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Temelin: Criticality after 17 years of construction?

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 

(September 15, 2000) This article brings a brief overview of Temelin's history. Another article will follow in the next issue, summarizing opposition to Temelin and updated, most important arguments.

(534.5199) WISE Brno - Despite serious safety concerns, despite protests from neighboring countries and the EU, despite large overcapacity in the electric grid, despite the fact that its operation will create numerous problems that are extremely costly to solve - the Czech Temelin nuclear power plant is set to be started up soon. A long, troubled history .

The Temelin project was initiated in late 1970's, as a part of a Communist plan to build one nuclear power plant in each of the 6 regions of Czechoslovakia. The originally proposed site in South Bohemia was Malovice, but a geological survey found that place to be unsuitable. Therefore, a replacement locality was chosen in 1980 - the village of Temelin.

The realization plan included four Russian-designed VVER-1000/320 reactors. Costs were estimated to be 35 billion CZK for the whole project (US$2.33 billion at the official exchange rates of the time), and the plant was expected to start operation in November 1992, in order to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Great Communist Revolution.

The construction works started in 1983, and wiped out three historical villages. Later on, three more villages were demolished (they were inside the forbidden 3 km zone around the reactors) and four others were partly destroyed due to a river dam built for cooling water.

After the Communist regime collapsed in 1990 the project was cut to half - construction works continued only on the first two out of four reactor blocks. This was due to loud opposition to the plant combined with the fact that decision-makers were scared not to follow public opinion. On the other hand, many of today's opponents at that time believed in the claims of the state-controlled CEZ (Czech Energy Utility) that the two blocks were needed to secure energy needs during 1990's.

In 1992, CEZ decided to upgrade the safety of the plant, because it was obvious that the Soviet designed project contained too many serious flaws. The contract for most extensive upgrades - instrumentation and control system, and new fuel with core design - was signed with Westinghouse. The fact that this bidding process was manipulated was later confirmed by an Internal Audit, whose results were leaked to the media. The largest role in pushing the construction through was played by Vaclav Klaus, Prime Minister, whose wife was a member of the CEZ supervisory board for many years (sic!).

It was also Klaus' government who gave the go-ahead by its unanimous vote in March 1993. The conditions, approved as a part of that decision, were to finish the plant by the end of 1995 at a total cost of 68.8 billion CZK (US$1.7 billion). (28 billion CZK had been spent up until then.) The arguments, written in a governmental paper (that was grounds for that approval), warned that if Temelin were not operational in 1995, then in 1996 there would be "100 days a year of electricity blackouts". Many NGOs wrote an open letter at that time, arguing that this is not the case, and also warning that Temelin will in fact cost over 100 billion CZK and will in no case be finished earlier than in 2000.

In 1994, these arguments were voiced at US Congress and US Ex-Im bank. Unfortunately, they were again ignored - and it was US Ex-Im loan guarantees of US$420 million that allowed CEZ to finance Westinghouse supplies for Temelin upgrades.

Technical problems with combination of Soviet and American technologies, as well as the high-handed behavior of Westinghouse - both anticipated by NGOs and independent experts - soon started to trouble the project. Year by year, CEZ was announcing yet another delay and cost overrun. For many years, the promise given to public was always the same: "Temelin will be finished in two years" and "the plant is almost finished, it would be crazy to abandon the construction".

In 1997, a month before he lost his function as Prime Minister, Vaclav Klaus said: "Temelin is a tiny step before completion, and the first block is more than 90 % finished."

However, it took only half a year and in May 1998, CEZ had to admit yet another cost overrun and delay, the largest ever in the 1990's. This admission was a result of a request of the new, interim government (before preliminary elections in June 1998), who refused to play the role of clowns always believing in what CEZ says to them. The price of Temelin officially grew to 98.5 billion CZK and the expected date of fuel load was set as August 2000.

That meant such a blow to the economics of the project that the government reacted by a decision to establish - for the first time in Temelin's history - a team of independent experts to answer the question of whether or not to go on with the construction. The results, published in February 1999, were not surprising (at least not to us): no more electricity is needed, and there is only a little chance that operating Temelin will pay back the construction costs; the team also found that the overall risks of abandoning the project are less than if the construction continues.

