On 12 May, the Czech cabinet voted 11 to 8 to continue and complete the two 1000 MWe units at the Temelin nuclear plant. The first power from the station should be supplied in August 2000, with the plant entering commercial service by May 2001.

Since its inception over 20 years ago, the plant has been dogged by cost overruns and delays, the most significant being a decision made following the collapse of communism in 1989 to introduce Western safety standards. CEZ, the state power company and investor, brought in Westinghouse to overhaul the control and instrumentation system. As a result, the cost of the plant has risen to $3 billion.

The Czech government has decided to complete the plant on the basis that it will put the country into a strong long-term position.

“I am trying to push for what, according to my opinion, is most effective and best for the national economy and for industry,” said Trade Minister Miroslav Gregr, the government’s most vociferous supporter of the project. “In this case, it was completing construction of Temelin. I can say that I am satisfied. Reason triumphed over ideology or new-age religion.”

A Russian designed VVER, Temelin was originally planned when Czechoslovakia’s demand for electricity was growing rapidly, and the country depended on power station burning lignite in the northern Bohemia region. Temelin’s production would allow the country to close some of its most environmentally damaging coal stations. However, following the 1989 revolution, a large proportion of the industrial base shut down and electricity demand dropped sharply. Critics of the plant argue that Temelin’s power is not needed, the coal-fired stations have been cleaned up, and that the plant will remain a political and economic white elephant for the country. Opposition to the plant’s completion has come not only from within the Czech Republic, but also from Austria, which is threatening to block the Czech Republic’s entry into the European Union should Temelin go critical. The plant is 100 km from the border between the two countries.

The highest profile recent critic has been Czech President Vaclav Havel. Speaking shortly before the cabinet decision, he argued that as the cost of the plant had risen inexorably over the years, he had no reason to trust CEZ’s figure of $3 billion as a final total.

“They (CEZ leading managers) have already let me down nine times, and I cannot see why I should believe that they will keep their promises this time,” he said.

While Temelin remains on track, there are few who are confident it will eventually produce power. The Czech government has a minority in parliament, and is politically weak. Former environment minister Martin Bursik said the decision was not based on economic reality. “The Social Democrats have taken on responsibility for completion and the losses to the economy which will arise from this,” he said. “It is neither the first nor the last cabinet to make a decision on Temelin.”