PRAGUE Two Czech government ministers said on Monday that Russian firms should not be allowed to take part in the expansion of a Czech nuclear power station, worth over $10 billion, after Russian troops seized Ukraine's Crimea region.
The Czechs, members of NATO and the European Union, have said Russian actions in Crimea over the weekend broke international law and government leaders likened the incursion to the 1968 Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia.
But Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka, while condemning Russia's actions, said his country could not break off all economic ties with Russia, a major trade partner.
He said the government could not step in and exclude Russian firms from bidding in majority state-owned utility CEZ's tender to double the size of the 2,000 MW Temelin nuclear power plant.
The tender has pitted U.S. and Russian firms against each other in what media have called a choice between East and West.
"Although the Czech Republic clearly views what is going on in Crimea negatively, there is no reason for us to scrap all of our business relations," Sobotka said.
Earlier, Defence Minister Martin Stropnicky, a former diplomat from the centrist ANO party, the second largest ruling coalition party after Sobotka's leftist Social Democrats, said he could hardly imagine Russian firms taking part in the project after what had happened in Crimea.
"Russia has disappeared from the group of predictable, democratic countries. What it is doing is unacceptable," news website www.idnes.cz quoted him as saying. He confirmed the comments to Reuters.
A consortium including Russia's Atomstroyexport is bidding to expand the Temelin plant, alongside Toshiba's U.S. unit Westinghouse. CEZ hopes to wrap up the tender in the second quarter of 2015.
It is not clear however that a contract will be awarded in the near term, because low electricity prices make nuclear energy economically unviable without some form of state support - something CEZ has yet to win from the new government.
However, there is a broad political consensus in the Czech Republic in favor of nuclear energy.
Stropnicky's views were also backed by Jiri Dienstbier, a Social Democrat and minister for human rights.
"There has been talk about sanctions against Russia. Personally, I cannot imagine that Russians will continue to take part in the tender to expand Temelin because a country that uses military aggression in foreign policy is a security risk for the Czech Republic as well," news website www.aktualne.cz quoted Dienstbier as saying.
(Reporting by Jan Lopatka; Editing by Louise Ireland)