Probe Alerts

Probe Alert Winter 1995

February 1, 1995

A decision that could have disastrous results for the people of Slovakia and Europe, and could set a dangerous precedent for international funding of nuclear reactors, is about to be made by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), a Canadian-backed institution.

Located 100 kilometres northeast of the Slovakian capital Bratislava, construction of the Soviet-designed reactor was abruptly halted in 1991 when funds ran out. The govern-ment-owned electric utility, together with a French state utility and a private German company, now seek $1 billion from the EBRD to complete the reactor. The decision about the plant is the most controversial in the short history of the EBRD, which was set up in the aftermath of the fall of communism in Eastern Europe.

The $1 billion loan would allow the French and German companies to buy cheap power from a hazardous plant that would not meet safety standards in their own countries. Even the German company’s chief admitted that “no one would certainly allow this installation in Munich’s surroundings.” The citizens of Slovakia are wondering why they should accept the health and safety risks while the western companies benefit from the cheap power.

Environmentalists and citizens’ groups in Slovakia, and neighbouring Austria, Poland and Hungary, argue that Slovakia and the rest of Europe do not need additional energy capacity, and that the plant will dangerously mix eastern and western nuclear technologies. According to these groups, Eastern Europe only needs to use its available energy efficiently.

Because Canada is a contributing member of EBRD, European citizens’ groups have asked for Canadian public support to ensure that EBRD does not subsidize the nuclear plant.

Electricity Demand in Decline

Slovakia, with the capacity to produce as much as 65% more electricity than its citizens actually used in 1993, produces enough power to meet its electrical needs. Furthermore, its demand for electricity is declining; consumption of electricity in Slovakia in 1993 was almost one-fifth lower than in 1990. This surplus, coupled with Slovakia’s declining demand for electricity, make the nuclear plant even more unnecessary.

Heavy government subsidies make Slovakia’s electricity among the cheapest in the region and they promote its wasteful use. Building still more capacity to be wasted is not only environmentally irresponsible, it is economically imprudent. The Austrian environmental organization GLOBAL 2000 presented an in-depth study of the energy situation in Slovakia to the president of the EBRD, Jacques de Larosire. The study found that with energy efficiency improvements, Slovakia would eliminate the need to complete the reactor and could even close two units of another Slovakian nuclear power plant all without jeopardizing the security of the electricity supply. A study of combined heat and power cogeneration plants completed by the Slovakian Fund for Alternative Energy reinforced this view, as did a study released by the Austrian environment ministry. Under the circumstances, spending limited financial resources on building new generating capacity cannot be justified.

Why the Reactor Is Especially Unsafe

A key safety concern is the absence of a secondary containment structure to prevent the release of radioactive material in the event of an accident. Instead of secondary containment, Slovakian officials are relying on a questionable device called a bubble condenser to control radiation in the event of an accident. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), for example, has identified major deficiencies in the information available to evaluate it, noting in a 1994 report that the existing analysis “suffer from a number of shortcomings” and that “more comprehensive analyses are not expected soon.” The safety assessment prepared for Slovakia’s electrical utility has also identified this concern, stating “the load bearing capability of the BC (bubble condenser) structure has yet to be proved.”

Morris Rosen, head of nuclear safety at IAEA, recently underscored the importance of secondary containment. In a BBC radio interview, he said, “Containment should be mandatory for nuclear power plants,” calling containment “a final barrier against release of radioactivity.” When asked by journalists if it was true that the Slovakian reactor would not qualify for a licence to operate in the west, Rosen replied, “I would say it is true.” Yet the Western-backed EBRD is considering financing it, and is risking another Chernobyl.

Containment aside, never before has this type of Soviet reactor been modified with western technology, foisting on citizens downwind a risky experiment with unknown consequences.

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Categories: Probe Alerts

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