While many European countries are phasing out nuclear energy, either for political or economic reasons, Czechia is hoping to go in the opposite direction. Nuclear reactors are proclaimed – and also perceived by much of society – to be a clean and safe source of energy. It is claimed that they will substitute coal, reduce huge greenhouse gas emissions, guarantee energy self-sufficiency and develop an up-to-date industry. In the minds of the boldest planners, our country should become a gigantic nuclear power station for Europe, supplying cheap energy to countries in desperate need of it. How did this come about?
This commentary is part of our dossier "Nuclear Power in Europe: 35 Years After the Chernobyl Disaster".
Industrial Tradition Bound to Atom
Due to its uranium ore deposits, the Czech Republic (and former Czechoslovakia) became an important producer of uranium for the Eastern Bloc. The amount of extracted uranium reached over 112,000 tonnes from the beginning of industrial mining in 1946 up to 2016. Uranium extraction was also carried out using the drastic method of chemical leaching, whereby millions of hectolitres of acid were pumped under the ground. The use of this extraction method for 30 years led to groundwater and soil contamination and the presence of slag heaps and toxic sludge all across the country [1,2]. And despite all this, there have been plans for a return to uranium mining should it become profitable.
Availability of uranium ore was the reason the Czechoslovak industry started to build its own heavy-water reactor in 1958 in Jaslovské Bohunice (currently Slovakia), which was shut down in 1977 following a serious industrial accident.
The first Czech nuclear power station was put into operation in the years 1985-1987 in Dukovany. It uses four USSR-made VVER 440 pressurised water reactors with a total capacity of 1,878 MW. They were scheduled to be shut down after 50 years of operation, which was actually longer than their intended life. Although they do not comply with current safety measures and do not even have protective ferroconcrete containment, the plant operator – the ČEZ energy company – is considering another extension of operations until the mid-21st century .
The other nuclear power station is located in Temelín. It has two USSR-made VVER 1000 reactors and began operations in 2000-2002, after many controversies, delays and price increases. The total capacity is 2,056 MW and there have been ongoing problems with turbines .
There is an interesting paradox about nuclear waste. Czechia needs to find an absolutely safe storage solution for thousands of tonnes of spent nuclear fuel. As governmental institutions have discovered, local inhabitants in all potential locations refuse it . Nevertheless, many of those who are afraid of having radioactive waste stored near their homes still believe that we need to continue nuclear power generation – as if they cannot see the link between operating nuclear reactors and the increasing amount of waste. This contradiction is particularly notable in mayors of municipalities near Dukovany, who actively support construction of the new reactor in the power station and at the same time, want the spent fuel stored locally to be sent somewhere else. .
It is often argued, with wishful thinking, that soon there will be new nuclear technologies which will use all of the nuclear fuel, although implementation of such technologies is not even on the horizon. Decades of nuclear propaganda have turned the Czechs into one of the most techno-optimistic societies in Europe. Together with faith in the former important role of the Czech nuclear industry, this propaganda is probably a major reason behind the huge public support for new reactors . According to various public opinion polls, construction of new nuclear reactors is supported by more than half of the Czech population. However, such surveys do not ask the public whether they are willing to pay for these new reactors (as they will inevitably increase the price of power) or whether they would like to choose between nuclear energy and renewable energy sources. When these questions are asked, the answers are quite the opposite . So why are renewables developing so slowly in Czechia?
Renewables as Competition for Nuclear Energy
Approximately ten years ago, it seemed that, inspired by Germany, Austria and other countries, Czechia would begin to focus on the growth of renewables via incentives for power purchase prices. At that time, there was a wide-spread sceptical myth that Czechia does not have enough sunshine to generate solar energy. Fewer people believe this nowadays. The issue is setting suitable financial incentives and removing administrative barriers (for example, the licensing process for a wind power station takes seven years in Czechia).
Early incentives for photovoltaic projects were overly generous. However, instead of fixing problems in the systems, the government brought it to a halt. The promising sector got into stagnation and has not really recovered yet. The current 14% share of power from renewables in the domestic consumption is way below its potential [8, 9]. It would be complex to describe who was involved in this process and why, but there is some evidence that it was a way of eliminating competition. Nevertheless, the Minister of Industry and key politicians across the political spectrum as well as officials working on energy policies keep alerting the public to the alleged instability and deficiency of renewables. Germany’s Energiewende is not portrayed as an inspiration and an opportunity, but as a threat to our economy.
It is also connected with the current government’s plans for a very limited use of renewables in the State Energy Policy and the National Energy and Climate Plan. These documents only suggest the minimum share needed to meet EU’s shared climate targets. Both documents have repeatedly been criticised for their lack of ambition and their loopholes. The share of power generated from sun, wind, water and biomass is expected to rise to just 17% by 2030 and coal is expected to be still used in the 2030s . The law on supported energy sources, which should introduce market incentives and unblock stagnation in the RES sector, has been delayed for years. On the other hand, efforts to develop nuclear energy are comparatively strong and dynamic.
Nuclear Energy in National Interest
Both Czech nuclear power stations have generated over 30 TWh of power last year, i.e. approximately one third of all power in Czechia. The country has been gradually losing its position as one of the world’s biggest power exporters (not so long ago, the country exported more power than the Temelín power station produced), yet net exports stood at approximately 10 TWh last year . The approved energy policy forecasts that by 2040, the capacity of nuclear power stations will rise by 1,500 MW (and Dukovany’s old reactors will be replaced) . Nevertheless, this plan already appears unrealistic for economic reasons.
