Austria and the European Union turned up the heat on Slovakia recently in an effort to force the country to close its aging Jaslovské Bohunice nuclear power plant ahead of schedule. The Slovak government has said it cannot afford to close the plant before 2008 to 2010 at the earliest, but Austrian and EU politicians have warned that if Bohunice's V1 and V2 reactors are not shut down next year, they will block Slovakia's EU entry drive at the Helsinki summit this December.
The pressure last week came from two main sources - Francois Lamoureux, co-chair of the EC-Slovakia working group, and Austrian Minister for Women's Affairs and Consumer Protection Barbara Prammer.
Lamoureux said on September 10, after a two-day meeting of a joint working group between Slovak and European Commission (EC) officials that Slovakia may not be invited for European Union entry talks unless the two V1 Bohunice blocks are shut down soon. Lamoureux flatly rejected the Slovak government's proposal that Bohunice be upgraded and kept open until 2008. "We will not accept the answer that the nuclear reactors can be modernized," he said.
The working group had been meeting to evaluate the progress Slovakia has made on its path to EU entry. An EC report on Slovakia may prove decisive at an EU summit scheduled for Helsinki in December, where Slovakia hopes to be elevated to the vanguard of countries queueing for EU acceptance.
Prammer, for her part, said on August 31 that it would be "impossible" for Slovakia to enter the EU unless it shut down Bohunice first, and warned that Austria would use its veto to block Slovakia's EU ambitions if it did not get its way. The Austrian position was hammered home again at a meeting of Slovak and Austrian nuclear energy experts in western Slovakia's Zavazna Poruba over the September 11 - 12 weekend.
Nuclear-free Austria will hold national elections on October 3, and Prammer as a member of Chancellor Viktor Klima's Social Democrat Party, the strongest Austrian political subject, is expected to talk tough on the nuclear plants operated by former east-bloc countries.
In the face of such pressure, Slovak Deputy Prime Minister for European Integration Pavol Hamžík said on September 9 that Slovakia would indeed consider closing the disputed blocks - for a price. In return for Slovakia's compliance, Hamžík demanded a guarantee of early EU entry as well as EU funding to compensate Slovakia for the economic losses incurred in shutting down the plant.
"We want that everything will be in the best interest of Slovakia," Hamžík stated.
In April, the Slovak government broke its 1994 promise to shut down operations at the Russian-designed Bohunice plant by the year 2000. The state has since said it would not close the first block until 2008, with the second block closing in 2010.
The Slovak government has said that a complete shut down of the nuclear plant would cost the state too much money. Therefore, the government prefers to upgrade safety measures aimed at indefinitely increasing the lifespan of the plant.
A meeting of the Slovak cabinet on September 14 was widely expected to bring some decision on Bohunice's closure, but the government issued only a terse communiqué saying that it had "taken note" of concerns about the plant, and would take a final decision on a closure date in several weeks.
Slovak Deputy Foreign Minister Ján Figeľ promised that the cabinet would adopt a "realistic" plant closure schedule by the end of September. "I believe this plan will not prevent our entry [into the EU]," he said.
From press reports