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EU applicants' nuclear hurdles

At next month's summit, the safety of reactors in Eastern and Central

This is the only country in Europe that plans to open a new nuclear power plant in the coming years.

Like many of its former Eastern Bloc neighbors, the Czech Republic has inherited a nuclear power program designed in the Soviet Union. Yet as reformist governments across the region struggle to join the wealthy 15-member European Union, many are discovering that their nuclear reactors could become stumbling blocks on the difficult path to European integration.

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At its summit in Helsinki, Finland, next month, the EU will decide whether to extend its "fast-track" accession talks to additional countries beyond the current six candidates: Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Estonia, Slovenia, and Cyprus.

With such hopes, Slo-vakia and Lithuania have recently set dates for decommissioning their nuclear power plants. Bulgaria is also considering early closure of its reactors.

Today, the former satellite states of the Soviet Union do not depend on atomic energy for electricity any more than Western Europe. But while Soviet designs were not technically inferior to Western models, poor construction quality raised concern about the safety of these reactors.

The 1986 Chernobyl catastrophe is still remembered in Western Europe. Germany and Austria especially are urging their Eastern neighbors to abandon an increasingly unpopular energy source. Seven of the 10 former Communist countries seeking EU membership have nuclear power plants. But of the seven Soviet-style reactors that the European Commission, the EU's governing body, has recommended for closure, none have yet been decommissioned.

"I think that nuclear power will play an important role in EU accession," says Petr Krs, deputy chairman of the Czech State Office for Nuclear Safety in Prague. Yet he adds that one major problem for EU aspirants is the lack of Europe-wide atomic safety standards.

"Modernization would have started even without the EU," says Mr. Krs, referring to the 80 major design changes his office demanded for the controversial Czech plant under construction at Temelin. More than $2 billion have been invested in the nuclear plant, which was started in 1980 along Soviet plans and is being finished with Western technology from US company Westinghouse.

In May, when the Czech government decided to complete the costly Temelin plant, some 40 miles from the Austrian border, it received a tongue-lashing from its Western neighbors. Vienna warned that the decision could complicate the Czech Republic's EU accession. German Environment Minister Jrgen Trittin said it "was not a prudent step from the point of view of EU integration."

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Like the Czech Republic, neighboring Slovakia has met similar opposition from Austria over its two nuclear plants. Since taking power a year ago, the Western-oriented government in Bratislava has been striving to join the first group of EU candidates. But while the EU has commended Slovakia's recent political reforms, its nuclear program has continued to cause friction.

Only 75 miles from Vienna, the first reactor at Mochovce nuclear power plant went into service in June 1998, provoking a furious response from the Austrian government. The International Atomic Energy Agency sanctioned Mochovce's operation and concluded that its safety norms - though not up to Western standards - were usual for Eastern Europe.

"Safety is never absolute, but relative," says Felix Matthes of the Berlin office of the ko Institute for Applied Ecology. "Mochovce would never have gotten a permit in Germany, but even here we have nuclear power plants built in the 1970s that would never be licensed today."

Especially infuriating to the Austrians was that the Slovaks had originally planned to shut down an aging Soviet-era nuclear plant at Jaslovske Bohunice upon Mochovce's activation.

After receiving hints from the EU that an invitation to negotiations would depend on a "clear and realistic timetable" for the older plant's closure, the Slovak government decided in September to decommission the first reactor at Jaslovske Bohunice in 2006, the second in 2008.

As eager to enter EU accession talks as Slovakia is Lithuania, whose nuclear reactors at Ignalina are the biggest in the world and the only Chernobyl-type reactors outside Russia and Ukraine. Although Ignalina accounts for some 80 percent of the Baltic country's energy production, the Lithuanian parliament voted last month to close the first reactor by 2005 and decide the fate of the second unit in 2004, probably to be closed in 2009.

Bulgaria, despite recent strides in economic reforms, lags furthest behind in nuclear safety. Four of the six units at its Kozloduy nuclear plant were initially planned to be decommissioned by 1998, yet all of them are still online.

Only in October did the Bulgarian government announce that it would begin negotiating a prompt decommissioning of the reactors with the EU, which has indicated that accession talks hinge on a timetable for closing Kozloduy.

For the small, poor countries of the former East Bloc, Western pressure has often led to outbursts of frustration. In March, Bulgarian Premier Ivan Kostov complained that EU demands for Kozloduy's closure were a "meaningless diktat" that would "destroy even that little competitiveness the country has." Energy analyst Mr. Matthes says that nuclear power plants are symbols of national sovereignty. With pressure from international institutions, "they take on political dimensions that have nothing to do with energy or safety."

"This is not a problem unique to eastern Europe," he says. "In the coldest hours of the cold war, gas deliveries from the Soviet Union to the West were never interrupted." The key, he notes, is for the EU to provide candidate countries with energy alternatives.

On a visit to Lithuania earlier this month, the EU commissioner for enlargement, Gnter Verheugen, pledged some $20 million in aid annually to close the first unit at Ignalina. He has also offered assistance to Bulgaria for similar projects.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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