‘We have to expand the nuclear power stations. The Czech Republic is not by the sea’
They suddenly appear in the lovely Bohemian hilly landscape in the Czech Republic: the four colossal cooling towers of the Temelin nuclear power plant. Director Petr Zavodsky is proud of his ‘nuclear cathedral’. “There, on the right of the site, two additional reactors will be built in the future.” It is early March, just before the corona lockdowns in Europe. Reporting to the Czech Republic is still possible. But the safety regulations in the Temelin power station have already been tightened up for visitors.
Temelin and the Dukovany nuclear power plant in the east of the country provide more than 30 percent of Czech electricity consumption. “By 2040 we want to get to 50 percent,” says Zavodsky. “We have to expand the nuclear power plants. Closing polluting coal-fired power stations and replacing them with wind farms is a good goal. But windmills are only profitable offshore. And the Czech Republic is not by the sea.”
With this logic, Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis is frantically campaigning for nuclear energy in the European Union. Other nuclear energy countries – France, with 58 of the total 126 European reactors leading the way – are gratefully hiding behind Babis’ back. Because defending nuclear energy is not popular. Certainly not since the 2011 tsunami accident at the nuclear power plant in Japan’s Fukushima. More than 100,000 people were evacuated at the time due to possible radioactive contamination. Germany then abruptly decided to Nuclear phase-out: all nuclear power plants must be closed by 2022 at the latest.
Nuclear energy has no future, according to the European Commission. According to Brussels, it does not belong in the Green Deal climate plans that the responsible European Commissioner Frans Timmermans recently presented. Nuclear energy is “not sustainable and very expensive”, Timmermans said in January NRC.
But as EU countries face the magnitude of the Green Deal challenge (climate neutral by 2050) in economic terms, the backlash is growing. The threat of a deep recession due to the corona crisis is mainly used in Central European countries to put European climate plans on hold. “We have to be realistic about that,” says Hans Bruyninckx, director of the European Environment Agency, in the Flemish newspaper The morning. “You cannot expect the environment and climate to be the first concerns. People, companies and countries are trying to survive.”
In Germany, which initially seemed unanimous about the nuclear exit, doubts are growing: was the Ausstieg not too premature? The phasing out of nuclear energy runs parallel to the closure of coal-fired power stations. Can wind and solar energy absorb it? The same concerns exist in Belgium, where energy network operator Elia calls the planned deadline for the two Belgian nuclear power plants in 2025 irresponsible. The province of Zeeland recently called for a postponement of the closing date 2033 for the nuclear power plant in Borssele. To meet its climate goals – and, according to critics, also to delay multi-billion dollar decommissioning – the province says, “maintaining the zero-emission nuclear power plant” is a necessity. And apart from the Czech Republic, plans for new nuclear power stations are on the drawing board in several Central and Eastern European countries.
At the end of last year, the European Parliament adopted an amendment by VVD MEP Jan Huitema in which nuclear energy is seen as ‘a serious option to combat climate change’. “We don’t have the luxury of excluding nuclear energy on the basis of gut feelings,” says Huitema in Brussels. “But if the European Commission labels it as ‘Green Deal-unworthy’, then no European money will be made available for it.” That deters banks and investors, who do not dare to finance nuclear power plants without European billion-dollar support, says Huitema. “Brussels should leave it to countries how they work towards climate neutrality. If a country chooses to do that with nuclear power plants, fine.”
Czech Prime Minister Babis’ plea is gaining momentum. At the EU climate summit at the end of last year, he forced that in the final text – against the wishes of German Chancellor Angela Merkel in particular – a sentence was added that the Czech took home as a trophy: ‘We recognize that some EU Member States include nuclear energy in their national energy mix’. At the Brussels summit, a villainous Babis still sneered at his neighbor Austria, traditionally fiercely against nuclear energy. Just before the summit, he had consulted a website that tracks energy production in EU countries. “And now comes the joke,” he said. “Austria was already at 25 percent imported from the Czech Republic at a quarter past seven this morning.”
René Nedela, the Czech State Secretary for Nuclear Energy, does not like detours. The Austrians are “hypocritical”. What Timmermans says about nuclear energy is “not true”. And the Germans? According to Nedela, they will regret the closure of their nuclear power plants. “Germany is now becoming dependent on energy imports from other countries.”
