Nuclear, Reactors

Slovakia to restart nuclear plant following Russian gas dispute

12 January 2009 – Starved of gas following Russia’s dispute with Ukraine, Slovakia has announced plans to restart a Soviet-era nuclear reactor in defiance of the European Union, and to the fury of Austria.

The International Herald Tribune reported the decision, made late Saturday, provoked sharp criticism at a meeting of European energy ministers in Brussels, and was condemned by the Austrian government on Sunday as “completely unacceptable.”

Nathalie Charbonneau, a spokeswoman for the European Commission, said Sunday that the commission had not received a formal notification from the Slovakian authorities regarding the reactor. But she said turning it back on “of course would be a violation of the country’s accession treaty.”

Slovakia is one of a handful of former Warsaw Pact countries that closed its Soviet-era reactors before joining the EU because of sensitivities after the disaster at Chernobyl in 1986.

But Slovakia’s decision underlines the contradictions within an EU policy under which countries were ordered to switch off their nuclear plants before Europe had diversified sources of supply and developed energy independence from Russia.

Efforts to wean countries off their reliance on Russian gas and oil are likely to be high on the agenda of the energy ministers’ meeting Monday in Brussels.

“We are aware that this is a violation of the accession agreement, but this is happening at a time of crisis,” the Slovakian prime minister, Robert Fico, said at a news conference after the government made the decision, according to Reuters. “Damage from violation of the accession agreement is smaller than damage that would be caused by a collapse of the electricity system.”

Slovakia joined the EU in 2004 with a three-year provision allowing it to reopen reactors – but only at the discretion of EU officials and only in cases of serious economic hardship. That provision has expired.

Bulgaria said last week it was considering reopening at least one of its reactors at Kozloduy. But because Bulgaria joined the trade bloc more recently than Slovakia, it still could invoke a similar provision.

Fico added that said the reactor should resume power production in less than six days and, though seen as a temporary measure, the unit will stay in operation until Slovakia had guarantees of “absolute stability” in gas supplies.

But the Austrian environment minister, Nikolaus Berlakovich, described the move to restart the reactor as “completely unacceptable,” The Associated Press reported.

Charbonneau, the commission spokeswoman, was unable to say what action authorities could take if Slovakia proceeded to switch on the reactor. Slovakia, which depends entirely on Russian gas, was forced to declare a state of emergency last week.

Though Poland provided emergency supplies last week, about 1000 Slovakian companies were forced to reduce their consumption levels to ensure enough gas for households, hospital and schools.