© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: The cooling towers of the Czech nuclear power plant are seen at Dukovany

PRAGUE (Reuters) -The Czech government will not invite Russia’s Rosatom to take part in security assessments before a planned tender for a new unit at the Dukovany nuclear power plant, Industry Minister Karel Havlicek said on Monday.

The decision, which effectively excludes Russia from the multi-billion dollar tender, was announced two days after Prague expelled 18 Russian embassy staff, saying it suspected Russian intelligence was involved in explosions at an ammunition depot in 2014.

Russia has dismissed the accusation as absurd.

Rosatom called the decision to exclude it regrettable and politically motivated.

“We regret this decision of the Czech authorities, because the Russian and Czech nuclear industries had serious prospects for the development of a mutually beneficial partnership, not only in the Czech Republic, but through joint work in third countries as well,” it said.

“The Russian offer envisioned the involvement of hundreds of Czech and European companies in the project of the Dukovany nuclear power plant expansion project, which could have included contracts worth billions of euros. Thus, by excluding Rosatom from the tender, the Czech authorities are pushing aside their own national industry.”

The row is the biggest between Moscow and Prague since the end of Soviet domination of eastern Europe in 1989.

Debate was already fierce over whether Russia should have a place in the tender for a new unit to replace aging blocks at Dukovany, owned by majority state-controlled utility CEZ.

The Industry Ministry announced in March a pre-qualification round, set as a security assessment for potential bidders, before the launch of the tender which is expected after a new government takes office following an election due in October.

Havlicek said on Monday that invitations for the assessments would be sent to U.S. group Westinghouse, France’s EdF and South Korea’s KHNP. Rosatom would also be excluded from delivering key nuclear technology even in a consortium.

He reiterated that the next government would launch the tender and determine the list of bidders.

Security services had previously warned of risks of Russian or Chinese participation.

Czech political parties agreed to exclude China earlier this year but, before the row with Russia, Havlicek and other state officials had sought Russian participation to keep competition up.

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