03/04/2014 08:22 pm ET Updated May 04, 2014

Addressing Nuclear Power in Eastern Europe

As part of their industrialization policies, the Communist governments of East-Central Europe built nuclear reactors to boost their energy production. Only Poland, at the time of the changes in 1989, didn't have any nuclear reactors on line. Of the 26 reactors in the region, 24 were Soviet-designed. Although they generally weren't the same models as the one at Chernobyl that experienced meltdown in 1986, they suffered from numerous design flaws. In fact, near meltdown had occurred previously, but had been covered up: at the East German plant in Lubmin in 1976. An accident at a Czech facility in 1976 also led to two deaths.

In part because of revelations about these accidents as well as the association of nuclear power to the previous regimes, the civic movements and new governments expressed considerable skepticism about continuing down the same path after 1990. But several factors contributed to a turnaround in government policy. The new governments discovered that the reactors not only provided much-needed electricity but they attracted investment from a European Union worried about more Chernobyl-like accidents in its future member states. Meanwhile, the nuclear industry saw a potential for reversing its economic fortunes after accidents at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl had boosted anti-nuclear sentiment around the world. "Western nuclear companies are not just interested in repairing unsafe reactors," wrote Minard Anderson, a specialist on nuclear waste. "They have been pressing new Eastern European governments to complete partially constructed reactors and build new reactors, ignoring safer, more job-intensive energy conservation strategies."

Although the Greens succeeded with their anti-nuclear power platform in Germany -- the country plans to close all reactors by 2022 and join other nuclear-free countries like Austria and Italy -- East-Central Europe has gone in the opposite direction. Poland cancelled the four plants under construction in 1990 but has committed to building its first plant by 2022. Romania has added two units to its Cernavoda facility. Hungary has extended the lifespan of its Paks reactor by another 20 years. Only Bulgaria has bucked the trend by cancelling a second nuclear plant at Belene in 2012.

The issue of nuclear energy has been particularly contentious in the Czech Republic. The plant at Temelin, which was planned by the Communist government, originally had the same design as the one at Chernobyl. It was redesigned to meet EU specifications. But many Czechs, including Vaclav Havel, still voiced opposition. Public opinion fluctuated considerably, from 53 percent against in 1999 to 64 percent in favor in 2000. The Czech government pushed forward with construction plans, negotiating around Austria's objections. The Czech energy utility is currently dealing with bids for an expansion of the facility.

When I met Vladimir Prchlik in 1990, he was an official in the ministry of the environment of the Czech republic. He supported nuclear power at a time when many others were attracted to the position of the German Greens. In the 1990s, he continued to work on environmental issues in the Czech government. He was proud of the fact that the ministry was able to reduce the country's reliance on brown coal, a notorious pollutant. Increasing the nuclear share of the energy equation was part of that.

He updated me on the Temelin expansion plans. "It's necessary to follow the European model with our new reactor," he told me in a conversation last February in Prague. "Three firms sent in bids: a Russian-Czech consortium, Westinghouse, and a French company. The French bid was disqualified. Westinghouse was the biggest. But both the Russian-Czech and the Westinghouse bids must bring work for Czech firms: Czech machinery, Czech energy, anything that can be produced in our country. Next year, it will be decided."

We talked about other environmental issues, including air pollution, waste management, and regional development. But first, I asked him to explain the badge he was wearing on his lapel.

The Interview

In 1990, when we met, you were in the environment ministry. At that time, we talked about the main environmental issues facing the country. What do you think was the most successful work you did?

Concerning the three main issues -- air, water, and waste -- we made most progress in air pollution control. Our power stations mostly used brown coal in the 1990s. We managed to bring this down from 80 percent of the energy supply to only 33 percent.

There was also a big discussion about atomic power. The reactor at Temelin was only part of it. The plant was built with Soviet technology. We switched many of the components of the reactor to Westinghouse. It was very critical to combine Soviet technology with American technology. Nothing could be changed in the agreements with the Soviet Union. It was the same with the Soviet subway in Prague, which was terribly inefficient. The subway cars were overheating, and the Soviets had no other technology. So, this kind of work required a lot of diplomacy and not just technical knowledge. A lot of work was about modernizing and achieving greater efficiency. Our power stations, for instance, were only 35 percent efficient. We equipped our stations in northern Bohemia with Swiss and Japanese technology, which was very costly, but it minimized emissions.

Then there were the waste problems. We saw the waste separation that was done in other countries, and no one thought it would be possible in Czechoslovakia where all the waste was put together. But time marches on, and we also do. I think it's better to minimize the amount of waste locally and then reuse it at the factory level. In my opinion, it was a pity that we didn't follow the Swiss approach, which has been to build many waste incinerators. We went there many times. In Basel, they showed us an incinerating plant in the middle of the city. Our industry representatives said that would be impossible in the Czech Republic. All the citizens would be against it. We saw the same thing in Paris. The director of one of these large incinerators showed us the chimney. It was maybe 200 meters high. And there was no smoke, nothing!

So, you saw these waste incinerator plants in Switzerland and France, but you couldn't build any here?

Yes, that's why I say it was a pity. From the energy point of view, burning waste is better than burning coal. North Bohemian brown coal is mostly water. You evaporate the water, the rest is burned, and 33-35 percent goes to electricity. But paper, plastics, and other waste materials are very good fuel. If you do a high level of waste separation, as in France or Switzerland, then you have no problems with inhabitants. But you have to explain it to them carefully at the time and then continuously afterward.

In Olomouc in Moravia, we organized a small seminar on waste incineration, and I invited a representative from a Swiss firm. I served as the translator. Then, a year later I asked them about what happened with the plan. They told me that the Green Party went to mothers and told them that there would be chemical particles in the blood of their children. It was not true. But these young women were thinking about air pollution from 40 years ago, so they oppose the incineration station.

So you had some successes in reducing air pollution. You had some success with recycling. But you didn't have success with incineration. And you replaced Soviet components with Westinghouse components in the nuclear plant.

It's necessary to follow the European model with our new reactor. Three firms sent in bids: a Russian-Czech consortium, Westinghouse, and a French company. The French bid was disqualified. Westinghouse was the biggest. But both the Russian-Czech and the Westinghouse bids must bring work for Czech firms: Czech machinery, Czech energy, anything that can be produced in our country. Next year, it will be decided.

And then you moved over to regional development.

To read the rest of the interview, click here.