EU OKs contested Slovak nuclear project amid new leaks

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Despite recent nuclear scares in Slovenia and France, the European Commission this week gave the go-ahead for the two remaining reactors to be completed at the controversial Mochovce nuclear plant in Slovakia. The decision was widely condemned by environmental group Greenpeace. EURACTIV Slovakia reports.

Strict safety measures

Giving the project the green light on 15 July, the EU executive concluded that construction of reactors three and four at Mochovce – suspended in the 1990s due to lack of finances – can continue provided that certain safety recommendations are adhered to. 

The Commission nevertheless warned that the reactors in use at Mochovce do not feature the “full containment structures” common to recent, ongoing or planned construction of nuclear power plants elsewhere in Europe. Critics of the site have long said that it fails to satisfy modern safety requirements. 

The EU executive called for “additional features, functional capabilities and management strategies” to be developed to bring the design into line with existing best practice. Specifically, it recommended that steps be taken to ensure the reactors could withstand “a potential deterministic impact from an external source”, such as light aircraft. 

Moreover, the Commission stressed the need for Slovakia to diversify Mochovce’s fuel supply – expressing concern that the site relies too heavily on Russia as a nuclear fuel source – and ensure decommissioning funds are managed correctly. 

Nuclear leaks 

Nuclear power has received renewed attention lately for a number of reasons. On the one hand, the Commission has clearly given its backing to the energy source as a key technology for helping the EU to reduce its oil dependency and slash its CO2 emissions. On the other, concerns about whether nuclear can really offer a safe low-carbon option have been revived lately after alerts regarding a coolant leak from a Slovenian plant last June (EURACTIV 05/06/08) and a uranium leak from a treatment plant (Socatri) run by Areva in France just last week. 

France is one of the EU’s staunchest backers of nuclear energy and President Nicolas Sarkozy has been promoting French technology as “the safest in the world”. While the French Environment Ministry played down the significance of the Socatri leak, saying “this is not a nuclear incident,” the government has nevertheless ordered tests on the groundwater around all 58 nuclear reactors in the country in a bid to dispel fears that local water supply may have been affected elsewhere. 

“I don’t want people to feel that we are hiding anything from them,” Environment Minister Jean-Louis Borloo said in an interview with Le Parisien yesterday (17 July). 

The EU executive's decision was roundly condemned by environmental group Greenpeace, which warned of its "serious safety and environmental implications". 

"[The] Commission opinion is a clear indication that there is something seriously wrong with European nuclear legislation. The Commission has just given the go-ahead to a nuclear project from the Cold War era that has no modern safety features. This is proof that the fifty-year-old Euratom treaty is totally inadequate and obsolete," said Jan Beránek, a campaigner on nuclear issues at Greenpeace International.

But the chief investor in the project, ENEL (
Slovenské Elektrárne
), insisted that both the units in question are equipped with a full containment system in compliance with domestic and international requirements. "The containment capability is supported by extensive studies and tests mostly funded by the EU and implemented at European level over the past fifteen years," it stated. 

Despite welcoming the EU executive’s opinion, Slovak MEP Ján Hudacký (EPP-ED) interpreted the additional safety requirements called for by the Commission as a sign of its "continued reserved approach […] to nuclear energy." 

Hudacký argues that there is no need for the additional recommendations as the project already adequately addresses all possible threats. "Two identical units have already been working for several years with the maximum safety parameters and they were approved by all the relevant international organisations, including the International Atomic Energy Agency," he said. 

Slovakia foresees a key role for nuclear energy in its future energy supply. But under the terms of its EU accession treaty, the country must phase out production at two of the remaining four reactors at its older Jaslovské Bohunice site. 

To compensate, Slovakia is keen to complete construction at a newer site, Mochovce, by investing a further €1.6bn in the plant. However, the construction of the plant began under the communist regime in 1986 according to an outdated Russian design first developed in the 1970s. 

Despite the controversy surrounding nuclear power, the EU executive has endorsed it as a key component of its future energy mix, with Commission President José Manuel Barroso highlighting its role as a driver of a "third industrial revolution" that could lead Europe into a "low carbon age" (EURACTIV 03/10/07). But the technology continues to provoke heated debate among EU stakeholders and citizens, particularly regarding financing, safety and waste management (EURACTIV 04/07/08).

Under the terms of the Euratom Treaty, EU countries must submit all new nuclear development proposals to the Commission, which then issues its opinion. 

  • Commission to "closely follow up on the development of the nuclear industrial activities related to the Mochovce investment project in the future," notably regarding safety and security aspects. 
  • 2012-13: Target date for the commissioning of the two units at Mochovce. 

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