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BULGARIA: On To A New Nuclear Path

Claudia Ciobanu

BUCHAREST, Jan 17 2008 (IPS) - The European Commission (EC) has given a positive opinion on construction of a nuclear plant at Belene by Russian Atomstroiexport, controlled by Gazprom.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is in Sofia to mark the beginning of the 'Year of Russia in Bulgaria', was set to bless the signing of this deal Friday.

In early December 2007, the European Commission agreed to the opening of a 2,000-megawatt nuclear plant at Belene, roughly 250 km northeast of capital Sofia. The EC based its opinion on a blueprint for the plant, which includes infrastructural details of the construction, but did not look into the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA).

Less than two weeks before this decision was announced, Bulgarian scientist Gueorgui Kastchiev, former head of Bulgaria's Nuclear Safety Authority (1997-2001) and currently senior nuclear expert at the Institute for Risk Analysis, University of Vienna, met with representatives of the EU Directorate General for Energy and Transport to explain why Belene is both dangerous and unnecessary.

According to the presentation – made available to IPS – Dr. Gueorgui Kastchiev emphasised the following major worries specific to Belene: its location in a region with high seismic activity (a major earthquake in 1977 just 14 km from the project site killed 120 people), the lack of provisions for nuclear waste (spent fuel is to be sent provisionally to Russia, but there are no plans for final storage), lack of funding for decommissioning, the inadequate quality of components for the reactors sent to Bulgaria, and, finally, a poor safety culture in the country, proven by numerous incidents at the currently operational nuclear plant Kozlodui. This was all besides the dangers of emissions and nuclear accidents associated with any nuclear plant.

In addition, according to Kastchiev's calculations, Bulgaria's energy needs over the next two decades can be met without Belene, if the current plans for expanding the use of local lignite, hydro power and renewables are fulfilled, and efforts are made to improve energy efficiency. At the moment, Bulgaria's losses in transmission and distribution of electricity are 2.5 times the EU average.

The Bulgarian government argues that the plant is necessary to increase the country's energy self-reliance. But Belene would actually augment Bulgaria's dependency on Russia, says Regine Richter from environmental organisation Urgewald. If the plant is built by Atomstroiexport, she explains, it will have to be run with compatible Uranium imported from Russia.

Bulgaria, with limited domestic resources, is already taking virtually all of its natural gas and oil from Russia.

The country has traditionally been exporting energy produced at nuclear plant Kozlodui to countries such as Macedonia, Serbia, Albania and Croatia. In 2006, however, as a condition for EU admission, the Bulgarians had to shut down two 440-megawatt reactors at this plant because of serious safety concerns. The reduced capacity of Kozlodui naturally had an impact on deliveries, which this month had to be halted briefly.

With Belene approved by the EC, the Bulgarian government is confident that it can continue to play the nuclear card. At a press conference in Sofia Wednesday, Prime Minister Sergei Stanishev announced that Bulgaria had recently launched talks to convince fellow EU members to allow it to reopen the two nuclear reactors at Kozlodui. Stanishev further said that his government is counting on a wave of nuclear revival in Europe.

Richter says the pro-nuclear camp in Brussels is strong and could have played a crucial role in the EC decision to approve Belene. "The pro-nuclear lobby celebrates all announcements on new nukes. A precedent of environmental groups being able to force a negative opinion from the Commission, and cut financing through this, is the last thing they would want to see," Richter told IPS.

Richter, who is involved in a campaign to prevent German banks and companies from investing in nuclear energy abroad, says that the main problem faced now by Belene proponents is financing. The deal with Atomstroiexport does not mean that the money necessary for building the plant is available.

Costs for constructing Belene have been evaluated initially at 4 billion euro. The Bulgarian government has announced its intention to borrow around 250-300 million from each the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom) and the European Investment Bank (EIB). So far the only money available is a bridging credit obtained from BNP Paribas, one of the few private banks to remain involved with the project despite major protests by customers around Europe.

A big chunk of money should come from an investor who will get over 49 percent control of the plant. Five European companies have submitted bids already: the Czech CEZ, the German E.ON and RWE, Belgian Electrabel, Italy's ENEL.

Urgewald says the next step against Belene is to persuade the European banks and institutions not to give credit to the Bulgarians because of the high environmental risks of this project.

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