US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived in the Czech Republic Monday for a brief visit, hoping to win a tussle with Russia and help secure a $10 billion nuclear plant contract for US giant Westinghouse.
After arriving before dawn in a snowy Prague, Clinton, on her first solo trip to the eastern European nation as secretary of state, was to meet later with Prime Minister Petr Necas and Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg.
"The Czech Republic, like many of its neighbours is significantly dependent on a single supplier and turning to the United States in partnership to develop its civil nuclear energy would be a way of diversifying that energy supply," a senior State Department official told reporters travelling on Clinton's plane.
Prague is aiming to extend its Temelin plant, south of the capital, and is set to start negotiations with the two companies left in the running this month.
Westinghouse faces stiff competition from Russia's Atom Story Export, after France's Areva was apparently ruled out of the tender process.
Earlier this month, Necas said the Czech Republic wanted to boost nuclear power to at least 50 percent of its electrical energy mix by around 2040 from the current 30 percent and cut coal use.
The Czech government is betting on nuclear power as its communist-era coal plants face likely closure due to tighter regulations on greenhouse gas emissions.
"The plans call for the construction of two new facilities at the Temelin nuclear power station, the upgrade of four existing facilities and building a fifth station in Dukovany," he added.
About 120 kilometres (75 miles) south of Prague, but only about 60 kilometres from the Austrian border, Temelin has been repeatedly criticised by Vienna over safety concerns.
A winner for the contract to build at Temelin is to be named in 2013 and the new units are to come online by 2025.
Although the negotiations will be left to the company, the State Department official highlighted Westinghouse's "great track record in terms of safety."
"Not surprisingly in the wake of Fukushima there's a lot of concern about safety," he said.
The Americans say if the US giant is awarded the contract it could create some 9,000 jobs in the United States, as well as jobs in the Czech Republic.
There will also be benefits to the Czechs of "high-technology and civil nuclear cooperation with American scientists," the senior US official said.
Clinton, on the first leg of a five-day Europe trip, will spend less than 12 hours in the Czech Republic and head later to Brussels for talks with her Pakistani counterpart Hina Rabbani Khar.
She will then spend two days in Brussels for the annual NATO foreign ministers meeting, before travelling to Dublin later in the week for a meeting of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
Her final stop on her 38th trip to Europe will be a short visit to Belfast on Friday.