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European neighbors see red over nuclear plant

Austrian protesters end border blockades today after agreement on inspections.

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Until Thursday night, two dozen tractors parked higgledy-piggledy on the border crossing here symbolized the peak of a decade-long dispute between Austria and the Czech Republic.

For two months, Austrian protesters blocked border crossings, demanding that the newly opened Czech nuclear power plant at Temelin, some 30 miles away, be shut down and reassessed for safety. Vienna went as far as threatening to veto Prague's application to join the European Union. Traffic was expected to get back to normal today, after environmentalists said they had succeeded in raising the issue to a European level.

"If we had only demonstrated, nothing would have happened," says Josef Neumuller, initiator of the blockade at Wullowitz. "Evidently the blockade worked - there was no stronger form of pressure." Accusing their own government of ignoring their interests, citizens from the border region called the blockades last month as the first of Temelin's two reactors went online.

At a meeting Oct. 31, Czech Premier Milos Zeman and Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schussel agreed to have an EU-sponsored commission of experts check Temelin's safety. Yet it is only a partial victory for the protesters, who want the reactor shut down until the inspection takes place - and ultimately closed for good. Austria has been officially nuclear-free since a referendum in 1978.

At the same time, the EU Commissioner for Enlargement Gunter Verheugen has said that in the end, Temelin is Prague's decision.

"The Austrians are trying to convince partners in the EU that it's necessary to adopt nuclear-safety standards. We don't have a problem with that. We'll be prepared to respect them," says Bedrich Kopecky, head of the Central Europe desk in the Czech Foreign Ministry.

What Czechs object to, is perceived bullying by their Western neighbor on an issue of national sovereignty, and an imposition of Western values - distrust of nuclear energy. The Austrian side, meanwhile, insists that nuclear power is an international issue concerning all of Europe.

It's an odd twist in their relationship: Earlier this year, the Czech Republic joined the EU in isolating Austria diplomatically for including a far-right party in its government. Austria declared that was no one's business but its own.

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