(December 7, 2001) Austrian Chancellor Schuessel's coalition partner, the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ), has rejected an agreement the Austrian government reached on 29 November with the Czech Republic on the controversial Temelin nuclear power plant.
(559.5350) WISE Amsterdam - The issue is getting more and more tense because of the negotiations between the Czech Republic and the current EU member states about the acceptance of the Czech Republic as a new member of the EU in a few years. Austria has, up till last week, always said it would block its neighbors' membership as long as the Czechs insist on running Temelin. But this position has isolated Austria within the EU as none of the other member states wants to take such a strong position.
Schuessel is under high pressure from his own Conservative Party (ÖVP) to solve the issue without endangering his cabinet. He is also under pressure from the environmental movement, which wants Temelin shut but rejects the nationalism of the rightwing FPÖ. In an attempt to solve the issue, he asked European Commissioner Verheugen (responsible for the enlargement process) to facilitate direct talks with his Czech counterpart Zeman.
The 29 November agreement concluded the so-called Melk process in which the two countries have tried to resolve differences over Temelin (see WISE News Communique 557.5336: "Temelin-1 to 75% then closed again after incident"). Schuessel stated that he accepted Czech assurances about the safety of Temelin in a deal that EU commissioner Verheugen said would "end a blockade of the accession process". (For more background on EU enlargement and nuclear safety, see WISE News Communique Special 493/494: "Agenda 2000 - will it increase nuclear safety?")
The Schuessel-Zeman agreement is embodied in a document that lists seven safety issues to be resolved before Austria accepts the full start-up of the reactor. (The ÖVP has put it on its website www.oevp.at/download/otoene/bruessel.pdf). The Czech government has promised to backfit the Temelin reactor if the new investigations necessitate extra safety upgrades.
The seven safety issues to be investigated are:
- protection against high-energy pipe breaks
- qualification of key steam safety and relief valves under dynamic load with mixed steam-water flow
- reactor vessel integrity and pressurized thermal shock
- integrity of primary components and non-destructive testing
- qualification of safety-classified components
- site seismicity
- severe-accident-related issues.
The first two issues (pipe break and valves) are not new; their investigation was already agreed upon in June by a special EU Working Party on Nuclear Safety. The first investigation is to be completed by September 2002, the second by June 2002.
Dana Drabova, chair of the Czech State Office for Nuclear Safety (SUJB), said that if the international review showed that the original safety case for the piping, which relies on pipe whip restraints, did not comply with requirements "widely applied in the EU," SUJB would reconsider their original licensing decision. Czech officials said the new investigation will look at whether it is necessary and feasible to build additional walls to isolate the high-energy piping, as is required by German nuclear safety standards. This would cost about US$2.7 million.
According to Verheugen, Temelin will, with the new safety upgrades, "have the same safety levels as required for all European reactors". This is a quite meaningless statement as there is currently no common European safety standard. The Belgium prime minister (till the end of the year the chair of the EU) has promised Austria to table the safety standard issue for the coming EU summit on 14 and 15 December in Brussels.
Immediately after Schuessel's press statements on 29 November, the FPÖ announced that "the agreement is not complete". The party, with the same number of parliamentary seats and cabinet posts as the ÖVP, did not explicitly threaten a veto but added "[we] cannot imagine that operating Temelin is more important to the Czechs than joining the EU".
The Austrian government almost collapsed on the issue. The FPÖ insisted on holding a binding referendum in Austria on the issue. If a majority of the citizens would agree to block Czech membership of the EU because of Temelin, there will be no alternative for the Austrian government than to vote in the EU against Czech entry. That would lead to a complete isolation of Austria within the EU.
A week before the agreement, on 22 November, the European Commission irrevocably rejected the European Parliament's demand to hold an international conference on the safety of Temelin. One of the possibilities to find a solution for the dispute with the Austrian environmental movement, the FPÖ and the European Parliament is the intention, expressed by officials within the EU, to prepare basic European standards for nuclear safety by 2004. This could then be concluded at the Intergovernmental Conference (IGC) in 2004 for which preparations will start at the coming EU summit in Brussels.
- BBC Monitoring Service, 22 November 2001
- November update on Euratom and European nuclear related news, Global 2000, 25 November 2001
- NRC Handelsblad, 29 and 30 November 2001
- press release Global 2000, 4 December 2001
- Nucleonics Week, 6 December 2001