Slovakia tests EU's patience with nuclear plant relaunch plan
Having just closed the reactor at the end of December, Slovakia claims it needs the reactor to get through the current gas crisis.Bratislava – Slovakia is keeping the European Union on tenterhooks with its plan to reactivate an outdated nuclear reactor – a bid to avert an energy crisis after gas pipelines from Russia dried up.
The plan provoked angry reactions from the EU and environmentalists even though Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico said earlier this week that the final decision would wait until Tuesday, when Russia promised to open the gas taps.
"We will see if the crisis is still going on and will base our decisions on that," Fico said after a government meeting.
Slovakia, a former communist country, closed the Soviet-type VVER-440/230 reactor at the Jaslovske Bohunice plant, northwest of the capital Bratislava, for security reasons on December 31, 2008. The closure met a pledge given to the EU before accession in May 2004.
"We met our obligation when we shut down Jaslovske Bohunice on December 31, 2008, but the ongoing gas crisis made us break it,” Fico said. “When the crisis is over, we will start to comply with our obligations at once."
The country started preparatory work on the Jaslovske relaunch on Saturday, as EU officials were struggling to hammer out a deal on restoring deliveries from Russia via Ukraine.
However, Slovak Economy Minister Lubomir Jahnatek struck somewhat of a different note than Fico. "We will not avert the critical situation by resuming gas deliveries ... we have more problems transmitting power than gas," he said, adding that the country was facing the prospect of an energy "blackout."
Fico also said his government was "skeptical" about the Russian-Ukrainian agreement because agreements about resuming gas deliveries in the past were not met.
He also shrugged off European Commission criticism on Monday that the plan runs counter to EU law and would be a clear violation of treaties signed before Slovakia's accession.
"If I had to choose between cold and darkness in Slovakia and problems in Brussels, I choose problems in Brussels," Fico said.
Earlier on Monday, the prime minister insisted his government would restart the reactor at the plant unless Russian gas supplies were restored to Europe on that day. Russia then promised to open the tap at 0800 GMT on Tuesday.
Slovak officials fear the pressure in the local gas pipelines could fall to such a level that it would no longer be possible to supply gas to eastern Slovak households during the extremely severe winter.
EU Energy Commissioner Andris Piebalgs added to their woes by saying that the gas will take between 24 and 40 hours to reach customers, while other EU officials have said it might take as much as three days.
Slovakia, which depends on Russia for 98 percent of natural gas imports, declared a state of energy emergency on January 6 to economize its gas reserves, which were estimated to last for six days.
The Slovak energy system suffered another blow when a fire broke out at a coal-fired power station in Novaky on Monday. The facility will be closed for an estimated 21 days, according to Fico.
The prime minister cited the accident as yet another argument in favor of relaunching the nuclear unit, saying that these kinds of accidents could occur again.
The government's statements upset Greenpeace environmentalists who warned Monday that the Slovak decision to restart the nuclear facility would put the whole of Europe at risk.
"In Slovakia, natural gas is mostly used for heating,” said Jan Haverkamp, Greenpeace EU dirty energy policy campaigner. “At most, it only generates six percent of electricity. Yet, nuclear power can only deliver electricity. This is nothing more than a con by Slovak authorities.”