(November 18, 2005) Nuclear power in Central Europe is where it always has been: at the forefront of energy planning, giving most energy lobbies a reason to exist and hope. Lately Bulgaria has played a more visible role in the European nuclear debate because of the upcoming closure of two of the Kozloduy nuclear reactors, the plans to build the Belene nuclear power plant and the death threats against an anti-nuclear activist. Should all go according to plan, Bulgaria will also enter the European Union on January 1, 2007 - that is, once it shows itself to be capable of curbing corruption.
(638.5731) WISE Brno - If one reads the Bulgarian media, the closure of the old VVER 440/230 blocks number 3 and 4 at the Kozloduy nuclear complex would appear to be an open question. Pro-nuclear members of the European Parliament - most recently UK Social Democrat Terrence Wynn, leader of the Forum for the Future of Nuclear Energy - and other nuclear lobbyists are regularly invited to Bulgaria to address the media and pontificate on the supposed madness of closing the reactors, which according to them meet all EU safety standards and without which, according to Wynn, "the lights will soon be going out in the Balkans"(1).
More critical visitors to Bulgaria, like this spring's delegation of European Greens, are hardly mentioned by the national media and rarely have their comments given coverage, with the result that the general public still believes that the debate over the closure of Kozloduy 3 and 4 remains open. Also recent remarks made by the IAEA president, Prof. ElBaradei, to the World Association of Nuclear Operators (WANO) Biennial General Meeting in Budapest, failed to capture the interest of the country's media and thus received no coverage in Bulgaria. ElBaradei had stated his concern over the state of some nuclear facilities, declaring himself to be "very worried". The IAEA chief expressed doubts over safety at facilities in the former Soviet Union and Central and Eastern Europe and over less than optimal design safety. ElBaradei warned "If we were to have a nuclear accident anywhere, it will have a crippling impact on nuclear energy all over the world." (2) Not to mention the impact it would have on the nearest populations.
However, the Bulgarian government is taking more seriously the signals from EU Energy Commissioner Piebalgs suggesting that the closure of Kozloduy's 440 blocks cannot be renegotiated and is now planning for the shutdowns. The government continues to pursue a similar strategy to that employed before the closure of blocks 1 and 2 and has been warning the Bulgarian population of impending electricity shortages. The Kozloduy CEO, Ivan Ivanov, even went as far as to suggest, "the electricity feed in the country will be restricted in certain hours" (3). Since Bulgaria actually does have ample capacity for its needs, this stance was recently changed to a warning that the country might have to reduce its exports of electricity to Greece and Serbia and possibly even increase its imports. Industry and Energy Minister Ovcharov even warned of a possible 60 percent price hike. (4) According to Petko Kovachev of the Bankwatch CEE Network, the attempt to create an atmosphere of fear is intended to help counter the growing public doubt over the necessity of the Belene nuclear power plant. Kovachev recalls "Bulgaria only started to be one of the most important electricity exporters in the region just after the closure of the first two Kozloduy blocks, which was accompanied by similar warnings."
Belene: the legal battlefield and search for finances
The preparations for building Bulgaria's second nuclear power station near the town of Belene continue in the meantime. Where the project was first heralded as so viable that it could be completely financed by the private sector, Energy Minister Ovcharov is now more careful with his boasts. On November 2, he even stated he was not optimistic about the building of Belene and warned that Bulgaria was in danger of losing its position as largest electricity exporter of, and for, the region. (5)
The matter of financing is at the moment crucial for the Belene project. In a recent television interview, Ovcharov conceded that Belene would need anything from 25 to 100 percent state participation to be viable. This, according to Mark Johnston of Greenpeace in Brussels, "will face heavy opposition" from the EU competition authorities. Meanwhile the Bulgarian government is looking for all kinds of alliances and recently convinced the Romanian government to stop its opposition against Belene, even though this is met with fierce public protests on the other side of the Danube. The Bulgarian government is also trying to convince Macedonia to take part in the project, and is shopping around in the U.S. for investors.
