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Disputed Czech nuclear plant counts down to launch

Towers
Temelin's cooling towers loom over the countryside  

TEMELIN, Czech Republic -- Ask Milan Nebesar what it is like being the spokesman for a central European nuclear power plant that critics call another Chernobyl in the making, and his broad face suddenly droops beneath his hard-hat.

"It's tiring," says the grey-suited Nebesar, clutching a mobile phone that never seems to stop ringing. "Especially when we get experts in the field trooping through."

With just days to go before the Temelin nuclear plant fires up the first of its two 1,000-megawatt reactors, Nebesar and his colleagues at the Czech energy company, CEZ, are pulling out all the PR stops to try to dispel fears among the Czech Republic's European neighbours that the plant, initially designed under the Soviet regime, poses a safety and ecological risk to the region.

The fears, some observers say, also have a political dimension. Because the Czech Republic is already self-sufficient in energy, much of the surplus power produced at Temelin -- at least in the short term -- will be exported to EU markets at rates below those in many western European countries.

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Part of the persuasion campaign at Temelin has included opening the plant's heavily guarded doors to journalists and environmental activists in a bid to show that Temelin, set amid rolling hills and poppy fields in the Bohemian countryside 40 miles east of Germany and 30 miles north of Austria, has nothing to hide.

Dozens of visitors have been shepherded through the plant's serpentine network of aerial walkways in recent days. The spectacle of television cameras and microphones has amused many of the plant's 1,600 workers, who wear bright green-and-red uniforms emblazoned with the words "Nuclear Power Plant" in bold white letters.

Many of those workers, such as diagnostics technician Jiri Novotny, seem a bit bewildered by all the fuss over a state-of-the-art plant that they say is essentially as safe and sound as any of its Western counterparts -- not to mention the 60 nuclear plants scattered throughout eastern Europe.

Novotny said he had full confidence in the plant, as he prepared to climb down a ladder Wednesday into the bowels of the shiny network of piping that snakes its way around the giant Czech-made turbine in reactor one.

Raising his voice to be heard amid the throb of machinery, Novotny said he did not mind that his workplace is at the centre of a power plant that environmental whistle blowers claim is beset with glitches that make it an unknown quantity at best.

"It's interesting work. Those who mind should perhaps unscrew their light bulbs and live without electricity."

Asked whether she thinks Temelin is safe, Novotny's co-worker, Zdenka Prchlikova, flashes an embarrassed smile and shrugs: "I hope so."

Plant officials have tried to cultivate a friendly image, with a CD-ROM dedicated to safety issues, postcards of the plant's four cooling towers, and an immaculate press centre that nestles proudly like some Western-style time-share villa in the idyllic countryside.

Threats from Austria over EU bid

The issue of Temelin's safety has become a diplomatic and political lightning rod between the Czech Republic and its closest European Union neighbours -- Austria and Germany. In recent weeks, Austria has threatened to derail the Czech Republic's bid to join the EU unless it can satisfy the government in Vienna that the plant is up to Western standards.

The issue is particularly volatile because the Czech Republic recently endorsed EU sanctions against Austria, now lifted, that were imposed after that country's government accepted the far-Right Freedom Party into a coalition.

Pipes
Inside the Temelin reactor  

CEZ had been expected to apply Wednesday to the Czech regulatory agency, the State Agency for Nuclear Safety (SUJB), for a license to begin operations of the plant -- the last formality before launch. But the request has been postponed while CEZ puts Temelin through a series of final diagnostic tests.

The launch delay was the latest in a long series of deferrals since an original opening target date of November 1992, which would have been just in time for the 75th anniversary of the Russian Bolshevik Revolution.

In recent weeks and months, the plant has experienced a series of setbacks -- including minor water leaks and faulty valves and steam generators that Temelin officials say have been fixed.

"One must say that this plant has nothing at all in common with a Chernobyl-style plant," Nebesar said. The plant's first reactor is now undergoing the final stages of diagnosis and testing following the initial loading of 80 tons of fuel in July. Plant officials also have begun raising temperatures in the first reactor to around 260 degrees Celsius (500 degrees Fahrenheit), a prelude to the launch.

Standing amid a glittering array of computer screens and panels in a simulated control centre, Nebesar patiently tries to debunk what he sees as some of the biggest myths and misunderstandings about Temelin.

Yes, he conceded, the plant has had its shortfalls over the years, but it has also opened its doors to missions from the International Atomic Energy Agency on 12 separate occasions since 1990. And no, earthquakes are not a threat to the plant, which ecologists note is situated near a zone prone to seismic activity.

"Sure, the design itself is Russian, but during construction, there have been a lot of improvements put in place. ... In the centre of Europe, we will have a nuclear power plant that will be absolutely safe."

Czech officials believe the outcry in western Europe over Temelin is the result of misunderstandings stemming primarily from Temelin's development.

Construction began under the Soviet regime but was completed, after the communist collapse, by U.S. and Czech engineers, who are responsible for its main turbines, alternators and safety control systems. After a major conceptual rethinking in the early 1990s, the plant was entirely remodelled using Western technology provided by the U.S. company Westinghouse. The upshot, Czech officials say, is that Temelin is "Russian" in only the most superficial sense.

The reactor core, sheathed in a 1.2-meter-thick cubical iron casing, will ultimately generate half of the plant's 2,000-megawatt output by the time it is operating at full capacity sometime in the summer of 2001. A second reactor is expected to be launched by 2002, bringing Temelin fully online.

The prospect of an imminent launch has incensed nuclear-free Austria. On September 5, the Austrian parliament passed a resolution demanding that the government block the Czech Republic's accession to the 15-member European Union unless the Czechs gave further guarantees that the plant met strict ecological and safety standards.

The European Parliament passed a similar resolution two days later urging the Czechs to defer a launch pending further environmental impact studies.

Meanwhile, thousands of environmental activists -- including farmers with tractors -- have blockaded Austria's crossing points with the Czech Republic in recent weeks, with more blockages called for this weekend.

Many Austrians equate Temelin with Chernobyl, the Soviet plant that suffered the world's worst nuclear disaster in 1986, and say they don't know if they can trust the Czechs' reassurances about safety.

"I don't think the Czech government is telling the truth," said Stepan Baumgartner, a 19-year-old technician from Steier, about 80 km from the border with the Czech Republic. Speaking at a rest stop at the Czech border post of Dolni Dvoriste, Baumgarten added: "I'm definitely against Temelin, but I don't know what to do about it."

Just a few meters away, however, Cmejrek Miroslav, the chief of the Dolni border crossing, smiled gently as he suggested such concerns were overblown. Cmejrek lives in Ceske Budejovice, just 40 km from Temelin -- and therefore beyond the 13-km main evacuation zone.

"I am sleeping easily, like a log," he said. "I remember the very day that Chernobyl happened, but I don't think we are going to see anything like that here."



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