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Fixing Old Soviet Reactors Goes Critical in Europe

Are they safe? Is it worth it? Debate over retrofitting nuclear power plants in former East bloc heats up over funding

CENTRAL Europe is just close enough to Chernobyl to make many people gun-shy of nuclear power.

Austrians are particularly thin-skinned about nuclear energy, especially since several Soviet-style reactors dot the nearby countryside. Austria and groups in other countries have set their sights on shutting down two such projects in neighboring Slovakia.

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But Western nuclear-power companies, looking beyond their saturated markets, are dueling for the right to complete or improve on dozens of nuclear projects left over by the communists in the former East bloc.

An upcoming decision by the London-based European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) will help decide the fate and form of nuclear-energy production in Eastern Europe.

The French utility Electricite de France is managing completion of the Soviet-designed nuclear plant at Mochovce, Slovakia. EDF in particular stands to gain if financing is approved at a mid-March meeting by the EBRD.

The project could show how French managers and technology can bring Soviet-designed reactors up to Western safety standards. Ideally, a completed Mochovce would provide the energy to allow two reactors at an older, more dangerous plant in Bohunice to shut down.

But environmental groups - along with the Austrian parliament, which sits less than 100 miles away from Mochovce in Vienna - are questioning the economic and environmental wisdom in retrofitting Soviet reactors that are poorly made to begin with.

The fallout of the Mochovce debate could affect efforts in the US and Western European nuclear industry to expand their presence beyond the former Iron Curtain. In the Czech Republic, Westinghouse Electric Corp. and the United States Ex-Im Bank are working to complete another Soviet-designed plant at Temelin - over Austria's objections. Westerners are also involved in nuclear projects in Bulgaria, Romania, Lithuania, Ukraine, and Russia.

The Polish Ecological Club has told a Polish government committee that it ``failed abysmally to deal properly with crucial safety issues'' at Mochovce.

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Soviet-built reactors lack the safety of those built in the West, a problem that has been aggravated by the ``brain drain'' of Russian technicians and managers to the West after 1989. VVER-440/213 reactors - the type used at Mochovce - suffer from premature embrittlement of their pressurized containment vessel, which increases the possibility of structural failure leading to a reactor meltdown. The plant also does not have a full containment structure to prevent the spread of radiation during an accident.

A similar reactor in Griefswald, in the former East Germany, was closed immediately after unification, partly because it was thought to be unsafe. Nineteen Soviet-designed reactors are now operating in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.

``The consequence of nuclear expansion will be [that] the West will support its nuclear industries, the East will have to export much of the power to repay the loans for construction, and will get stuck with the waste and dangerous reactors,'' says Paxus Adelova-Calta, who heads the international energy campaign organized by the Czech environmental group DUHA.

But officials at EDF, the French utility, say they are looking beyond simply finding new contracts in former Soviet markets. With all the debate over the safety of nuclear plants in Eastern Europe, the future of the industry itself may be at risk.

``EDF fears the impact that some future nuclear incident could have on public opinion, after the tragic precedent of Chernobyl. The very principle of the production of energy through nuclear power - essential to the energy sufficiency of France as well as a number of other East European countries - could be called into question,'' says an EDF dossier of July 1994.

Along with EDF, the Slovak electricity company and Bayernwerk AG, a German utility, are managing completion of the Mochovce plant. The EBRD - which is owned by the European Union, the US, and 58 other countries - plans to provide 28.4 percent of the $880 million needed to complete the project.

Even the Russians want in: Last week, Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin met with his Slovak counterpart in Slovakia and offered Russian assistance in completing the Mochovce nuclear facility.

A project official at the EBRD refuted questions about safety as ``total bunkum,'' adding that numerous safety experts had approved the project, including those from the International Atomic Energy Agency.

``The EBRD wouldn't be looking at Mochovce if it weren't the least-cost option to meet Slovakia's energy needs,'' the official said. ``We're not in the business of financing nuclear projects, but the situation is unique because the plant is nearly 90 percent complete, and there is the added benefit of shutting down a very unsafe nuclear plant at Bohunice when this new plant is finished.''

The EBRD mandated a period of public discussion, which ended last week, and is now sorting through all the hearings. In response to EBRD rules, the French utility EDF has in the past month held hearings in the Slovak capital of Bratislava and in Budapest.

``There has never been such openness and disclosure in a nuclear-power project,'' says Claire Girard, who represents EDF on the Mochovce project. ``This is the first time EDF has ever had to publicly justify the economic value of the project. And it's the first time the [approval] process has been so international.''

Austria acts up

But Austria is building a roadblock: Earlier this month, after weeks of debate, the parliament passed a resolution urging the government to pull out of the EBRD (in which it has a 2.3 percent stake) if financing for Mochovce is approved.

EDF still wants to talk with the Austrians. ``There is more involved here than just meeting the letter of EBRD requirements,'' says Ms. Girard. ``We are prepared to go ahead independently with public hearings despite EBRD's deadline.''

Critics are also concerned that Slovakia will not shut down two older reactors at the Bohunice plant even once Mochovce is completed. They cite as evidence a $150 million contract the government recently award-ed to Siemens to improve the safety of its older reactors.

``Improvement'' may not be enough for Bohunice, which has already been the site of numerous shutdowns. In 1976, two technicians were killed when radioactive gases escaped from the reactor vessel.

Environmental activists in Eastern Europe are digging in for a struggle - whatever the EBRD decides. While nuclear energy does not produce greenhouse gases and other harmful pollutants, activists say such projects would take away money needed to reform the energy sector.

``The economies here are extremely wasteful in terms of energy use,'' says Janos Zlinszky of the Regional Environmental Center for Central and Eastern Europe.

``Addressing inefficiencies would dramatically reduce energy consumption, as well as the costs of production, and eliminate the need for further base-load generating plants,'' he says.

East Europe, insulated from the energy crisis of the 1970s, was never pushed to use its resources efficiently. Apartments across the region lack thermostats to regulate temperature, buildings are improperly insulated, and obsolete technology squanders energy.

Slovakia uses eight times more energy than Austria, per unit of output, according to the World Resources Institute. And Slovakia is now dependent on the Czech Republic to meets its electricity requirements.

According to Mr. Adelova-Calta, opposition to the reactors will keep growing. ``They'll probably complete the first reactors at Mochovce and Temelin, but behind schedule and far over current cost estimates,'' he says. ``That's when opposition will really galvanize, and the second units at each plant will never be completed.''

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