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Nuclear plants anger activists

No environmental issue in Slovakia invokes the passionate emotions the nuclear debate does. Burning questions over the safety of the Russian-designed plants are unlikely to vanish until they are completely shut down: the US Department of Energy in 1995 ranked one of the country's reactors one of the nine most dangerous in the world, while the company Electricité de France, a former key supplier to Slovakia's nuclear sector, said the reactor in question could never reach an acceptable level of safety, regardless of upgrades.
But while Slovak energy officials say that safety concerns have been met through upgrades and the promise of shut downs beginning in 2006, other questions have arisen, concerns which are forcing the country's energy policy makers to examine the operation of the nuclear sector.


The Jaslovské Bohunice facility is to be shut down from 2006-2008, but the fate of Mochovce remains unclear.
photo: TASR

No environmental issue in Slovakia invokes the passionate emotions the nuclear debate does. Burning questions over the safety of the Russian-designed plants are unlikely to vanish until they are completely shut down: the US Department of Energy in 1995 ranked one of the country's reactors one of the nine most dangerous in the world, while the company Electricité de France, a former key supplier to Slovakia's nuclear sector, said the reactor in question could never reach an acceptable level of safety, regardless of upgrades.

But while Slovak energy officials say that safety concerns have been met through upgrades and the promise of shut downs beginning in 2006, other questions have arisen, concerns which are forcing the country's energy policy makers to examine the operation of the nuclear sector.

Slovakia currently has two operational nuclear power plants, one at Jaslovské Bohunice in western Slovakia which began operation in 1978, and another at Mochovce in the central Nitra region, which had its first reactor go on line in August 1998. Controversy surrounds both sites.

At Mochovce, where two of four reactors are completed and operating, the question of whether to continue construction is being hotly debated. Environmental groups and economic analysts say the country cannot afford to finish construction, while energy sector insiders say that the two additional reactors will be required to make up for lost energy production when the elder Bohunice is shut down between 2006 and 2008.

"Domestic sources can only provide the country with 8% of our primary fuel resources - 6.5% coal and 1.5% oil - while the remaining 92% must be imported from other countries," said Mochovce spokesman Rastislav Petrech. "Therefore, we need an alternative source. When a country has its own power plant, it is more self-sufficient and more independent. Nuclear power is the best alternative."

He added: "When Bohunice shuts down, we will lose critical energy which we will have to replace by completing construction of Mochovce's third and fourth reactors."

But Ľubica Trubíniová, the head of Greenpeace Slovakia, said that by utilising alternative, eco-friendly sources of energy and by teaching the public to be more responsible with their energy consuption, nuclear power would be unnecessary.

"We should use sustainable and renewable resources such as gas-steam stations, solar energy and wind energy," she said. "Furthermore, if we emphasise energy saving and efficiency as our main priority, we could reduce energy consumption by up to 65%. Countries like [nuclear-free] Austria are following this trend towards sustainable resources, and they will soon get 20% of their energy in this way."

Trubíniová added that the costs of contructing and eventually decommissioning the nuclear reactors were too high for the Slovak economy to afford, an assertion which has in the past been echoed by Deputy Prime Minister for Economy Ivan Mikloš.

"Ivan Mikloš is a realist and an economist," said Grigorij Mezežnikov, president of the Bratislava-based Institute for Public Affairs. "He has opposed [the price of building the third and fourth blocks at Mochovce] because our economy is absolutely not able to support the costs."

But Mochovce's Petrech countered that although initial investment in the nuclear plants had been expensive, the country would actually save money in the long run because of nuclear power's efficiency and because Slovakia would eventually be able to produce enough power to become an energy exporter. "In 1998 we were forced to import 8% of our total energy, while in 1999 we achieved a balance," he said. "We could have an excess of energy this year."

The price of decommissioning the retired plants has also been debated. The TASR news agency quoted a source within the Economy Ministry on June 27 as saying that closing the aging V1 reactor at Bohunice in 2006 would cost some 15 billion Slovak crowns.

Besides a 500 million euro fund provided by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) - which will also assist in the closeures of dangerous blocks in Lithuania and Bulgaria - Petrech said that the remaining costs would be covered by a fund established in 1995 under the law for the liquidation of nuclear facilities and the storage of radioactive waste. The fund is fed by a 10% premium from the price of electricity produced at the country's two nuclear power plants.

But according to an Economy Ministry document dated August 11, the fund would fall far short of covering all the costs. While nuclear plant operator Slovenské Elektrárne is expected to pay 51.9 billion cowns to the fund by 2005, the overall costs of the decommissioning and waste storage for the same period should amount to 105.9 billion crowns, the document stated.

Meanwhile, the debate over the Bohunice reactors has crossed international borders and endangered Slovakia's European Union ambitions. Although the short-lived 1994 government of Jozef Moravčík promised that the Russian-designed V1 reactor at Bohunice would be shut down before the year 2000, the Dzurinda government last April cancelled the decision, saying that it would cost the country too much money to shut down the reactors before their lifespans had expired.

Western countries were outraged by the decision, neighbouring Austria so much so that they threatened to block Slovakia's entry into the European Union.

"I wouldn't say that the debate has jeopardised Slovakia's EU entry, but I would say that it has complicated the matter," Mesežnikov said. "The Slovak government was in a very difficult position. They did not build these plants, they were inherited from the communist regime. But I expect the EU to accept the decision to close Bohunice between 2006 and 2008."

For Greenpeace's Trubíniová, however, six years down the road is simply too long to wait. "When you talk about the advantages and disadvantages of nuclear power, I simply cannot see any of the advantages," she said. "First of all, the Slovak economy simply cannot afford to pour billions of crowns into the nuclear sector. Furthermore, it has been clearly documented that radioactivity badly damages all living organisms. There is no such thing as an acceptable dosage level of radiation."

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