US VP Biden warns Czechs over Russian nuke contracts

US vice-president made a blatant sales pitch for Westinghouse and warned against reliance on Russian energy during his Czech visit.

Temelín was clearly on US VP Joe Biden's mind as he visited Prague | na serveru | aktuální zprávy Temelín was clearly on US VP Joe Biden's mind as he visited Prague | foto: © REUTERS, CZECHPOSITIONČeská pozice
Temelín was clearly on US VP Joe Biden's mind as he visited Prague

US Vice-President Joe Biden warned Czechs and the rest of Europe against overreliance on Russian power supplies and flagged up an American offer to build new nuclear power stations in the country on his 2009 visit to Prague, leaked diplomatic dispatches released by the whistle blowing site WikiLeaks have revealed.

Biden, visiting Prague in October that year, passed on his worries and sales pitch for US companies to build new reactors at the Temelín nuclear power plant in meetings with the then Czech caretaker Prime Minister Jan Fischer.

‘If you want to get unhooked from Russia, look to Westinghouse.’

The pitch for US nuclear power plant constructor Westinghouse was by all accounts pretty blatant. “Have I got a deal for you.  If you want to get unhooked from Russia, look to Westinghouse,” Biden said, according to the leaked dispatches.

The Vice-President also questioned why the Czechs would want Russia to have control of gas, oil and nuclear supplies. Biden also made an attack on the level of Russia’s nuclear technology. “Westinghouse is a quality company; they don’t build Chernobyls,” he commented, referring to the disaster at the nuclear power plant accident that was then in the Soviet Union.

US company Westinghouse is one of three nuclear power companies in the running to build two new nuclear reactors at the Temelín site in southern Bohemia for state-controlled power company ČEZ. The contract involves options to build three extra reactors at unspecified sites. The other contenders for the multi-billion contract are France’s Areva and a partnership between Russian company Atomstrojexport and Czech engineering company Škoda JS.

Biden was equally blunt about European over reliance on Russian power supplies, which had been one of the main themes of the Czech Republic’s disrupted presidency of the European Union in the first half of 2009, .

“We don’t care if you purchase nuclear power from France or the US, but if you purchase from Russia, I have to question your judgement,” the Vice-President said. He suggested to the Czech Prime Minister that curtailing European energy reliance on Russia could markedly change Russian behavior. Former PM Fischer went along with Biden’s argument and assured him that Europe was trying to diversify its energy supplies.

‘We don’t care if you purchase nuclear power from France or the US, but if you purchase from Russia, I have to question your judgement.’

Energy security has raced up the political agenda to become a big priority after Russia’s interruption of gas supplies to Western Europe earlier in the winter.

Czech energy policy and its dominant electricity producer, ČEZ, was a major ongoing issue for the US embassy in Prague over the previous years  judging from the WikiLeaks dispatches. But not all of the dispatches out of Prague backed up Vice-President Biden’s dark warnings about reliance on Russia.

One voluminous dispatch in August 2007 about the growing profits and profile of ČEZ in the Czech Republic and CEE region, actually played down concerns about reliance on Russian fuel rods for Czech nuclear power plants. Russian supplies were already being used for ČEZ’s Dukovany nuclear power plant and a deal had been signed for Russian company TVEL to start supplying Temelín from 2010, replacing the previous contractor, the US company Westinghouse.

“Concern over complete Russian control of nuclear fuel supplies is not justified in the short-run but could be a concern in the long term,” the US dispatch said. It pointed out that the Dukovany plant kept a one year reserve of nuclear fuel on site and that only around a fifth of fuel rods were replaced annually.

“Therefore, if Russia were to cut off nuclear fuel supplies to the Czech Republic, it would not have the same effect as gas or oil supplies. Sufficient time would be in place to negotiate with alternative fuel suppliers,” the US dispatch noted.

ČEZ Republic

Large parts of the rest of the dispatch was occupied in tracking ČEZ’s strategy and its earlier determination to press ahead with building more nuclear reactors in the country although the Czech government coalition in power until the middle of 2009 included a Green Party resolutely opposed to more nuclear power. How ČEZ side stepped that and often appeared to be setting Czech energy policy clearly intrigued the Americans.

One earlier diplomatic dispatch, for example, outlined early Czech steps to come up with an emissions allowance trading system with the allocation of allowances clearly tailor-made to give windfall profits to ČEZ and other state companies through an over allocation of the pollution permits.

“It seems clear enough that the Czechs are not hoping for a market-based method of producing the most cost-effective reductions in greenhouse gases. Instead, it appears that they, as was the case with other members of the former Soviet Bloc, see the scheme as a distortion of market forces, that might allow some Czech firms, including those run by the state itself, to reap windfall profits while avoiding the reductions that are the principal reason for the scheme’s existence,” the dispatch pointed out.