In his office in the stately Prague ministry building on the Vltava, he points outside. “We don’t see much sun. And other sustainable energy sources, such as wind and hydropower, are hardly profitable here. Reducing our polluting coal-fired power stations: agreement. But what are we left with if nuclear energy is also written off?”
According to Nedela, building gas-fired power stations is not a reassuring prospect for an ex-Eastern Bloc country like the Czech Republic. “Then you become largely dependent on Russian gas and you come back into the political sphere of influence of Moscow.”
He hopes that ‘Brussels’ will reconsider European energy and climate policy and give nuclear energy a fair chance. “Timmermans’ argument that nuclear energy is too expensive is also incorrect.” The construction is expensive, more than seven times more expensive than the construction of a gas-fired power station, admits the State Secretary. “But after that you will have cheap and clean energy for at least sixty years. Every day. Guaranteed.”
Nedela is wisely silent about the enormous extra costs for the construction of new nuclear power plants, which, for example, France and the United Kingdom have to deal with, due to increased safety requirements. The result is that the power stations become much more expensive than budgeted, or that construction does not go ahead.
We don’t have the luxury of excluding nuclear power
Jan Huitema VVD MEP
A few miles away, student Ondrej Novak, dressed in immaculate white lab suit, walks through the corridors of the VR-1 reactor training center. For nuclear energy students at Prague Technical University, this is the sanctuary. “We are one of the few faculties in the world with a working nuclear reactor in house,” Novak beams. Every young Czech who dreams of an engineering job in nuclear power stations has gained their first experience here, at the small test reactor vessel.
A radiation meter is pinned to his lapel, which will beep if the radioactivity is too high. “But do not worry. Crossing a busy street is more dangerous.”
Although financing is still uncertain, Czech politicians have recently decided to increase the capacity of the Dukovany plant. “In the long run, I hope that the expansion plans of the Temelin power station will become concrete,” says Jan Rataj, faculty head of the Technical University. The number of students enrolling at his faculty has been increasing again in recent years. “We are going to need them badly. Because the goal, to run fifty percent on nuclear energy by 2040, is ambitious.”
“Which Czech has the right to dig a pit farther down the road and dump radioactive waste that will affect thousands of generations after us?” Just over the border in Austria, sixty kilometers south of Temelin, Manfred Doppler puts his glass of beer on the table with a bang.
In the area around the border town of Wullowitz, everyone knows Doppler, veteran of the Austrian Anti Atom Komitee. He was there during the first Austrian protests against the deemed unsafe Temelin plant – still built with Soviet technology in 1987. Resistance was fierce, border crossings were blocked for months, and Austria even threatened to veto the Czech Republic’s EU accession. The European Commission had to intervene and forced the Czechs to bring the plant to ‘a European security level’, laid down in the Temelin agreement.
“Fortunately, there is now a Commission in Brussels that is no longer interested in nuclear energy,” says Doppler. According to him, the fact that Austria still imports energy from the Czech Republic despite its anti-nuclear energy policy is “a matter in which every Austrian must take responsibility”. In the European energy market, it is sometimes difficult to trace from which energy sources a supplier’s offer is made up.
Doppler’s activism does not make any impression on the average Czech, says Jan Haverkamp, affiliated with Greenpeace and lecturer at the Czech Masaryk University. “Nuclear energy is a religion in the Czech Republic.” For decades, the Dutch have closely followed nuclear energy policy in Central Europe. “After the turning point in 1989, there was a brief period of discomfort in the Czech Republic with those Soviet power stations. But now there is a sacred conviction that without nuclear power plants, the country is in the dark. There is hardly any criticism of the ‘rickety status’ of the Temelin power station. “While experts call the Temelin turbines the world’s largest vibrators.”
In the afternoon, Temelin director Petr Zavodsky lovingly strokes the panels in the simulation control room. He leaves the red lockdown button, to be used in the event of an incident, untouched. “We practice with it here, but in real life it has never been necessary.” His power station can “last at least another sixty years”, Zavodsky thinks. “In Austria they can be happy if Temelin can double the capacity in the future. Clean and cheap energy around the corner. Now only to find financiers.”