As part of their industrialization policies, the Communist governments of East-Central Europe built nuclear reactors to boost their energy production. Only Poland, at the time of the changes in 1989, didn’t have any nuclear reactors on line. Of the 26 reactors in the region, 24 were Soviet-designed. Although they generally weren’t the same models as the one at Chernobyl that experienced meltdown in 1986, they suffered from numerous design flaws. In fact, near meltdown had occurred previously, but had been covered up: at the East German plant in Lubmin in 1976. An accident at a Czech facility in 1976 also led to two deaths.
In part because of revelations about these accidents as well as the association of nuclear power to the previous regimes, the civic movements and new governments expressed considerable skepticism about continuing down the same path after 1990. But several factors contributed to a turnaround in government policy. The new governments discovered that the reactors not only provided much-needed electricity but they attracted investment from a European Union worried about more Chernobyl-like accidents in its future member states. Meanwhile, the nuclear industry saw a potential for reversing its economic fortunes after accidents at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl had boosted anti-nuclear sentiment around the world. “Western nuclear companies are not just interested in repairing unsafe reactors,” wrote Minard Anderson, a specialist on nuclear waste. “They have been pressing new Eastern European governments to complete partially constructed reactors and build new reactors, ignoring safer, more job-intensive energy conservation strategies.”
Although the Greens succeeded with their anti-nuclear power platform in Germany — the country plans to close all reactors by 2022 and join other nuclear-free countries like Austria and Italy — East-Central Europe has gone in the opposite direction. Poland cancelled the four plants under construction in 1990 but has committed to building its first plant by 2022. Romania has added two units to its Cernavoda facility. Hungary has extended the lifespan of its Paks reactor by another 20 years. Only Bulgaria has bucked the trend by cancelling a second nuclear plant at Belene in 2012.
The issue of nuclear energy has been particularly contentious in the Czech Republic. The plant at Temelin, which was planned by the Communist government, originally had the same design as the one at Chernobyl. It was redesigned to meet EU specifications. But many Czechs, including Vaclav Havel, still voiced opposition. Public opinion fluctuated considerably, from 53 percent against in 1999 to 64 percent in favor in 2000. The Czech government pushed forward with construction plans, negotiating around Austria’s objections. The Czech energy utility is currently dealing with bids for an expansion of the facility.
When I met Vladimir Prchlik in 1990, he was an official in the ministry of the environment of the Czech republic. He supported nuclear power at a time when many others were attracted to the position of the German Greens. In the 1990s, he continued to work on environmental issues in the Czech government. He was proud of the fact that the ministry was able to reduce the country’s reliance on brown coal, a notorious pollutant. Increasing the nuclear share of the energy equation was part of that.
He updated me on the Temelin expansion plans. “It’s necessary to follow the European model with our new reactor,” he told me in a conversation last February in Prague. “Three firms sent in bids: a Russian-Czech consortium, Westinghouse, and a French company. The French bid was disqualified. Westinghouse was the biggest. But both the Russian-Czech and the Westinghouse bids must bring work for Czech firms: Czech machinery, Czech energy, anything that can be produced in our country. Next year, it will be decided.”
We talked about other environmental issues, including air pollution, waste management, and regional development. But first, I asked him to explain the badge he was wearing on his lapel.
So, tell me what about your badge.
This is a symbol made by the Czech sculptor Jan Štursa. This symbol was very important during World War I when Bohemia, Moravia, and Silesia — the Czech lands — were under the control of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy. It stood for the fight for freedom. It is a very old symbol that goes back to the 19th century. But the symbol lasts until now.
It’s also a symbol of a gymnastic association/society that we call Sokol. In English, this is Falcon. In 2012, we celebrated the 150th anniversary of the founding of this organization in the Czech lands, which took place under the very great oppression of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy. This movement has lasted even though it was banned several times — by the monarchy, by the Nazis, and twice by the Communists. After 1989, finally it was allowed.
