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July 9, 2008

Wasting energy

Pačes commission delays critical report on nuclear power

It was supposed to diffuse a potentially explosive political conflict over nuclear power, but an independent panel of experts commissioned to study the future energy needs of the Czech Republic almost led to a government meltdown last week.

After months of preparation, the group failed to present viable results at a July 4 meeting with Prime Minister Mirek Topolánek, shrouding the future of the country’s ailing energy policy in further uncertainty.

The so-called Pačes commission, led by Czech Academy of Sciences Director Václav Pačes, was created earlier this year by Topolánek to scientifically study the politically charged issue of energy policy.

Originally, the commission was expected to present its final recommendations last Friday, but after a week of speculation and political posturing by government members, the group presented Topolánek with a mere progress report, and announced its final analysis would be delayed until the end of September.

“The energy issue proved to be not only complex, but also a bit controversial,” said Pačes. “I visited Topolánek some time ago and asked him for extra time.”

That controversy centers on the role of nuclear power in the country’s energy future.
As of 2004, nuclear power accounted for 15 percent of the country’s energy supply, according to the European Union. Three percent of the country’s power was supplied by renewable resources and a mix of gas, coal and oil supplied the remainder.

As concerns about energy dependence increase, that mix will almost certainly change in the near future.

In addition to struggling with diminishing domestic coal reserves, the government is bound by an EU-wide directive mandating that renewable resources must account for 20 percent of the country’s energy use by 2020.

Mapping out the future of a problematic energy policy has become a major sticking point within the eclectic government coalition, composed of the business-friendly Civic Democrats (ODS), the centrist Christian Democrats (KDU–ČSL) and the Green Party (SZ).

The Civic Democrats largely favor using nuclear power to fill the gap as coal power becomes less economically viable. As recently as May, Topolánek promoted nuclear energy at the European Nuclear Energy Forum. “Nuclear energy can make a major contribution to the battle against climate change, as it generates two-thirds of the EU’s carbon-free electricity,” he said at the forum.

Experts agree that nuclear power is likely to play a crucial role in the country’s future energy strategy.

“I think the use of nuclear energy is one of a number of good options,” said Jiří Gavor, an energy consultant who worked with the commission. “I am skeptical of relying only on a combination of gas and renewable resources.”

In addition to pundits and Civic Democrats, nuclear power has strong support among the Czech public.

According to a Eurobarometer survey from July 3, the Czech Republic ranks first in the EU, along with Lithuania, in public support for nuclear energy. The results showed 64 percent of respondents said they were in favor of nuclear energy, while the EU average is 44 percent.

However, the Green Party believes renewable energy sources and increased conservation should be promoted instead of nuclear power. When joining the current coalition government in 2006, the Greens negotiated that no new nuclear power sources will be approved by the coalition.

Topolánek said he created the independent Pačes commission to sidestep political controversy in resolving these energy policy issues. “We did not want to see an analysis that would be based on some kind of ideology,” Topolánek said July 4. “That is why we decided to address independent experts to help us out with the analysis.”

So far, the maneuver hasn’t worked: When news leaked early last week that the Pačes commission might suggest approving a proposal by the state-owned ČEZ, the country’s largest energy producer, to expand its nuclear power plant at Temelín, Green Party Chairman Martin Bursík threatened to withdraw his party from the governing coalition.

Topolánek quickly announced that the government would take no “irreversible” steps toward expanding nuclear power.

Still, Bursík publicly criticized both the methods and the composition of the commission. In a press conference last week, he suggested the Pačes commission was merely rehashing a 1990s report written by then Industry and Trade Minister Vladimír Dlouhý, who is currently on the commission.

“Bursík doesn’t know how the commission worked,” countered Pačes. He said the report was based solely on the analysis of the panel of independent experts.

With political tensions running high, the fight over nuclear power is likely to continue until the commission delivers its final report in September.

At the July 4 meeting, the commission skirted the nuclear power issue, as well as the proposed ČEZ expansion at Temelín. Rather than addressing concrete goals, it made vague recommendations “to identify nuclear energy as one of the acceptable options for power production.”

The commission also touched on regulations that limit coal mining in the Czech Republic, suggesting that those limits ought to be open to debate.

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