All efforts are now focused on the construction of one new reactor in Dukovany. Due to the lack of cooling water, its capacity is limited to 1,200 MW. It is to be built by ČEZ with unprecedented support from public funds. The process is based on the new law, colloquially referred to as Lex Dukovany. It is a controversial proposal, which in effect protects nuclear power from competitors in the energy market and transfers business risks to consumers and the state budget. First of all, there will be a favourable 100% loan for this investment, of approximately 9.7 billion Euros. The loan is meant to be interest-free during the construction period in order to save the investor’s costs in this huge project .
ČEZ insists on the contractual obligation for the state to purchase all power generated in the new nuclear power station for a price that will cover its costs and reasonable profits – that means a higher price than the market. The difference will be covered by energy consumers.
If the reactor is completed, this will be the case from approximately 2040 and the “nuclear surcharge” will be added to electricity bills for the next thirty years. And perhaps up to sixty years, as the government is considering the possibility of extending it until the end of the reactor’s lifetime.
If the European Commission approves this type of support, it may also pave the way for the construction of two new reactors in Temelín in the name of the country’s illusory self-sufficiency.
The topic is also interesting due to the possible involvement of a Chinese or Russian technology provider, which can be seen as a security threat. Czech President Zeman is promoting stronger relations with China, but his advisors also have business interests in Russia. However, there is currently no major parliamentary political party with a critical perspective of nuclear energy as such, for example in terms of general safety or waste storage.
Energy Transformation, not Preservation
The Czech Republic needs coal phase-out and modernisation of energy industry as soon as possible. This cannot be achieved by sinking up to a trillion CZK in major nuclear reactor technology. It might have worked well in the last century, but its high share is hardly compatible with the concept of decentralised energy with numerous intermittent renewable sources, accumulation and a completely different stability management. Furthermore, power from Dukovany’s new reactor would not be available before 2040, which makes it unfit as a replacement for coal.
Instead, we need to accelerate preparations for a new State Energy Policy with a brave vision and the agility to respond to the rapidly changing situation in the energy sector, whether in technological, economic or political terms.
 “Uranium 2018: Resources, Production and Demand,” NEA and IAEA, 2018, see https://www.oecd-nea.org/ndd/pubs/2018/7413-uranium-2018.pdf
 „Zpráva o výsledcích aktualizace analýzy rizik a jejích dopadů do celkových nákladů a výdajů spojených s řešením důsledků po chemické těžbě uranu a souvisejících činností v oblasti Stráže pod Ralskem a způsob jejich financování pro období let 2012 až 2042“, materiál pro jednání vlády, 11. ledna 2012
 IAEA/PRIS, Country statistic – Czech republic, https://pris.iaea.org/PRIS/CountryStatistics/CountryDetails.aspx?current=CZ
 „The World Nuclear Waste Report 2019 - Focus Europe“, chapter Czech republic, Rebecca Harms and team, 2020, see https://worldnuclearwastereport.org/
 Platforma proti hlubinnému úložišti, see www.platformaprotiulozisti.cz
 e. g. „Czech Public Opinion on Nuclear Energy – June 2020“, Public Opinion Research Centre (Centrum pro výzkum veřejného mínění), 2020, see https://cvvm.soc.cas.cz/cz/tiskove-zpravy/ostatni/ekologie/5331-verejnost-o-jaderne-energetice-cerven-2020
 e. g. „Veřejné mínění o OZE_2020“, Hnutí DUHA, 2021, see https://www.hnutiduha.cz/publikace/verejne-mineni-o-oze2020
 „Obnovitelné zdroje energie v roce 2019“, Ministry of Industry and Trade, 2020, see https://www.mpo.cz/cz/energetika/statistika/obnovitelne-zdroje-energie/obnovitelne-zdroje-energie-v-roce-2019--256925/
 „2030: z obnovitelných zdrojů skoro tolik elektřiny jako dnes z uhlí“, tisková zpráva Komory obnovitelných zdrojů energie, 2020, see https://www.komoraoze.cz/?fullpage=1&clanek=186
 “The National Energy and Climate Plan of the Czech Republic, Ministry of Industry and Trade, 2020, see https://www.mpo.cz/en/energy/strategic-and-conceptual-documents/the-national-energy-and-climate-plan-of-the-czech-republic--252018/
 “Čtvrtletní zpráva o provozu elektrizační soustavy ČR – 4. čtvrtletí 2021”, Energy Regulatory Office, 2021, see http://www.eru.cz/documents/10540/6616306/Ctvrtletni_zprava_2020_IV_Q.pdf/ef32acbe-8093-4abd-a2cc-43ae3470bf96
 “State Energy Policy”, Ministry of Industry and Trade, 2015, see https://www.mpo.cz/en/energy/state-energy-policy/state-energy-policy--233258/
 “Vládní návrh zákona o opatřeních k přechodu České republiky k nízkouhlíkové energetice“, Ministry of Industry and Trade, 2020, see https://www.psp.cz/sqw/text/tiskt.sqw?O=8&CT=966&CT1=0