Last year, we organized the XV Sokol national gymnastics festival. During several days at the beginning of July, we organized a public show of gymnastics with music: basically gymnastic theater. There were quite young children from the age of two years old exercising with their mothers, fathers, or grandparents all the way up to members of the Falcon movement who are as old as 100. We marched through the streets of Prague as part of this celebration, from Wenceslas Square to Jan Palach Square and then to Old Town Square. We have 1,000 Sokol Society groups in various towns and villages in the Czech Republic. There are also foreign Sokol organization elsewhere in the world – in the Slovak Republic, the United States, Australia, Great Britain, France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Slovenia, Poland, and Russia.
I’m also a member of the Sokol – Falcon movement. I too have done these exercises: twice a week, from 7 to 8 pm. Many times I’d rather go to sleep. You can understand: after you’ve had a good meal in a nice warm flat. But I have a civic duty to go there. After one hour, I feel like I’ve lost ten years! That’s why I go there regularly. We are all over 50, maybe one or two are as old as 90. Everyone does what they can do, and we are all friends – Sokol brothers and sisters..
Do you remember what you were doing and what you were thinking when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall?
After 1968 and the Prague Spring movement, there was a little more freedom. Some Czech ambassadors working abroad wanted to help our situation. They saw that the scientific research in the country was very poor, that we didn’t have access to books published abroad or have a chance to go abroad to study.
So, the government signed an agreement with the World Health Organization. Under this agreement we were able to create the Czechoslovak Center for Environmental Control partnered with the UNO-WHO and with its central office in Bratislava. The Slovak Communists were cleverer than the Czech Communists, in my opinion. The main subcenter was in Prague with smaller ones in Ostrava and Košice.
I had a special role: to accompany specialists from abroad when they came here for seminars and visits to the ministry and the academy of science. At the time the Berlin Wall fell, I was working a lot in Bratislava.
The movement on the streets in East Germany – in Leipzig, in Dresden – was not a big surprise. The government couldn’t really keep it a secret. People were traveling around East Germany and spreading information. And there was also Voice of America and Radio Free Europe, which provide quite objective information. On the other hand, the Communists in our countries were trying very hard to demonstrate to the Soviets that they could suppress opposition and keep people working. Some days before the changes, we thought it was just not possible to continue under this system that tightly controlled everything.
How did you first become involved in environmental issues?
I am an energy engineer. I studied at the Czech Technical University in Prague from 1948 to 1952. When I finished, I got a job to stay at the faculty as a teacher at the lowest level: an assistant. Every professor had one or two assistants to help with exercises, dictation, and practice with the students. Every weekend we met for beer and lemonade and filled in what the professor said, because they sometimes spoke very quickly. We also helped with the practicums. I was single, so I had time to do these things.
When I finished six years, I rose to the higher level of special assistant. All the assistants who were not members of the Communist Party had to go the factories. But it was not as bad as in China. After a couple years, you could come back. I went to a project institution where I worked on electrical equipment — transformers and so on — for industry and for towns.
Then came 1968. Prague wanted to organize the Olympic Games. It was the Prague Spring. There was very strong cooperation with Western countries, which wanted to show that there was a little more freedom in Prague. We wanted to show that Prague was the best candidate. They were looking for an energy engineer to prepare a design for the Olympic town – not just the buildings but also the services. It was not so magnificent as it is now. But we prepared such a project. But then the Russian tanks came, and Moscow organized the bid instead. So, the 1980 games were in Moscow.
There was still this agreement between the WHO and Czechoslovakia. I looked in the newspaper and found a notice for a job for an engineer with experience with urban infrastructure. That’s how I started to work at the Prague subcenter for environmental control. It was difficult at that time to redesign existing urban environments. But the suburbs could be planned or built according to the modern theories. Many architects and engineers came from abroad, and I had a chance to get experiences from them.
Also as part of the agreement with the WHO, we could get fellowships to study abroad. Before my doctoral degree examination in 1977, I received such a fellowship and went to Great Britain and Canada for two months. During these two months, I acquired so much knowledge and experience as well as English language and contacts with top-level colleagues. I visited the ministries and research centers in both countries many times. They were very kind and gave me very good materials.
I wrote my doctoral dissertation in English at that time. My director asked, “Why in English? I can’t understand it?” I told him, “Ignac, if I studied it in English, it’s much easier to write it also in English.” I wrote a short version in Czech. I didn’t have much chance to enjoy free time when I was abroad, because I was very focused on my work. Many colleagues were not allowed this opportunity. I wanted to take advantage of it.
How did the changes in 1989 affect the work you were doing?
It was a great opportunity to do one’s work, be successful, and not be distracted by issues not connected to the work. We could also take advantage of a new generation who studied in Prague and Brno and then spent two semesters in Berlin or Budapest or Vienna. They returned and cooperated with our team.
In my area of Prague, we founded a chapter of Obcanske Forum (Civic Forum). It was a group of people from all political backgrounds, with the exception of Communist Party members. There were some reform Communists, who followed Alexander Dubcek’s way of thinking and switched to Obcanske Forum. But our slogan was “Communism is a cancer.” This way of thinking is very deep in their heads, and sometimes they give it to the next generation too.
We met in a family house and drank coffee and talked freely. We also invited members of the old parties: the People’s party, the Liberal party, the Christian Democrats. The Communist Party formed a national front with several other parties, including the People’s Party and the Social Democratic Party. But they excluded the Agrarian party, which was the leading party in the Czech Republic under Masaryk. Czech society was founded on the basis of landowners. The party’s slogan was: producing products for family, society, and export. The Communist Party took a strong stance against the restoration of this party. Our Obcanske Forum invited people from these small parties. But we couldn’t find them. There are 10-15,000 inhabitants in our town. We searched for members of the parties of the national front but couldn’t find them.
Founding this chapter was a little more complicated than we anticipated. We couldn’t find the right people. And many people were a little unsure. They were not certain that the Communists wouldn’t return. And then came the division of the country, which nobody thought was possible. Both countries had been together since 1918 and fought together in the Czechoslovak army. It didn’t seem logical that we would be free and then immediately become divided.
In 1990, when we met, you were in the environment ministry. At that time, we talked about the main environmental issues facing the country. What do you think was the most successful work you did?
Concerning the three main issues — air, water, and waste — we made most progress in air pollution control. Our power stations mostly used brown coal in the 1990s. We managed to bring this down from 80 percent of the energy supply to only 33 percent.
There was also a big discussion about atomic power. The reactor at Temelin was only part of it. The plant was built with Soviet technology. We switched many of the components of the reactor to Westinghouse. It was very critical to combine Soviet technology with American technology. Nothing could be changed in the agreements with the Soviet Union. It was the same with the Soviet subway in Prague, which was terribly inefficient. The subway cars were overheating, and the Soviets had no other technology. So, this kind of work required a lot of diplomacy and not just technical knowledge. A lot of work was about modernizing and achieving greater efficiency. Our power stations, for instance, were only 35 percent efficient. We equipped our stations in northern Bohemia with Swiss and Japanese technology, which was very costly, but it minimized emissions.
Then there were the waste problems. We saw the waste separation that was done in other countries, and no one thought it would be possible in Czechoslovakia where all the waste was put together. But time marches on, and we also do. I think it’s better to minimize the amount of waste locally and then reuse it at the factory level. In my opinion, it was a pity that we didn’t follow the Swiss approach, which has been to build many waste incinerators. We went there many times. In Basel, they showed us an incinerating plant in the middle of the city. Our industry representatives said that would be impossible in the Czech Republic. All the citizens would be against it. We saw the same thing in Paris. The director of one of these large incinerators showed us the chimney. It was maybe 200 meters high. And there was no smoke, nothing!
So, you saw these waste incinerator plants in Switzerland and France, but you couldn’t build any here?
Yes, that’s why I say it was a pity. From the energy point of view, burning waste is better than burning coal. North Bohemian brown coal is mostly water. You evaporate the water, the rest is burned, and 33-35 percent goes to electricity. But paper, plastics, and other waste materials are very good fuel. If you do a high level of waste separation, as in France or Switzerland, then you have no problems with inhabitants. But you have to explain it to them carefully at the time and then continuously afterward.
