Fears over Bulgarian nuclear boom

Friday, July 4, 2008

Two safety scares in June at nuclear plants in Slovenia and the Czech Republic have led to renewed calls for Europe to abandon nuclear power. But with energy prices soaring, the nuclear sector is actually on the rise.

The EU already has the highest number of nuclear plants in the world and Bulgaria is leading those member states determined to increase their nuclear dependence.

Nestling in the heart of the countryside, not far from the Danube, the Kozloduy nuclear plant powers Bulgaria's economy.

Over one third of the country's electricity comes from this sprawling showcase of Soviet design, which started operating in 1974.

In the vast turbine hall at Kozloduy's Unit Six, the noise is deafening and the temperature reaches 40 degrees.

A small Bulgarian tricolour stands on top of a machine and not just because the plant has become a symbol of national pride.

"We had some technical problems with the unit at first," an engineer explains, "so we thought the flag would bring luck and prevent future malfunctioning."

For extra cover, on either side of the flag, someone hand-painted two protective blue eyes.

It is an odd mix of superstition and high technology, but Bulgaria feels it needs all the help it can get.

Plant among poppies
Units Five and Six, the most modern at Kozloduy, are the only ones still buzzing with energy.

Amid safety concerns about communist-era reactors, the other four were shut down as a price for Bulgaria's EU membership.

Two closed just minutes before the country joined the EU on 1 January 2007.

"It felt like losing family members in their prime," sighs deputy executive director Kiril Nikolov.

The EU is paying over $800m (500m euros) in compensation, but Mr Nikolov - backed by Bulgaria's top politicians - says that is not enough.

"The compensation from the EU can hardly cover our losses," Mr Nikolov complains.

"It would be better if we could reopen two units. That would improve the energy balance for the whole Balkan region and help us become self-reliant."

To offset the loss of production at Kozloduy and regain its position as a major electricity exporter to the rest of the Balkans, Bulgaria has revived plans for a second nuclear power plant at Belene.

The site is three hours' drive from Kozloduy, in a field of poppies and wild bushes enclosed by a barbed wire fence.

Five tall yellow cranes stick out from among rusting containers and a ruined concrete structure.

Potential, not problem
Work on the Belene nuclear plant started in 1981, but was abandoned for lack of money.

In January, the project got a new lease of life when Bulgaria signed a contract worth $5.8 billion with a company controlled by the Russian energy giant Gazprom.

Two thousand Russian experts will help build the plant, Bulgaria's biggest infrastructure project since the fall of communism.

Although we have permission to film, a police car pulls up.

"We thought you might be Greenpeace protesters," one of the policemen explains with an embarrassed smile.

Once reassured about our credentials, they show us the way to the nearby town of Belene, our very own friendly police escort.

Here, nuclear power is not seen as a problem, but as a solution.

Walking by the slow-flowing Danube with her young daughter, a teacher tells me she knows many people who have either emigrated or are unemployed.

She describes the nuclear plant as "a good opportunity".

Questions of quality
An elderly man has heard that thousands of Russians will be employed at Belene.

But, he says, "we hope that there will also be jobs for thousands more Bulgarians and the project will finally be completed".

But elsewhere, the project is controversial.

Like Kozloduy, Belene is sited near the Danube and any safety incident could have widespread effects.

Some of the strongest criticism comes from the man who used to run Bulgaria's nuclear safety authority.

Georgi Kastchiev, now working at the Institute of Risk Research in Vienna, says this type of Russian reactor "has never been built anywhere else in the world".

He doubts "the quality of Russian nuclear industry, because two years ago they delivered faulty equipment to Chinese reactors".

Nifty footwork
Another worry is that the nuclear plant will be built in a region prone to severe earthquakes.

Belene will also cement Bulgaria's dependency on Russia, on which it almost entirely relies for oil and gas.

Ognyan Minchev, who runs Sofia's Institute for regional and International Studies, argues that is not necessarily a problem "at a time when we presume that relationships between Russia and the West are going to be positive and good".

But, he warns, "any time when we see particular problems and challenges within those relationships, Bulgaria - a member of Nato and the EU - will be on the very dividing line".

Bulgaria and Russia are fellow Slavs, linked by language and religion.

They are currently celebrating 130 years of historic ties with high-level visits, exhibitions and ballet performances.

When it comes to energy, Bulgaria is by no means the only EU country dancing to Moscow's tune.

But it will require some nifty political footwork to keep its balance between its old friends in Moscow and its new partners in Europe.

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