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Temelin nuclear power plant activated

On Monday night the Czech prime minister launched the country's second nuclear power plant, Temelin. The plant is located just 50 kilometres from the Austrian border, and Austrian anti-nuclear protestors have been fighting tooth and nail to prevent it from going on-line. But go on-line it did, to the barely concealed fury of the government in Vienna, which has accused Prague of making light of Austrian concerns over safety.

Temelin is something of an experiment; it combines Soviet design with American safety technology, and critics say that unknown quantity is dangerous. But the Czechs themselves seem largely unfazed by the safety issue, they're more worried about whether Temelin will ever recoup its investment. With total costs estimated at some 100 billion Czech crowns, and with an already saturated European electricity market, those concerns would appear to be justified, although both Temelin's operator CEZ and the Czech government have been quick to brush them aside.

The Temelin project was first approved by the communist regime in 1980. The original plant was to consist of four Soviet-designed VVER-1000 reactors with an energy output of 1,000 megawatts each. Originally, the project was to be completed in 1991 at a cost 35 billion Czech crowns and was due to start operating in November 1992. But construction of the first reactor only began in 1987.

After the Velvet Revolution in 1989, environmental issues attained a much higher priority in the public consciousness. After much debate, the US-based company Westinghouse was called in to upgrade the nuclear facility to meet international standards. The new government of Vaclav Klaus decided in 1993 to build just two reactors. The first was to be ready by the end of 1995, the second by the middle of 1997. Projected costs, however, increased several times in the 1990s, and the completion date slipped further and further away.

In 1998, the interim government led by Josef Tosovsky decided to set up an expert commission to assess the viability of completing the project. The Social Democratic government which succeeded Tosovsky set up a new commission in August 1998, though its results were rather inconclusive. On one hand, the commission's report claimed that the plant should be completed, but only if it was finished on time. It also claimed the Czech Republic wouldn't need any new source of energy until at least 2010. If the Czech Republic doesn't need the energy produced by Temelin, the report says, the country will have problems selling it on the European market.

The man responsible for setting up the first expert commission was Martin Bursik, who served as Environment Minister in the Tosovsky government. Earlier this week I met Mr Bursik to discuss the economic viability of Temelin: