Nuclear power row divides European neighbours

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The Independent Online

A diplomatic storm has broken out in the heart of Europe over the imminent activation of a Soviet-designed nuclear reactor in the Czech Republic that Germany and Austria say is unsafe.

A diplomatic storm has broken out in the heart of Europe over the imminent activation of a Soviet-designed nuclear reactor in the Czech Republic that Germany and Austria say is unsafe.

The argument over the Temelin reactor - going online in a fortnight - deepened yesterday when Vienna threatened to veto Czech member- ship of the European Union if the plant 30 miles from its border is switched on.

The plant was commissioned in 1983 by the Czechoslovak Communist government but never finished. It has since been modernised by a subsidiary of British Nuclear Fuels (BNFL). A spokesman for the plant accused the Austrians yesterday of running a "hysterical and demagogic campaign" against it.

More worrying for the Czechs, the German government said its nuclear watchdog, the GRS, was not convinced the reactor was safe, and demanded urgent meetings with Czech authorities.

Temelin's two reactors are Russian VVER-1000s, regarded as the safest of the Russian designs, and radically different from the reactor in the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. Parts of the plant - the instrumentation and control - are being replaced with American designs by the US firm Westinghouse, a BNFL subsidiary.

The most serious of the German watchdog's concerns appears to be that safety valves allowing coolant steam out of the reactor cannot cope if water comes out instead, a rare but potentially dangerous event first identified in the 1979 Three Mile Island disaster.

The Czech nuclear licensing authority, the SUJB, is confident it has resolved the other two concerns identified by the GRS. One is a fear that cooling pipes may break, the other is that emergency batteries do not have enough capacity.

Throughout the plant's construction, it has been bombarded by claims, albeit unsubstantiated, of safety lapses and incompetence.

The environmental organisa-tion Greenpeace filed a criminal complaint last week, claiming safety documents had been falsified to cover up an incompetent repair on the main cooling pipes to the reactor, which, the group says, could lead to the pipes breaking, a disaster that has never happened in a nuclear power plant. The SUJB insists the pipes were correctly repaired and thoroughly tested.

The environmental group also claims there are cracks in the reactor vessel larger than the safety limit, but offers no documentary evidence. The SUJB says the cracks are well within the safety limit. A Czech engineer who worked on the project says pipes were not properly cleaned, which could allow dirt to get into the reactor. The SUJB says they were thoroughly cleaned. There are claims nuclear fuel was moved without precautions and radioactivity escaped. The SUJB denies this.

Around the reactor site, in the rolling hills of south Bohemia, opinion is sharply divided. People say they have been issued with two small tablets each, and told to take them if anything goes wrong at the power plant, whose four massive cooling towers loom over their homes.

"They should have switched it on months ago," says Frantisek Petrasek. "We should be making money from it. The Germans should mind their own business. They're just trying to ruin our economy. We've already sold most of the country to the West as it is."

But Gerhard Draschko, visiting from Austria with his two children, says: "Of course I'm scared. I'm scared for the children." The family lives just across the border, 30 miles from Temelin.

Jana Rosa, a Czech who owns a café near Temelin, says: "The Germans say it's not safe and I think they're right.

Her husband, Vladimir, says: "What can we do? Nobody asked us about it. It was decided in communist times, when they made the decisions and just told us, 'Shut up'. Nothing's changed." A national referendum on Temelin was proposed but never materialised.

"Now they've spent so much of our taxes on it, we have to switch it on so we can get the money back," Mr Rosa says.

Horst Lampert, an anti-nuclear campaigner who lives a few miles away, says: "Czech people don't realise we have a democracy now. They think we have to accept what the politicians decide, like in the old days. They don't realise we can object, so they don't."

Mr Lampert, who organises holidays in the Czech Republic for the child victims of the Chernobyl, says: "The children of Chernobyl have no hair, they know there is no cure for them and they know they're dying.

"I have three children and two grandchildren. Of course I'm worried."