In Olomouc in Moravia, we organized a small seminar on waste incineration, and I invited a representative from a Swiss firm. I served as the translator. Then, a year later I asked them about what happened with the plan. They told me that the Green Party went to mothers and told them that there would be chemical particles in the blood of their children. It was not true. But these young women were thinking about air pollution from 40 years ago, so they oppose the incineration station.
So you had some successes in reducing air pollution. You had some success with recycling. But you didn’t have success with incineration. And you replaced Soviet components with Westinghouse components in the nuclear plant.
It’s necessary to follow the European model with our new reactor. Three firms sent in bids: a Russian-Czech consortium, Westinghouse, and a French company. The French bid was disqualified. Westinghouse was the biggest. But both the Russian-Czech and the Westinghouse bids must bring work for Czech firms: Czech machinery, Czech energy, anything that can be produced in our country. Next year, it will be decided.
And then you moved over to regional development.
All Czech villages and towns have cooperated. They all get information from the ministry of regional development, also from the trade and industry ministries. They have meetings one or two times per year at the highest level on cooperation, sometimes among those in a mountain region or those near a particular river.
If you visit Czech small villages, you simply can’t compare it with the past. It’s a total improvement. Prague is quite historical. There’s some pressure from too much traffic or too many shops, and it’s difficult to change it for the better. Maybe there will be renovations next year, for instance, at the national theater. That would be nice. But it lasts two or three years, and it involves specialists with special materials. It’s very slow! But in the smaller towns, it’s a bit easier. But there are often problems with the owners of the land or the buildings.
We have a special problem that the Communist Party took all the churches and land into state hands. They began to pay the priests as state officers so that they would be friendly to the regime. You know that the international Christians regularly organized symposiums for peace? It was something special for the Soviet Union.
I can tell you such a story. The Orthodox Church sent 10 priests to an international conference to Paris. They’d discuss, listen, and then report to the secret police in Moscow. My friend once told me, “Vladimir, it was very interesting. We were in a very expensive hotel in Paris. The conference hosted ten different priests from the Orthodox Church, with beards and caps. They were finished with the conference at 5 pm. The conference would begin again the next day at 9 am. In between was free time. I wanted to ask some detail about traffic in Paris, so I knocked on the door of the Orthodox priests. The priests, surprised, opened the door. But they didn’t have their caps or their beards!”
In Czech towns and villages, the physical and mental environment is much better. They have their traditions. In small villages in Moravia especially, they put on natural cotton folk costumes, dance and sing. They have amateur theater and choral singing ensembles. They visit the Sokol organization groups very often too.
You’re now retired. People have told me that it’s quite difficult to live as a retired person because of the economy. Is that true?
This is actually question number one, especially before the elections! Next year will be the elections for president and for parliament but also at the local level, which is even more important. Politics at this higher level has not been exactly efficient, and these politicians haven’t served well as representatives of the nation.
One party, TOP 09, was founded three years ago. It was very successful. Karel Schwarzenberg was the candidate for president of this party. Voters know about the old parties. New parties promise to change the situation. They say that retired people will get 500 more crowns a month. Or the waiting list for an operation will be six months rather than a year.
I’m not glad when I see on TV a trade union boss, who gets 150,000 crowns per month, say, “We are fighting for retired people, for single people who have low salaries.” How can this boss fight for my interests as a retired person? Anyway, my benefits are computed according to the pension law, which depends on how much I made over the last 30 years. You can’t change this. It’s the law. And I have to say that I’m quite satisfied. It can be a bad situation for people who have lost their jobs or have an illness. Everyone over the age of 50 experiences some difficulties. In the free market of labor, employers want fully operational persons. There are some incentives to hire an invalid, with physical or mental problems, to do jobs in telecommunications and so on, but this covers only a small percentage. In our country, the social benefits for the unemployed are rather low but they can get it regularly at the social office. And it’s still high enough that they are not interested in looking for work.
A lot of these people come to Prague. They have the idea that Prague is the best place, that there are a lot of rich people and low unemployment. You see them on the street playing violins and so on. Sometimes you can hear a virtuoso who turns out to be Ukrainian! Much worse is the drugs. According to the ministry of health, the money that’s needed to treat their diseases is much more than the money given out in unemployment benefits. One solution would be to say to them: “We will give you the benefits, you don’t have to work, but don’t take the drugs.” But that’s not a solution.
