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Reaching for the Bohunice gun

THE NAME Jaslovské Bohunice certainly has a ring of familiarity in the European Union: not a particularly positive one, to be sure, but certainly a name that has the potential to make the member states and European commissioners sit up and pay attention.

THE NAME Jaslovské Bohunice certainly has a ring of familiarity in the European Union: not a particularly positive one, to be sure, but certainly a name that has the potential to make the member states and European commissioners sit up and pay attention.

The name owes its fame not to the small municipality of Jaslovské Bohunice located 60 kilometres from Bratislava, but to the V1 nuclear power plant’s VVER 440/V230 reactors next door. They are more commonly described in the western European media, in a vague but unsettling way presumably intended to jog memories of Chernobyl (though they are not the same), just as ‘Soviet-type’ reactors. Slovakia pledged to decommission them when it signed its accession treaty with the European Union.

Part of the reason for the name’s constant reappearance is that over the past five years Slovakia has had several politicians who simply could not come to terms with the fact that Slovakia had promised to unplug and decommission the V1’s two reactor blocks: the first one by December 31, 2006 and the second by the end of 2008.

As the 2006 switch-off deadline loomed, it was former television station owner and one-time economy minister Pavol Rusko who volunteered to take on the huge - and ultimately futile - mission of persuading the European Commission that Slovakia could offer an option much safer than the original European plan.

Rusko proposed that both of the Jaslovské Bohunice V1 reactor blocks should be shut down together instead of in two stages. He argued that it would, somehow, be safer to unplug both at the same time rather than one after the other with a two-year interval. However, the combined switch-off date he proposed was of course 2008 rather than 2006.

Rusko embarked on his mission with much fervour, declaring to the Sme daily that he believed he could even “open Austria's eyes” and make it see that the solution he was proposing was reasonable. Instead, Rusko hit a raw nerve in Austria which instead kept its eyes open mainly in order to make absolutely sure that Slovakia stuck to its original commitments.

Austria also pointed out that Slovakia was receiving money to cover decommissioning costs: the country was guaranteed about €410 million in compensation, which it can draw until the end of 2013.

The EC for its part kept repeating the same line: the shut-down of the two reactor blocks comprising the V1 unit at Jaslovské Bohunice was part of the terms of Slovakia's accession to the EU, and the 2008 deadline was not negotiable.

Rather predictably the EC did not budge and, after a couple of phone calls and explanations, Rusko’s mission ended in failure with him announcing: "I unambiguously confirmed Slovakia's position that it will not do anything that would be at odds with the accession agreement."

But just as predictably, Prime Minister Robert Fico has not learned a thing from Rusko’s stymied ambitions and in 2008, with the deadline nearing for the switch-off of the second reactor block, he too became increasingly nervous. He cried out that the move would seriously harm the country’s energy independence.

Fico used Jaslovské Bohunice to put pressure on the European Commission: he said that he would either seek a way to extend the deadline for the V1’s switch-off or the EC should approve the construction of new reactors at another nuclear power plant site at Mochovce, in the Nitra Region. The Bohunice discourse dimmed somewhat after the EC responded positively to Slovakia’s Mochovce ambitions.

However, the Russian gas crisis has brought back the issue of Jaslovské Bohunice in full force.

If one were to judge the technical difficulties of shutting down and restarting a nuclear reactor based on the political discourse in Slovakia, one might be forgiven for thinking it was as easy as turning on and off the light in one’s shed.

Fico and Economy Minister Ľubomír Jahnátek both warned that Slovakia faced a massive blackout if the second V1 reactor is not plugged back in to the electricity grid.

The government’s main argument on January 11 for ordering preparatory work to restart Bohunice was that the current gas shortage also affects the country’s electricity transmission network since gas is used to operate the backup generators, crucial for the system’s functioning.

Jahnátek flew to Brussels to try to soften the EC’s heart, but the result was more of a thaw in rhetoric and confirmation that the electricity transmission system in Slovakia is actually still stable.

While energy experts say that Europe has been gradually changing its rhetoric in favour of nuclear energy, citing economic advantages and the potential to reduce CO2 emissions as the main reasons for the shift, Slovakia’s pitch has been a little more awkward.

The Bohunice discourse has hardly presented the Slovak government as an entirely reliable source of information. Besides, it also raises the question: how long will Slovakia keep reaching for Bohunice like a cowboy reaches for his gun?

It could be for as long as Bohunice can still be technically reactivated, which will take many more months.

Perhaps we should count ourselves lucky that it is a power plant and not something else.

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