By Svetla Dimitrova
Bulgaria will not build a nuclear power plant in the town of Belene on the Danube River, the country’s centre-right government said on Wednesday (March 28th) after numerous delays involving a final decision on the joint project with Russia.
Making the announcement after a regular cabinet meeting, Deputy Finance Minister Vladislav Goranov told the Bulgarian National Radio (BNR) that a gas power plant will be built there instead.
He explained that Bulgaria will pay Atomstroyexport, a subsidiary of Russian state energy corporation Rosatom, the remaining about 100m euros for the first of the two 1,000 MW reactors that were planned for the Belene plant.
The reactor will be used at the Kozloduy nuclear power plant, 100km to the west, whose first four Soviet-era reactors were shut down by the time Bulgaria joined the EU in January 2007 due to safety concerns. The plant’s units 5 and 6, of 1,000 MW each, are scheduled to remain operational until at least 2017 and 2022, respectively.
Launched in 1981, the Belene project was first frozen nine years later due to the financial difficulties Bulgaria was facing at the time. Aside from that, there was also strong pressure from environmental groups opposing the construction of a nuclear facility in a seismically active region.
A decision to revive the project was taken in late 2002. After a tender opened three years later, Bulgaria contracted Atomstroyexport to design and build the Belene plant in November 2006.
The implementation of the project began officially in September 2008, eight months after Bulgaria’s former Socialist-led ruling coalition signed an agreement on it during then-Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Sofia.
Construction of the plant was frozen again in late 2009, when German energy company RWE — the main investment partner in the venture – withdrew, amid growing uncertainty about its future.
Questioning the economic viability of the project, the centre-right party GERB, which won the July 2009 parliamentary elections in Bulgaria, viewed the construction price, set at 6.3 billion euros by Russia, as too high, insisting that it should not exceed 5 billion euros.
The failure of the two sides to reach agreement on that issue led to numerous delays of a final decision on the venture. Under the latest six-month postponement agreed in late September, Bulgaria was to say whether it would proceed with construction by the end of this month.
Meanwhile, efforts to attract a strategic Western investor for the Belene project, which would further increase Bulgaria’s energy dependence on Russia, also failed.
Prime Minister Boyko Borisov cited environmental concerns as one of the government’s main motives for quitting the project, as well as its growing price, which would total about 10 billion euros by the time the plant was built.
“We don’t have that money and there is no way we could make the state and the next several generations pay for that,” he said on Wednesday.
Borisov, who discussed the Belene issue with Putin on Monday, also voiced hope that the withdraw would not affect bilateral ties. Economy, Energy and Tourism Minister Delyan Dobrev is expected to travel to Moscow to officially inform the Russians of Sofia’s decision.
Nuclear energy expert Yordan Yordanov, who headed the Kozloduy plant between 2000 and 2001, was one of the authors of the idea to install two more reactors at the plant. He, however, does not support the plan to install the AES 92 reactor meant for Belene at the existing atomic station. Bulgaria, which currently produces about 30 billion kWh of electricity and exports about a third of it, needs to take a different approach, according to him.
“We should first develop our energy strategy [through] 2050,” he told SETimes on Thursday. “If I were to decide, I would never install this boutique reactor at Kozloduy.”
Right-wing politicians and many ordinary Bulgarians welcomed the government’s decision to abandon the controversial project.
“The construction of the Belene plant would raise the risk of a nuclear accident like the one in Japan last year,” Rumen Petrov, a marketing specialist from Sofia, told SETimes.
“The project is too costly, so the price of electricity for end consumers would grow further.”