By Donella Meadows
–March 24, 1994–
On March 10 the Export-Import Bank of the United States pledged $317 million of loan guarantees — backed up by your taxes and mine — to complete two nuclear power plants in the Czech Republic. It did so over the protests of the Austrian government, 32 members of our own Congress, and many Czech citizens, including 54 mayors of towns around the plants.
The nuclear complex in question, called Temelin, is located in the center of a triangle made by Prague, Munich, and Vienna, with Vienna on the downwind side. It is 25 miles as the crow flies from both the German and the Austrian borders. Temelin was started by the Soviets. The loan guaranteed by the Ex-Im Bank will go from Citibank to the Czech government to Westinghouse, to bring the plants up to Western standards and finish them.
Alarmists call the Temelin reactors “Chernobyl-type.” That’s an exaggeration. They are not graphite reactors like the one that blew its top at Chernobyl. They are, however, Soviet plants, with small containment vessels and a tendency toward instability.
The Ex-Im Bank says, “The U.S. Department of Energy and the International Atomic Energy Agency have both concluded that the VVER-1000 design (the type at Temelin) can be improved to meet a level of safety acceptable to Western countries.”
But the March 10 Nucleonics Week has an article headlined “IAEA, DOE Quietly Deny Saying VVER-1000 Can Meet Western Norms.” The VVER-1000 is relatively new, says the article, and the IAEA is still studying its safety. At one plant last year problems with jammed control rods caused a cutback to 50 percent power. An IAEA safety expert says it is “difficult to make a confident generic statement about how safe the reactors are.” The Germans decided not to complete a VVER-1000 in East Germany, concluding that “the containment was not upgradable.” An official of our Department of Energy says, “There is a lot of variability from unit to unit…. Some units have defects.”
You can understand why the Austrians are nervous.
In February an Austrian delegation came to Washington to speak to the Ex-Im Bank. Its official statement reads, in part, “The Austrian Government has repeatedly voiced its concern to the Czech Government about the genuine flaws associated with the VVER-1000 type reactor and about the decision to graft U.S. instrumentation and control systems … onto a Soviet design, at a late stage of construction and in a dramatically short period of time…. We have also offered to assist the Czech Government with the conversion of the Temelin plant to natural gas, and to develop other alternatives, including the cost-effective improvement of energy efficiency…. We therefore request that the United States not support Temelin in the absence of a thorough environmental and safety review.”
Petr Pithart, the Czech Prime Minister from 1990 to 1992, wrote to the Ex-Im Bank saying, “The question of the Temelin facility was not assessed and discussed in my country in a way which would enable any responsible person anywhere in the world to support its completion.” He discovered when he was in office that studies of Temelin fell into two groups, depending on whether they were prepared by independent agencies or by investors and other interested parties. Cost estimates varied from $3.4 billion to $8 billion; time to completion ranged from 3 years to 17 years. Without time to sort out these discrepancies, Pithart handed the problem to his successors with a warning “to rely on reliable and fair facts, and not on data from those with economic interest in finishing the plant.”
The new government ignored that advice and forged ahead, breaking the new Czech law requiring public participation in the decision. It reminded Pithart of the old, bad, communist days. “Finishing the Temelin plant is in my opinion a continuation of an unguided strategy, created under the former regime…. Nothing good … could have come from such negligence and intolerance of democratic procedures.”
Given the uncertainties, the protests of a neighboring country, and opposition from within the Czech Republic, why does the Clinton administration support Temelin, and why did the Ex-Im Bank approve this loan? For reasons that sound good — to help the new democracies and economies of Central Europe, repair unsafe Soviet nuclear facilities, and enhance U.S. jobs.
But if we want to help a new democracy, why support a project that has bypassed every democratic process we would require in our country? If we want to help the Czech economy, why encourage billions of dollars of debt for a plant not needed for 10-15 years — if then. Like all inheritors of Soviet technology, the Czechs use energy with striking wastefulness. A fraction of the huge investment in Temelin could double their energy efficiency and clean up their existing coal-burning plants.
The only conceivable reason the administration actually supports Temelin must be to keep jobs alive in the reactor division of Westinghouse. U.S. utilities have stopped ordering new nuclear plants, primarily on economic grounds, but there are 16 uncompleted VVER-1000 reactors in Central Europe.
That’s not a good reason; it’s a corporate handout. If the administration wants to promote American jobs for the coming century, rather than subsidize dying industries, it should tell the Ex-Im Bank to guarantee a loan for American expertise and products in energy efficiency and clean coal technology — which could assure that Temelin will never be needed.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1994