Controversial nuclear plant hours away from launch

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There is nothing now to stop the Czech Republic from launching its second nuclear power station, situated outside the little village of Temelin in South Bohemia. The plant has been the subject of international scrutiny, numerous safety surveys and cross-border disputes, but this week Temelin becomes reality. Rob Cameron reports:

Temelin. The name has become a synonym for the debate over nuclear power in the Czech Republic. What began in 1979 as one of Communist Czechoslovakia's most ambitious energy projects, had ten years later become an economic and environmental nightmare: a semi-finished Soviet-designed concrete giant, with projected costs running billions of crowns over budget and opponents claiming it would never recover its losses.

Nevertheless, the new centre-right government of Vaclav Klaus decided to go ahead with completion, and ten years later the Social Democrat government of Milos Zeman is finally ready to press the launch button. The debate over Temelin has fundamentally remained the same: supporters say it will produce large amounts of cheap electricity, replacing the country's coal-fired power stations within twenty years. Coal is dirty, bad for the environment and, most importantly, running out fast: All Temelin needs, they say, is uranium, which is cheap, and there's enough left for hundreds of years.

Opponents rubbish these claims. Apart from the obvious safety risks of nuclear power, they say Temelin just doesn't make economic sense. Those against the plant say Temelin will produce more electricity than the Czech Republic will ever need, and the country will have to flog it on the cheap on the already saturated European energy market. Temelin will put the last remaining coal miners out of work, and will mean higher unemployment in northern areas of the country, which is already struggling with severe economic problems.

Adding to those problems is opposition from abroad. Non-nuclear Austria has launched a war on all fronts; the government in Vienna is exerting all the diplomatic pressure it can to have the launch of Temelin delayed, but Prague has refused to budge. Anti-nuclear protestors have blocked all border crossings with the Czech Republic over the last few weeks, but again to no avail.

Austria's protests are largely futile - Prague has the backing of the European Union, most of which relies heavily on nuclear power. The EU recently warned Vienna it couldn't intervene in the dispute - and Temelin is unlikely to hamper Czech plans to join the Union. The government in Prague must be hoping that the Temelin dispute will fade away after the launch: whether Vienna will let that happen remains to be seen.