West Goes Critical Over Soviet-Era Nuclear Plant

IN a big-power drama over who will fix up a potentially unsafe and thus controversial nuclear power plant in Central Europe, the West may be losing.

Western companies, which had the inside track to finish building the plant in the Slovakian town of Mochovce, face the prospect of losing to either a Russian or Czech offer. The West wants Slovakia to meet its strict safety standards.

In 1991, Slovakia ran out of money to complete the plant, which had a Soviet design that lacks a full containment structure in case of an accident. Last year, the French state utility Electricite de France (EDF) and its Slovak counterpart entered a partnership to complete the plant for $880 million. Neighboring Austria vehemently opposes the plant.

Part of the construction cost was to have been covered by an expected $290 million loan from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) -- provided that Western safety standards were upheld, and that two older, more dangerous reactors were shut down in Bohunice, at Slovakia's existing plant.

Just as the deal was expect to be settled last month, surprise counterbids have emerged. Though some environmental groups expressed doubt that Slovakia would adhere to EDF guidelines, the new players are still more unlikely to bring Mochovce up to Western standards.

Skoda-Praha, a Czech-based engineering firm, has offered to complete the project for 30 percent less than EDF. This followed a Russian government offer to contribute $150 million in equipment and capital to the project.

Slovakia has asked the EBRD to postpone making any decision about their loan, and are believed to have asked EDF to renegotiate its bid.

''We were certainly very surprised,'' says EDF international relations department head Yves Mrat. ''I'm not sure what will happen now. The decisions are entirely in the hands of the Slovaks.''

IF Slovakia completes the Mochovce plant without Western involvement, the government may be under no contractual obligation to close the older, more dangerous Bohunice reactors.

Skoda-Praha claims it can raise needed funds for Mochovce from Czech commercial banks, while Russians have told Reuters that the Slovaks are considering obtaining capital from Russian commercial banks.

''It is too early to speak of this,'' Slovak Ministry of Economy energy department head Imrich Szitas says. ''We will explore all our alternatives, maybe combine them.''

In the past month, Slovak Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar backed away from two conditions of the EBRD loan: an increase in electricity prices and a pledge to close the Bohunice reactors by the year 2000. He said the reactors could not be shut down until the new plant was on-line.

Slovak officials were expected to speak with EBRD President Jacques de Larosiere this week at the bank's London headquarters. Slovak Finance Minister Sergei Kozlik said April 3 that the government would decide within a month who will finance the project.

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