By David Brunnstrom and Jason Hovet
PRAGUE (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sought to convince Czech leaders on Monday to pick U.S. firm Westinghouse over a Russian rival for a $10 billion nuclear power project, the country's biggest-ever public energy tender.
U.S. officials traveling with Clinton, who will also meet Prime Minister Petr Necas, said the Temelin nuclear project could create up to 9,000 U.S. jobs and would help ease the former Soviet-bloc nation's energy reliance on Russia.
Majority state-owned Czech firm CEZ has applied to build two new reactors at its 2,000 megawatt Temelin nuclear power plant, which would be one of the largest public investments in Europe this decade.
Westinghouse, a unit of Japanese firm Toshiba Corp, is competing with Russia's Atomstroyexport, which is bidding in a consortium with a Russian-owned Czech group.
"We are not shy about pressing the case for Westinghouse to expand the Temelin nuclear power plant, because we believe that company offers the best option for the project in terms of technology and safety," Clinton said in a news conference after meeting with Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg.
"So we clearly hope that Westinghouse will receive the utmost consideration as this process moves forward."
CEZ, central Europe's biggest energy group, with a market capitalization of $17.8 billion, wants to pick a winner and sign a contract by the end of 2013.
CEZ threw out a bid from France's Areva in October, saying the company failed to meet "crucial requirements". The Czech anti-monopoly office has said CEZ cannot sign a contract until it rules on Areva's appeal.
PRESSING THE CASE
U.S. officials said formal negotiations between the two bidders and the Czech government are expected to start in December.
"There will be the opportunity for the Secretary to support ... Westinghouse," a senior State Department official told reporters.
"It could be great in lots of ways - for American jobs, American companies, for energy security and diversity in the Czech Republic, for jobs in the Czech Republic and for a scientific and innovation partnership with the United States."
The United States is stressing Westinghouse's safety record, given concerns about nuclear reactors following the Fukushima disaster in Japan last year. Officials will also underline the advantage of reducing the Czech Republic's reliance on Russia for energy.
Clinton will also discuss energy security with EU officials in Brussels on Wednesday.
The secretary of state's visit to Prague follows U.S. Assistant Secretary of Commerce Nicole Lamb-Hale's trip last week. Lamb-Hale said the U.S. Export-Import Bank would be interested in financing the deal if Westinghouse is chosen.
The Czech bid to expand its nuclear capacity has run into opposition from neighbors Austria and Germany. The latter plans to close its nuclear power plants in the wake of Fukushima.
According to U.S. officials, the Czech Republic currently gets 60 percent of its oil, 70 percent of its gas and 100 percent of its nuclear fuel from Russia.
Many Czech officials fear an over-reliance on Russian energy will put their country under too much influence from its former communist master.
The Russian bidders have sought to allay Czech fears about energy reliance on Moscow and have stressed there would be high participation by domestic firms if they won the tender.
(Additional reporting by Robert Mueller; Editing by Michael Kahn and Jane Baird)