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The Third Death of Belene

For some champions of the shuttered nuclear reactor, Belene was about much more than energy.

by Boyko Vassilev 5 April 2012

Bulgaria’s Belene nuclear power plant is history – for maybe the third time.


It has been opened, and closed, at least three times. But Prime Minister Boyko Borisov says that this time Bulgaria’s second nuclear power station has gone for good.


The decision to build Belene was announced in 1981. In the year when Greece entered the European Union, Yugoslavia witnessed upheaval in Kosovo, and a Turk, Mehmet Ali Agca, shot Pope John Paul II, Bulgaria decided to double its nuclear power output. A new plant, to be built jointly by the Soviet Union and Bulgaria, would be located near the small Danube town of Belene. The first dig was in 1987. Nobody foresaw that several other first digs would follow.


This history matters. When the country’s older nuclear power plant, Kozloduy, started to function in the 1970s as a product of Soviet-Bulgarian “friendship and brotherhood,” it had no match in the region. Greece had rejected nuclear power altogether; it wasn’t until 1983 that a reactor started up in Yugoslavia, and 1996 in Romania; and only now is Turkey building one.


So Bulgaria was proud of its achievement in industry, science, and labor.


But the shine soon wore off. In the mid-1980s, the existing capacity of Kozloduy could not cover the growing demands of Bulgaria and its energy-inefficient heavy industry. Until new units opened in 1987 and 1991, Bulgaria had to undergo a humiliating energy regime: three hours with electricity, three hours without.


Not to mention Chernobyl. Soviet nuclear technology was no longer trendy. Its image took a beating, even in Bulgaria.


In 1989 and 1990, with Bulgarian Greens at the forefront of the democratic changes, Belene was frozen, then officially stopped.


But the times, they are a-changin’. During the EU accession process, when Brussels forced Sofia to close the older, “Chernobyl type” reactors at Kozloduy, it suddenly seemed that three-quarters of Bulgarians did not want to sacrifice their reactors. Some even preferred nuclear power to EU membership.


Chernobyl memories, no matter how painful for Bulgaria, had dimmed with time. There was a new ghost to haunt Bulgarian citizens, exhausted after the long and hard transition: the alleged conspiracy of the West. The rich and the powerful were suspected of plotting against their humble Balkan fellows – killing their industry, devaluing their science, funding fake Green activism, dirty-lobbying for other sources of energy (mainly coal), giving the advantage to neighboring Romania, and, just to add insult to injury, robbing us of our pride.


The government of prime minister and former king Simeon Saxecoburggotski took a lot of heat for closing the older Kozloduy reactors. It had one card left, though, and played it in 2002, with the announcement that work on Belene would restart.


In 2005, a new coalition government that included the king’s party and the Russophile Socialists went further. Their ally, President Georgi Parvanov, famously unveiled the “grand slam” of energy projects with Russian participation – the Burgas-Alexandroupolis oil and South Stream gas pipelines and Belene. But the fate of the second Bulgarian nuclear plant was not etched in stone.


Assuming power in 2009, center-right Prime Minister Borisov turned against the slam. Burgas-Alexandroupolis was canceled. Belene was called “a pond where millions had been sunk,” but its termination was delayed for three more years.


The delay was precisely because so much money had already been spent on it – officially around 2 billion leva (1 billion euros). There was a quest for a major foreign investor, but except the Russians, nobody came; Canadians, Germans, Americans retreated. Moscow was especially fervent, but the price remained vague. In 2006, when the preliminary deals were cut, it was 4 billion euros. However, both sides failed to account properly for inflation. In the end, cost estimates varied from 5 billion euros (the Bulgarian position) to at least 6.4 billion (the Russian one). “When you buy a car, don’t you ask the price?” Borisov wondered.


Proponents of Belene insisted that it would produce cheap energy and if Russia provided it, so what? It would help Bulgaria become an electricity exporter, energy hub, and industrial leader.


Opponents cited the plant’s cost, as well as the country’s dependence on Russia for gas, oil, and nuclear power. They argued that Bulgaria produced enough energy to meet its needs and wasted too much through inefficiency. To them, Belene was too big and expensive.


The first camp was Russophile, the second, Americanophile. Borisov and his party, GERB, straddle the two.


Then came Fukushima. Investors got jittery and financing scarce. With time, Belene became more untenable. On 26 March Borisov called his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin. On 28 March he canceled Belene – and promised to build a gas power plant instead.


The opposition Socialists accused him of treason and of ruining the Bulgarian energy industry. They demanded a referendum and promised to give Belene a fourth chance, should they return to power. But surprisingly, Russia did not seem offended. Moscow promised not to sue Bulgaria and even announced it would cut the price of natural gas to the country by 11 percent. It did demand an additional 180 million euros for a reactor that was slated for Belene and is near completion, which Bulgaria could either sell or install at Kozloduy.


Was there a deal? Commentators say it might be a commitment to South Stream, the only project left of the “grand slam.” Or there could be another explanation. “Even the Russians sighed with relief,” Borisov said. “Belene was closed not by me, but by the previous government, which failed to act on time.”


Bulgaria’s prime minister manages to blame the prior government for all possible evils. But even if he is right that Belene is unnecessary, he should consider why most Bulgarians want it.


Maybe they want back their industry, science – and, yes, their pride. And maybe they associate transition and Americanization with de-industrialization, de-intellectualization, and second-rate status. If I am right, that is bad news for pro-Western forces in Bulgaria. Belene might be expensive, huge, and odd, but Bulgaria needs some big thinking for its future.


That must include high-tech, state-of-the-art manufacturing and rapid progress in education and science. Otherwise, the naysayers will be vindicated. And nobody will be brave enough to say that it is not the West who is to blame for our strategic misfortunes, it’s us.  

Boyko Vassilev is a moderator and producer of the weekly Panorama news talk show on Bulgarian National Television.
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