. But Citibank wanted guarantees in place before releasing the bulk of the loan. Belgium's Export-Import Bank also is providing financing guarantees.

Construction on Temelin began on the plant in 1986, when the Iron Curtain was still in place and the Czech Republic was a member of the Warsaw Pact. That same year, a Soviet-style reactor blew up in the Ukrainian city of Chernobyl, sending clouds of radiation rolling across Europe and killing hundreds of people.

Although the Temelin reactors were to be of a different Soviet design from those at Chernobyl, officials took a step back from work on the new plant in the aftermath of the disaster. Then came the Velvet Revolution of 1989 and the toppling of the Communist regime in Prague. The Westinghouse deal followed in 1992, as Czech officials hoped to bring the project up to Western standards.

Temelin is now scheduled to begin operating in 1996.

Although Greenpeace lost the battle over the Ex-Im Bank credits, it intends to carry on the fight against Temelin, Ms. Frankova said. The organization is now trying to mobilize public opinion to oppose the construction of new nuclear-waste-disposal facilities.

Czech law prohibits the export or import of toxic or nuclear waste. Temelin could face logistical difficulties when it comes to building waste disposal sites in the Czech Republic.

As it makes the transition from Communism to a market economy, the Czech Republic faces the daunting environmental mess left behind by the old regime. In connection with cleanup efforts, CEZ wants to close some of the worst polluting power-generating facilities now in operation.

Without nuclear reactors, such as Temelin, to replace the outdated power stations, Czech industry will face a severe energy crunch at a time when it is already hard-pressed by the demands of retooling for a market economy, government and CEZ officials argue.

But Frankova argues that, in the case of the Czech Republic, basing a development strategy on nuclear power is moving in the wrong direction. ``Investment should be put into energy saving and energy efficiency,'' the activist says.

At the heart of the issue is a lax attitude toward waste that exists throughout the former Soviet bloc. The Communist system fostered this attitude by keeping energy prices artificially low through huge subsidies.

According to a study prepared for Greenpeace, 52 percent of the electricity used in the Czech Republic in 1991 could have been conserved using technology available at the time.

Even so, some independent analysts say that even with conservation, nuclear power will have to be a major source of energy in 21st-century Europe.

``Natural gas and oil are uncertain and unstable commodities, and coal is dirty and expensive,'' says Phillip Ellis at Paris-based energy consulting firm Booz-Allen & Hamilton. ``Like it or not, nuclear power will have some role in supplying energy in Europe.''

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