In our country, we have to retire at 65. During the Communist period it was 60. People don’t remember the level of retirement payments from that period. My mother got only 400 crowns. Nowadays, if you are interested in working longer, you can, as long as the employment is necessary or useful. You can get nearly 50 percent of your salary..
When I retired, I founded my firm, like practically everyone in the free market. I work as a translator and interpreter. I received my certifications after taking the state exams in English and German. Now I can translate for your queen or your prime minister! From this work, every year, I have to pay the financial office 10-15 percent as tax to the state. Now I work much more, and I get much more money as a private firm. It’s not only my job, but also my hobby, and I can put something aside for my family.
Every year, the pension for retired people has an adjustment for inflation based on an devaluation of the prices on the market. Computers calculate this automatically. As a result, I get 260 crowns more per month. This is practically one dinner in this cafe or maybe two lighter lunches. If I were a smoker, then I would buy 30 Marlboro cigarettes. So, I’m satisfied. It’s nice that we’re a couple. Many of my friends are single, and they have difficulties surviving psychologically. They have many thousands of crowns in the bank. But they are alone.
One problem is that everybody needs health care. In our countries, before the revolution, it was very difficult to get good health care in old age. You’d get only mediocre health care in the health centers or hospitals. But it was very cheap. My cousin lives in Austria. He had to pay 25,000 shillings for dental work where we only had to pay a very small sum of money.
I don’t have much money. I don’t go on vacations to Majorca. And I don’t think things will change. If someone says, “My party is the party of change,” I think maybe all they want to change is their own situation.
Prague, February 15, 2013
The Interview (1990)
Vladimir Prchlik is an official in the ministry of the environment of the Czech republic (i.e., not the federal ministry). He is active on environmental issues and in politics through Civic Forum and locally in the Sporilov community. First we talked about the environment.
Before the revolution, Prchlik worked in something called the Czechoslovak Committee for the Environment which focused on various types of pollution, hygiene and so on. To the extent of the committee’s knowledge, it talked about ecological problems in Czechoslovakia. “The Committee wanted to advise the government. But they told us that the state has no money. “Your proposals,” they said, “are good and maybe in the next five year plan, we will solve the problems.”” The Committee had been founded in the 1970s and was provisionally included in the national front (including the Communist party). Beginning in 1988, the Committee also organized educational resources from the environmental point of view for schools. Because of its affiliation with the government, however, the Committee had to include in its materials information on the virtues of centralized planning. After the revolution, the organization continues to exist, though under a different name: the Czechoslovak Society for the Environment.
We then talked some about present ecological problems facing Czechoslovakia. Most of the information was familiar and I won’t go over it again (see interview with Jaroslav Hofer). On the nuclear energy issue, he did mention something interesting. After Greenpeace’s enormously successful trip to the country earlier this year in which they stressed the anti-nuclear energy message, a group formed within the Faculty of Energy at the Charles University to explain the peaceful uses of the atom (shades of the U.S. Peaceful Atom programs of the 1950s). Prchlik favored this group’s approach seeing it as necessary “in order to explain to young people who are not informed about the question.” As for the Green party, he felt that its participation in the election was ill-timed, that the chief aim in the elections was to defeat the communists. Unity was therefore necessary.
Civic Forum in Sporilof was formed on February 8 and is composed of 6 commissions including culture, environment and law. Because he is a violinist in a quartet, Prchlik is commissioner of culture. One of the acts of the local chapter was to write to Prague City Council asking that private shops be turned over to private hands. It also worked on getting rid of the local school principal (who said, among other things, that Havel was on stimulants). Prchlik is looking forward to local elections in the autumn when a local government will be given authority (there will be, for instance, 25 local authorities within Prague). Many key politicians, including Petr Pithart the premier of the Czech republic, support devolving authority to local self-governments. Should the federal authorities decide to restructure completely the regional structure of Czechoslovakia, elections will probably be postponed until early 1991.