Czechs plan to heavily expand nuclear power

Surrounded by corn fields, bicycle routes and a nature reserve, the eight huge cooling towers of the Dukovany nuclear power plant have dominated the Czech countryside near the Austrian border for almost three decades.

Against the odds, the government has worked to keep it that way for many years to come.

Defying growing global skepticism over the use of atomic energy, it is planning to dramatically increase the country’s nuclear power production — a move that would give the country a place among Europe’s most nuclear-dependent nations.

The Czech plan reflects a sharp division over nuclear use among European nations, and relations with neighboring countries that have decided to go nuclear free could be seriously harmed.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government decided to phase out nuclear energy by 2022 following the March meltdown at Japan’s Fukushima plant, and Switzerland has followed suit. Austria abandoned nuclear energy after the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster and strictly opposes the Czech nuclear program.

Other former Soviet bloc nations, now in the EU, are following the Czechs’ lead on nuclear power — reflecting diverging economic needs between east and west.

Slovakia is currently building more nuclear facilities. And Poland has engaged in talks with French, U.S. and Japanese firms about know-how and technology for its first nuclear installation to be completed by 2030.

The Czechs argue nuclear energy is needed because it is a clean and cost efficient source.

They currently rely on six nuclear reactors — four 440-megawatt reactors in Dukovany and two 1,000-megawatt reactors at another plant in Temelin located an hour’s drive north of the Austrian border — for 33 percent of their total electricity. The government hopes to at least double that output.

“We consider increasing electricity production in nuclear plants from some 30 percent to about 60 percent by 2050,” Deputy Industry and Trade Minister Tomas Huner told the Associated Press.

“We have been mining uranium and there’s no doubt nuclear energy is irreplaceable for us in the long term,” said Huner, whose ministry has to present the new energy overhaul for the next 50 years to the government by year’s end.

A trio of big players — U.S.-based Westinghouse Electric Co., a subsidiary of Japan’s Toshiba Corp., France’s state-owned nuclear engineering giant Areva SA and a consortium led by Russia’s Atomstroyexport — are already bidding to win a lucrative multibillion tender to build two more reactors at the Temelin plant. The reactors are expected to be operational in the middle of the next decade.

The plant has been heavily protested by Austrian environmentalists who demand it be closed because of security concerns. Czech authorities insist both plants are safe and will have no problems passing so-called nuclear reactor stress tests currently being conducted across Europe after the Japanese disaster.

Opened a year before the Chernobyl disaster, Dukovany’s life was expected to expire in some 30 years. Germany is closing plants of the same age — but the Czechs refuse to do that despite international pressure.


IAEA: Fukushima starts thyroid tests

Experts from the International Atomic Energy Agency arrived in the Japanese city of Fukushima on Sunday to observe the massive decontamination effort following the world's worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl.

Local doctors also began a long-term survey of children for thyroid abnormalities, a problem associated with radiation exposure. Officials hope to test some 360,000 people who were under the age of 18 when the nuclear crisis began in March, and then provide follow-ups throughout their lifetimes.

The 12-member IAEA group was to visit farms, schools and government offices throughout Fukushima prefecture in northeastern Japan to observe the cleanup process. It is the U.N. atomic agency's second major mission to Japan since the crisis at Fukushima's Dai-ichi nuclear power plant began.

Nearly 20,000 people were killed when the earthquake and tsunami hit Japan on March 11, and the disaster severely damaged the Fukushima complex. Officials say the plant is now relatively stable, but tens of thousands of people still cannot -- or choose not to -- return to their homes because of the radioactive contamination.

No one has died from radiation in the nuclear crisis, but concerns remain high over how the lingering contamination will impact the safety of Fukushima's children.

The thyroid testing program is intended to allay those fears and build a database that might help deal with future disasters. On its opening day Sunday, more than 100 children, whose thyroid glands are more susceptible to radioactive iodine than adults, were checked.

The results were not made public, but officials have said that if any abnormalities are discovered, the children -- to be tested every two years until age 20, and then every five years after that -- will be provided with further care.

More than 6,000 cases of thyroid cancer have been detected in people who were children or adolescents when exposed to high levels of radioactive fallout in the period immediately after the 1986 Chernobyl disaster.

A 12-mile (20-kilometer) no-go zone remains in effect around the Fukushima nuclear plant. Japan recently lifted other advisories that warned residents just outside of that zone to be prepared to evacuate at any time, a move largely aimed at reassuring evacuees that it is safe to return.

To further bring down contamination levels, towns outside of the no-go zone have begun washing down public areas and removing the top soil in parks and schoolyards.

The task is a daunting one because the nuclear accident spread radiation unevenly over a broad swath of Fukushima, leaving some areas near the plant relatively safe, while creating dangerous hotspots farther away.

Japan's government has acknowledged that the effort could take years. According to a report Sunday in the Asahi, a major newspaper, officials are aiming to complete the decontamination outside of the exclusion zone by the end of March 2014.