Anti-nuclear campaigners close Czech border in protest at Soviet-era reactor

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The Independent Online

Demonstrators closed the entire border between Austria and the Czech Republic yesterday in protest at the latter's plans to activate a Soviet-designed nuclear reactor in the heart of Europe.

Demonstrators closed the entire border between Austria and the Czech Republic yesterday in protest at the latter's plans to activate a Soviet-designed nuclear reactor in the heart of Europe.

The Temelin nuclear reactor, modernised by a subsidiary of British Nuclear Fuels (BNFL), is due to be switched on in a matter of days, but both Austria and Germany say it is unsafe. Austria has threatened to veto Czech membership of the European Union if it is activated, and Germany is demanding that serious safety concerns raised by its independent nuclear watchdog are addressed.

The environmental organisation Greenpeace has claimed a number of serious safety shortcomings at Temelin, and filed a criminal complaint. But the Czech authorities insist it is safe, and that it will be activated when testing is completed - possibly in a matter of days.

The reactor is situated only 30 miles from the border with Austria, where public opinion is heavily against it. More than 4,000 protesters turned out yesterday for the third blockade in a month, which closed all crossings between Austria and the republic. The Czech government has accused its neighbour's authorities of aiding the blockades, but they are expected to spread to Germany this weekend, with a large protest on the border on Sunday.

The German nuclear watchdog raised a number of safety concerns, the most serious of which is that safety valves for coolant steam may not be able to cope if water comes out instead of steam - a problem first identified in the Three Mile Island nuclear incident in the United States in 1979.

The reactor at Temelin is a Soviet-designed VVER-1000, a radically different design from the reactor involved in the Chernobyl disaster in 1986. The plant's instrumentation and control have been replaced by American designs by Westinghouse, a subsidiary of BNFL.

Greenpeace has filed a criminal complaint claiming safety documents were faked to cover up a shoddy repair to piping in reactor's main cooling circuit. It also alleges cracking beyond the safety limit in the main reactor vessel. The Czech licensing authority denies both claims.

The protests are unlikely to stop Temelin being activated. The Czechs have invested $3bn (£2.1bn) in it, and CEZ, the electricity company that will operate it, would be bankrupt but for government bail-outs. Abandoning Temelin may just be too expensive for the country.

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