In the meantime, Czech government has changed again, this time formed by social-democrats led by Milos Zeman as Prime Minister. His government voted on the continuation of Temelin in May 1999, and by a narrow margin of two votes approved finishing the plant. In fact, ministers voted positively about a proposal raised by the minister of industry, Miroslav Gregr, that was in opposition to the findings of the independent experts - it was once again blindly repeating CEZ figures and arguments; the strongest one, voiced in the debates that time, was surprisingly not anymore that Temelin is necessary or cheap, but that if not finished, it would economically destroy CEZ.

Unlike manipulated ministers, president Havel said clearly that he does not trust CEZ anymore: "I do not think that we fought against the Communist government in order to have it be replaced by some peculiar, more hidden and more inconspicuous dictatorship of a single company, even one as respected as CEZ... CEZ has deceived us nine times. Nine times they quoted us a price¨and start-up date for this power station which later proved to be false. Today CEZ says that roughly 74 billion crowns has been invested into the power station and that the total price will be about 100 billion crowns. I do not have any reason to believe CEZ. I have been lied to 9 times. I do not know why I should believe them in the 10th case."


Border crossings blocked in protest against Temelin

Austrian groups have called a series of blockades of Austrian-Czech border crossings as a protest against Temelin. On Saturday 2nd September at the symbolic time of one minute to twelve, 3000 people and 200 tractors blocked border crossings at Wullowitz, Weigetschlag and Guglwald. The blockade lasted five hours. Josef Pühringer, the chairman of the Upper Austrian parliament, said that the Czech authorities showed contempt for the basic rules of good neighborliness in the Temelin affair. On Friday 8 September, there was another protest in which six border crossings were blocked for one hour, and on Saturday 9 September, German and Austrian protestors gathered at the German-Czech border crossing at Philippsreut-Strazny. Further blockades are planned.
Der Standard (A), 4 September 2000; Centrum ENERGIE (CZ), email, 9 September 2000; Radio Prague, 10 September 2000

Once it was clear that the hopes in rationality of the new government had failed (ministers again followed nuclear lobbies and personal interests), NGOs raised the issue of a referendum, in which citizens should decide about whether Temelin should be put on line or not. This campaign also called on prime minister Milos Zeman to fulfil his promises - he wrote to Hnuti DUHA-FoE CZ a signed letter that he insists on a public referendum about this issue (social democrats, while in opposition, were calling for a referendum on Temelin since 1995). Although the petition for referendum gathered 120,000 signatures during a 3-months' campaign this spring, ministers hesitated to take this opportunity and do what their party promised.

Thus, in the beginning of July 2000, despite many protests, CEZ obtained a license for a fuel load into the 1st reactor. The SUJB (State Office for Nuclear Safety), which in the past years had been actively supporting (rather than independently controlling) the project, behaved in a scandalous way, wiping away even the residuals of its independence. It was a state holiday on 5th of July, and all offices were closed; however, SUJB was given all remaining documentation required for a license from CEZ. It took only a few hours during that holiday day, and SUJB gave the permit for fuel load. More than this, SUJB people personally brought the stamped permit down to the Temelin plant from its Prague headquarters. That very afternoon, CEZ lowered the first fuel rod into reactor. SUJB has broken several rules and laws during this suspicious "licensing process", for which NGOs have filed a lawsuit against it.

Nonetheless, CEZ continued with its work, and is now expected to activate the fuel soon. This is amidst and despite heavy protests not only from Czech NGOs, but also neighboring countries (Austria and Germany) and even the European Union. According to Nucleonics Week of 31 August 2000, the second reactor, Temelin-2, is expected to be ready about 15 months after Temelin-1.

Source and contact: Jan Beranek at WISE Brno

See also the following WISE News Commmunique articles:

  • 511.5027, "Czech government: Finish construction of Temelin"
  • 507.4985, "Final report of Temelin investigation team finshed; final vote expected in May"
  • and 503.4963, "Temelin in 1998".