The preliminary interest shown by nuclear firms ENEL and RAO in running Belene is trumpeted to keep optimism up. However, an attempt to get EU financing for the project via a Euratom loan seems to have stalled, although expectations of Euratom support of around 300 million Euros were still mentioned by former Energy Minister Milko Kovachev last summer.
There are also several legal hurdles still to be cleared. Coalitions of concerned Bulgarian citizens, regional and international NGOs, like WISE and Greenpeace, are currently in court appealing against the approval of the Environmental Impact Assessment and the two government decisions that gave operator NEK the green light to go ahead with the tender to find a building consortium. Were any one of these complaints to succeed, the legal basis for the tender would disappear.
One of the tender candidates is a consortium led by Czech Skoda JS, a daughter company of the Russian firm OMZ, and including Westinghouse and several European banks, alongside mainly Czech firms. The other consortium is led by Russian Atomstroyexport, which is partly owned by OMZ, with participation from Framatome and Siemens. The fact that both remaining tender candidates are so closely intertwined has not so far been subject to scrutiny.
Energy Revolution on the table
Another complicating factor for the nuclear debate in Bulgaria is that since the visit of the Greenpeace Energy Revolution Tour with the action ship "Anna" last summer, the discussion on alternatives is also in the public domain. For the first time, newspapers started to debate the problems of climate change to a greater extent and also the fact that alternatives for nuclear and fossil fuel power do exist in Bulgaria. According the OECD, Bulgaria is the most energy inefficient country in Europe, even topping Russia. (6) Furthermore, Bulgaria offers large possibilities for wind energy, the development of biomass and the use of solar energy. The BeleNE coalition, Za Zemiata, Ekoglasnost and several local organisations that partnered Greenpeace in the Energy Revolution Tour have received the organization's support for their demand that the government works out an energy policy scenario based on nuclear and long-term fossil phase-out for its next update of the National Energy Plan.
Threats diminish but corruption continues
This summer, the threats addressed to one of the long time critics of Bulgaria's nuclear power orientation, Mrs. Albena Simeonova, twice resulted in an unsuccessful attempt on her life. (See also WISE/NIRS Nuclear Monitor 624.5667 "Death threats against Belene opponent; debate around NPP decision heats up" & 625.5672 "Threats to Belene opponent Simeonova continue in spite of government protection measures") The widespread national and international support she received helped to largely diminish the influence of those threatening her, although there are still attempts being made to ruin her partly organic farm on which over a hundred people depend on for their income.
"My case is of course extreme," says Simeonova, "but it is only a visible tip of the iceberg. There is still a lot of manipulation going on - look at the tender procedures or the way the Environmental Impact Assessment was carried out. For us the EU warning to Bulgaria and Romania came as no surprise. On the other hand, only EU entry can effectively force the old habits out," she added.
- Article by Terry Wynn MEP, Sofia News Agency, October 27, 2005 (http://www.novinite.com/view_news.php?id=54342)
- Nucleonics Week, October 13, 2005
- Webfactory Bulgaria, October 10, 2005 http://www.webfactorybulgaria.com/news.php?newsid=381
- Sofia News Agency, November 2, 2005 http://www.novinite.com/view_news.php?id=54633
- Stability Pact Watch and CEE Bankwatch Network, Arrested Development - Energy Efficiency and Renewables in the Balkans (May 2005) http://www.bankwatch.org/publications/studies.shtml/2005/arrested_development_05-05.pdf
Contact: Jan Haverkamp, consultant for Greenpeace and WISE Brno at firstname.lastname@example.org
Also for more information: Petko Kovachev, Bankwatch, BeleNE coalition at email@example.com,
Albena Simeonova, Green Justice Association at firstname.lastname@example.org, or Mark Johnston, Greenpeace at email@example.com