Havel apologizes for Czech nuclear plant

PRAGUE, Czech Republic, Oct. 10, 2000 (UPI) à‚– A nuclear power plant officially opened Tuesday near the border of the Czech Republic and Austria even though Czech President Vaclav Havel apologized for failing to halt the facility’s construction 10 years ago.

The Temelin power plant, the latest flashpoint for increasingly nuclear-nervous Europeans, received the go-ahead from Czech nuclear safety regulators on Monday.

The state-owned utility CEZ said the first of the plant’s two reactors would reach the atomic reaction stage late Tuesday or early Wednesday. The plant is expected to generate electricity by early 2001.

Havel said not halting the plant when he had the chance to 10 years ago was the “biggest mistake” of his decade-long presidency. He said he regretted that he “did not speak very sharply against the construction of Temelin in 1990.”

Havel said he’s certain the plant is safe and yet he sympathized with Temelin opponents, who fear that the plant’s outdated, Soviet-era design is dangerous. Those opponents include anti-nuclear activists as well as German and Austrian government leaders, including the environment ministers in each country. Meanwhile, protesters with tractors and cars continued to block roads at Czech-Austrian border crossings, some within 30 miles of the plant. The demonstrations began last month and have continued on-and-off for days at a time. The Austrian government sides with the demonstrators. In Vienna last week, Prime Minister Wolfgang Sch ssel urged the Prague government to delay the plant’s start-up until more safety tests could be conducted. The Austrian government has threatened to block the Czech application to the European Union over the Temelin dispute, although E.U. officials and Havel insist Temelin will not affect EU entry.

Indeed, in the weeks since the border blockades began, Austrian authorities have done little to clear the roads.

In Germany, where the government earlier this year agreed to begin phasing out its nuclear power plants, environmentalists have vowed to boycott utilities that buy power from Czech Republic.

In the past year nuclear safety also has become an increasing concern, and a political issue, in several European countries including Britain, Denmark and Sweden.

Temelin is the Czech Republic’s second nuclear plant. Each of its two reactors can generate 1,000-megawatts. Despite the plant’s 1980’s design, dating from the time when the former Soviet Union controlled what was then Czechoslovakia, CEZ and the Czech Nuclear Safety Board declared it has met all Western safety standards. Key to its safety , they say, is a retrofitted control system made and installed by the U.S. energy concern Westinghouse.

Prime Minister Milos Zeman and parliament leader Vaclav Klaus are among the Czech politicians who have lashed out at Temelin critics, saying their small country has worked hard to build a safe plant and that their government can’t afford to write off what will eventually be a $3 billion price tag for the project.

Monday night, Zeman was inside Temelin when plant officials gave the order to move fuel rods into place. He told plant workers he was grateful for their help. Zeman also thanked members of the pro-Temelin group South Bohemia Fathers, which was formed to counteract an anti-nuclear group in the area called South Bohemia Mothers.

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