On the thirteenth anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe April 26, the Slovak government broke its 1994 promise to shut down operations of the Russian-designed Jaslovské Bohunice V1 nuclear power plant by the year 2000, instead announcing that the plant would receive safety measure upgrades aimed at increasing the plant's life-span indefinitely.
The decision sparked uproars of protest from various groups who said that the government's unwillingness to honour the past agreement creates an image of Slovakia as an unstable state, while others warned that keeping the plant open could endanger the country's European Union aspirations.
Robert Žitňanský, adviser to Deputy Prime Minister for the Economy Ivan Mikloš, told Reuters that the oldest reactor, V1, would be phased out at some point but that there were now no specific plans for the closure of the V2 reactor.
"For the moment the government plans to keep the V2 reactor on line," Žitňanský said. "The fundamental reason for this plan is the estimated losses in energy if V1 were closed down immediately and V2 soon."
The two nuclear power plants in Slovakia, both of which are operated by the state-run and debt-ridden energy monopoly Slovenské Elektrárne (SE), have been an issue of dispute since the government's 1994 promise to shut down operations at Bohunice. In response to criticism, plant operators say that the facilities meet western safety standards and are constantly subjected to international safety inspections.
In an April 25 press conference, Slovak Nuclear Supervisory Office spokesman Mojmír Šeliga announced that the International Agency for Atomic Energy (IAAE) had recently praised Slovakia for its "positive attitude towards nuclear safety." The IAAE added that Slovakia's national report confirmed that the plants were operating in accordance to the "Agreement on Nuclear Safety" legislation ratified by the country in 1995.
Favourable appraisal of Slovak nuclear operations came as no surprise for Robert Holý, the Information Centre director at Mochovce. Critisism of nuclear plants, he said, usually originated from the most unlearned sources. "It's my experience that the people who are the most scared of nuclear power are also the people who are the most ignorant of it," he said in a February interview with The Slovak Spectator.
In light of the April 26 decision, however, organisations such as Greenpeace have expressed extreme dissatisfaction with the decision to continue operations at Bohunice. On April 25 in Brussels, Greenpeace spokesman Ben Pearson called the move a "provocative challenge" to the European Union and called on the EU to discontinue accession discussions with Slovakia until it agreed to shut the two reactors at Jaslovské Bohunice.
"This decision means that these acutely dangerous units will continue to operate, and threaten the populations and environment of Europe for years to come," he said in a statement. "Greenpeace is calling on the European Commission and all EU member states to refuse to begin negotiations with Slovakia on EU membership unless the 1994 decree is reinstated."
Local Greenpeace representatives also criticised the decision, saying that the reversal created an image of a country not willing to keep its promises. "We are not happy with the decision," said Juraj Rizman, spokesperson for Greenpeace Slovakia. "First, [the government] told our neighbours that they'd stop the plant in '93, then '95, and then 2000, and now they've changed it again. It looks to our neighbours like we are not a stable partner and that could create problems for EU integration."
During discussions with EU hopefuls, one of the sticking points expressed by EU representatives was that some of the eastern European countries would have to shut down their oldest and least-safe nuclear power stations. According to Reuters, one European Commission spokesman implied that the failure to do so could bar entrance.
"Nobody's ever said it's an absolute condition for membership, but certainly things would be very difficult for them if they didn't shut these places down," the EC spokesman said.
Austria is one of the staunchest opponents to Slovak nuclear power, particularly of the Bohunice plant, which sits just 60 kilometres from the Slovak-Austrian border. Slovakia's neighbour to the west also protested Slovakia's decision to bring its second nuclear power station at Mochovce on line last June and recently expressed continued concern at the International Conference on the Agreement of Nuclear Safety in Vienna April 12 - 23.
According to the SITA news agency, the Slovak delegation fielded 103 questions at the conference, with more than one-quarter of them (28) raised by Austrian representatives, mainly concerning Bohunice. Hungary, Japan and the Czech Republic were reported to have also asked numerous questions of the Slovak representatives.
With press reports
3. May 1999 at 0:00 | Chris Togneri