BUDAPEST Oct 14 Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary want the European Union to support nuclear energy projects and not to over-regulate the area, Prime Minister Viktor Orban said on Monday after a summit of the "Visegrad Four" countries.
The four also threw their backing behind shale gas extraction in Europe, and agreed to set up a natural gas market forum with the aim of fostering a regional gas market, which will convene in Budapest this month, Orban said.
The former communist countries in the eastern corner of the European Union are reliant on gas imports, mostly from Russia, and want to diversify their energy sources.
"We expect the European Union to help rather than hinder the increase of nuclear capacity in central Europe," Orban told a news conference after the meeting.
"This area must not be over-regulated and the issue of state aid for energy investments should also be reviewed, because we think that nuclear energy is being discriminated against here."
While Orban did not expand on this, European Commissioners decided last week to exclude a specific reference to nuclear power in an update to their guidelines on state aid for the energy sector, expected to be published next month.
This does not necessarily mean that using taxpayers' money to help finance nuclear power would be illegal under EU law, but that each case will have to be examined on its own merits.
The issue of whether the public should subsidise nuclear as well as other forms of energy has divided the European Commission, the EU executive, as well as national governments.
While countries such as Germany and Austria oppose nuclear power, others such as Britain and the Visegrad four are in favour.
Opponents including environmental groups say government funding for atomic power would breach EU legal principles and mark a major shift in policy. Meanwhile, pro-nuclear countries have found developers unwilling to build plants without state guarantees on prices for the power they will generate.
Hungary plans to expand its existing nuclear plant, though it has not issued a tender yet.
The Czech utility CEZ is running a tender to build two big new units of about 1,200 MW each at its Temelin plant.
In Slovakia, two new reactors with a combined capacity of 880 megawatts are expected to start up in 2014 and 2015.
Poland, which relies on highly polluting coal for most of its electricity, this year cleared the initial legal and regulatory hurdles needed to complete its first nuclear reactor by 2023. (Reporting by Krisztina Than; Editing by Kevin Liffey)