The Temelín nuclear power plant between Protivín and Týn nad Vltavou in South Bohemia is probably the most controversial modern structure in the Czech lands, and with recent developments it seems like it will be in the news for some time yet.
The second of the Czech Republic's nuclear power plants, the construction of Temelín began in 1987. In the uncertainty of the early 1990's the government scaled back and built only the first two of the four planned production blocks. Temelín's current owners, ČEZ (the Czech Energy Company) now want to expand to the original four blocks, and have called for tenders for the project which it hopes to complete by the year 2020.
The expansion of the plant has raised concerns in neighbouring Austria, where a vocal section of the community has long voiced their disapproval of what they see as dangerously antiquated Soviet technology uncomfortably close to their northern border. From time to time the more fervent activists get so worked up as to block the border crossings at Dolní Dvořište and Železná Ruda or to picket the Czech embassy in Vienna. It's hard to take Austrian complaints seriously though while they continue to voluntary purchase surplus Czech electricity, a substantial portion of which (at least theoretically) comes from Temelín.
Temelín and ČEZ have been in the Czech news because of a controversial and overpriced contract awarded to a shady company whose former director was recently jailed for planning the violent abduction of his replacement. The understandable Czech wariness of Russian influence is also a large factor in the public debate about the expansion. Supporters of the project say that an expanded Temelin will reduce future reliance on fossil fuels from the east, but opponents worry that the involvement of Russian companies in the project could have the opposite effect. The recent expulsion of two Russian diplomats for spying on sensitive Czech Republic energy concerns seems to indicate that there's at least some substance to their fears.
From 1991 onwards, the construction of Temelín underwent dozens of inspections by experts from the International Agency for Atomic Energy and their recommendations prompted further modifications to the design. The replacement of the control and warning system with a new digital version and a complete upgrade to inflammable cables were the greatest changes and Temelín became the only nuclear power plant in the world to use only inflammable cables. The new systems were supplied and installed by the Westinghouse Electric Corporation and on the recommendation of IAAE inspectors, Westinghouse was also chosen as the supplier of the fuel, but that contract ended several years ago and the Russian company Tvel will supply Temelín's nuclear fuel for at least the next ten years.
Somehow I'd gained the impression that it would be possible to tour parts of the power station when a group of more than five people gathered, but I apparently misunderstood. Tours of the site are available but only to school groups or groups with some kind of professional interest. Even then, the identities of the visitors are thoroughly checked weeks in advance. As the receptionist pointed out 'touring a nuclear power plant is not an everyday thing'.
There is however an interesting and informative visitors' centre in the Vysoký Hrádek chateau near the eastern tip of the powerplant's four square kilometres. Control panel simulators, fuel rod casings and working models of various power sources are all on display but the two things I liked most were the 15 minute 3D film and the working tabletop model of a cloud chamber.
A cloud chamber is an instrument that creates the right conditions to show radiation, in this case the background alpha, beta and gamma rays that are in the atmosphere all around us all the time. It works by creating a mist of evaporated alcohol which condenses when hit by alpha, beta or gamma rays, something like the vapour trail that follows an aircraft wing in the right atmospheric conditions. The different types of radiation variously looked like wriggly worms of five to six centimetres had shed their skins or as if pellets from a toy gun had been shot through the cloud. The less frequent gamma rays were more like shots from a real gun. I found it quite fascinating and could have watched for hours.
If you're passing through South Bohemia and would like to take a peek for yourself, the Temelín visitors' centre is open year round, seven days a week from at least 9am to 4pm (longer hours in summer). Admission is free of charge.
Monday, 28 September 2009