It now looks like an agreement is in place to let Russian natural gas shipments to the West resume with independent monitors from the European Union in place, but those have been blocked completely since Thursday (8 January) and it will take about a further three days to resume full service. In the meantime, unfortunately, the continent has suffered under a bitter cold spell, so that the political pressure from freezing constituents has already reached the breaking-point – I wouldn’t really call it the “boiling-point” – in Slovakia. As a number of press outlets report, among which Berlin’s Der Tagesspiegel, Slovak premier Robert Fico announced at a Saturday evening televised press conference that his country would bring back on-line the atomic reactor at Jaslovské Bohunice that it had just shut down before the end of 2008.
Gee, why did the Slovaks go and close that reactor in the first place a few weeks ago? Namely because doing so, and doing so permanently by the end of 2008, was a provision in the accession agreement by which the country became a EU member-state back in 2004 in the first place. With the Jaslovské Bohunice reactor we’re talking in fact about the very first nuclear reactor in the former Czechoslovakia, whose construction began back in 1958 although it first went into operation only in 1972. Naturally, then, it’s a reactor built in the Soviet style, which in the light of such incidents as Chernobyl raised safety concerns to such a degree that the EU insisted that Slovakia eventually shut it down.
But now it’s powered up again, because otherwise (according to Slovak Economics Minister Lubomir Jahnatek) over the weekend Slovakia already stood on the brink of a full energy “blackout.” “I am aware,” Premier Fico declared at that press conference, “that with this we are violating the EU accession treaty, and take full political responsibility.” It’s true that actual permission would have been virtually impossible to get. Such treaties can be modified only by unanimous consent of all member-states, so that it not only would it have taken a lot of time and trouble to ask all the others to do so, but you can be sure that at least one of them would have vetoed the move, namely Austria, which has been upset since the old Communist times over both Jaslovske Bohunicé and the one Soviet-era reactor in what is now the Czech Republic at Temelín. The Austrians are namely downwind of them both, you see.
So one of the newer member-states now stands in clear violation of its accession treaty. Not necessarily because it wanted to be, you understand, but because it felt it had to be. And this the EU’s favorite East European pupil we’re talking about, Slovakia, which just adopted the euro.
No Common EU Energy Strategy
We’ll see what happens next, but in the meantime this article by Thomas Urban in the Süddeutsche Zeitung (“Atom power instead of dependence”) gives a valuable overview of the Eastern European energy situation even as it omits mention of Slovakia’s latest move. Basically, those Eastern European EU member-states (plus Ukraine) are getting increasingly alarmed at their continued dependence on the Russians for energy and have determined that atomic reactors provide an answer. Not old reactors (provided by the Russians in the first place) though, to be sure, but rather new reactors, as expensive as they are to build. The leading example is the new one paid for (and so currently being built to be used by) Poland and the three Baltic states, located next to an existing reactor at Ignalina in Latvia – that one is an old Soviet-type reactor, by the way, that Latvia has agreed to shut down by the end of 2009.
I find two additional incidental details in Urban’s article to be interesting. In his discussion of Slovakia he mentions that Jaslovské Bohunice is by no means that country’s only atomic reactor, it in fact has six others in operation – which casts Minister Jahnatek’s statement about an impending “blackout” in an interesting light. More alarmingly, Urban asserts that “up to now the EU has developed no common energy strategy” – this after we all witnessed a similar Russia-Ukraine pipeline spat at the beginning of 2006 that similarly put EU supplies of natural gas at risk? The EU commissioner in charge of energy is Andris Piebalgs, and that he comes from Latvia should really be no particular source of comfort. Rather, the energy portfolio’s chair being filled by a Baltic state official unfortunately demonstrates what an unimportant position it is regarded as being and at least partly explains that lack of a common EU-wide energy strategy.