Bratislava, Slovakia – On Monday, Slovakia announced it would delay – once again – the long-awaited plans to expand the Mochovce nuclear energy plant after receiving complaints from Austria – a long-standing thorn in bilateral relations between the two neighbours.
Slovakia delays extension of Mochovce nuclear power plant
Head of the state energy firm Slovenské Elektrárne, which operates the power plant, Branislav Strycek told Slovak lawmakers earlier this week that the opening of two new reactors should be postponed until November this year, or March 2020 at the latest, instead of the initial June 2019 launch, citing the opposition from the Austrian neighbour as the main reason.
Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz said that the postponement was “a step in the right direction” and added that he will keep on the fight “until all our safety concerns have been answered”.
Located roughly 100 kilometers from the border with Austria, the expansion project of the Mochovce nuclear plant has faced strong opposition from Vienna. Citing safety concerns, Austrian officials have repeatedly asked their Slovak counterparts to drop the project, while Austrian environmental NGO’s have launched a campaign claiming that the construction has major flaws and presents a clear threat to the environment in case of failure or incident.
At the time, Slovenské Elektrárne fired back at a critical study from Austrian environmental watchdog Global 2000, saying it “shows an absolute lack of knowledge about the complex projects” aimed at increasing the safety of Slovakia’s nuclear sites.
“Another reason for concern is that the reactors were originally built to Soviet-style designs, and then modified with Western elements”, reminds Die Deutsche Welle.
Austria’s “holy war” against nuclear energy in Central Europe
Vienna’s continued opposition to the project did not go down well in Bratislava. Slovak Prime Minister Peter Pellegrini accused Austria of “declaring a holy war” against nuclear energy in Central Europe, where it is still seen as a strong guarantor of energy security and low prices.
Austria’s chancellor Sebastian Kurz “is stepping over his competencies and attempting to meddle with the sovereignty and decision-making of the Slovak Republic”, the Slovak Premier said, as quoted by Austrian public broadcaster ORF.
“I understand that he must carry out his domestic policies”, Peter Pellegrini said, quoted by the TASR news agency. “I understand that he must react to the mood in Austrian society, but it is my duty to defend the interests of the Slovak Republic” he added, before inviting M. Kurz to visit the site, “because I am not sure if M. Chancellor has ever seen such a nuclear plant in person”.
Mochovce’s extension, a project riddled in controversy
Slovakia originally planned to launch two additional reactors at the Mochovce plant by 2012, but the project has been repeatedly delayed, for both technical and political reasons, while the overall cost of the expansion jumped from the initial 2.8 billion to 4.6 billion euros.
In 2015, Italian energy group Enel agreed to sell all its stakes in Slovenské Elektrárne to co-shareholder EPH, a major Czech conglomerate owned by Daniel Kretinsky and which already has a 49% stake in Slovakia’s main gas transit pipeline, Eustream.
Under the deal, however, the Slovak state could purchase, in a second buy-out phase, 17% stake from Enel, thus becoming the majority shareholder with 51% of the shares versus 49% for EPH.
The importance of nuclear energy in Slovakia
Along with its Czech and Hungarian neighbours, Slovakia is part of the 14 EU countries that operates nuclear reactors and heavily relies on domestic nuclear energy production to meet its electricity and energy needs.
The country currently has four nuclear reactors, running at two separate plants, built during the Soviet-era but modernized with Western safety technologies in the 2000’s: Mochovce (which produced more than 6.700 GWh of electricity in 2017) and Bohunice (annual production of over 7.200 GWh). In 2017, nuclear energy accounted for around 54% of total electricity production in Slovakia, while production increased by more than 25% since 1990 (well below the Czech Republic’s hike of 125% over the same period).
Despite growing worldwide opposition to the atom following the Fukushima incident in Japan, popular support for nuclear energy remains strong in Slovakia: 64% of the population is in favour of nuclear new build, according to recent opinion polls.
Austria’s crusade against nuclear energy
On the contrary, Austria counts among the fiercest opponents to nuclear-powered sources of energy. Support among the population is among the lowest in Europe, and the country has passed strong anti-nuclear laws that date back to the 1970’s, while simultaneously attempting to launch an EU-wide crusade, directly targeting its Czech and Slovak neighbours, to urge its European partners to stay away from the atom.
According to an Eurobarometer (conducted before the Fukushima incident), 66% of the Austrian population believes the risks associated to nuclear energy outweighs its advantages (compared to only 34% in Slovakia), while 22% of Austrians trust companies operating nuclear plants (67% of Slovaks).
But although Austria doesn’t operate any nuclear plant, claims to be 100% nuclear-free and repeatedly scolds other European countries over the issue, critics argue that part of the country’s final energy consumption still derives from nuclear-produced electricity imported from neighbouring countries, including Slovakia and the Czech Republic.