Can ‘Nuclear Freedom’ Work?

As they overtake nuclear energy production, Bulgaria finds it hard to break free from Russia’s long-lived economic grip

News | Mina Nacheva | April 2010

In a time of no uniform European policy on the use of atomic energy, Bulgaria needs to choose between the Russian-encouraged construction of a new nuclear power plant, and the withdrawal from the project that many claim slows down the country’s economic progress. In its inability to reach a decision on its own, the country currently awaits feedback from Brussels that would pinpoint a plan for the future development.

The July election of the central-right GERB (Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria) as the new ruling political party, marked a shift in the power engineering priorities of the state and encouraged a revision of the plans by the precedent governmental majority, the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP).

As a project that first began under the communist regime in 1981, the "Belene" case has gone through numerous negotiations that have still left the future of the nuclear power plant unresolved. After a 10-year pause due to a lack of financial resources, the government decided in 2002 to reexamine the plans for construction of the four Russian nuclear reactors. A series of talks from 2001-2005 managed to stabilize the relations between the Bulgarian and Russian governments and encouraged the development of plans to realize the project.

With the election of the Bulgarian Socialist Party in 2006, negotiations led to the signing of a pack of six contracts regarding the flow of nuclear energy into the state.

"The further development of the new nuclear power plant in Belene will grant us a higher degree of independency in Europe," former Prime Minister and BSP leader Sergei Stanishev told the National Assembly Jan. 25, 2008  – a concept, however, that has been heavily criticized by experts.

"At this point, our country’s nuclear energy supply is almost entirely (95%) contingent on the import from the Russian Federation," said Bulgarian sociologist Antoniy Gaalabov in an interview for The Vienna Review. "A potential completion of the project would turn this dependency into a complete one in the coming decades."

With the keyword "dependency" in mind, the European Commission refers to the 2009 energy crisis, caused by Russia’s decision to cut off gas export to the EU that affected a number of economies in the region. Even though there is no final agreement on a universal EU policy, Brussels seems to favor minimizing the rates of energy interdependency among countries. "This is Bulgaria’s chance to act," stated Gaalabov, "as it is obvious that we will not be able to withstand Russia’s pressure on our own."

While awaiting a decision by EU authorities, the country still needs to take a look at its list of the pros and cons.

"Currently, Bulgaria loses around 17% of its nuclear energy in delivery," Gaalabov explained, "and a potential construction of a new site would add only 19% to the state’s energy supplies." A profit of a mere two percent annually does not sound like a lucrative deal, he claims, especially when nobody has the slightest idea whom this energy would go to.

One thing is certain, though – high benefits would go to Russia.

For them, this project has no economic but mainly geostrategic value, Gaalabov emphasized. Belene would become Russia’s nuclear reactor in the EU, thus grant the state an even higher share on the European energy market.

Center-right politicians agree.

The strongest opponent of the project is the recently founded Blue Coalition, that in the words of Gaalabov, sees the plan as "not only highly unprofitable but as an unacceptable attempt on the part of Russia to put the country into a state of power dependency that could rise to 100% over the course of the next 25-30 years."

Skepticism about the profitability of the plant, however, has also spread to outside parties, such as potential foreign financers.

In October, after the end of a two-year contract, the German utility RWE abandoned a nearly 50% investment in the new nuclear reactors in Belene, leaving the project with no financial backing. The Bulgarian government has already spent around €600 million, and it seems as if this investment will be the country’s last.

"Belene will not get a single cent more out of the budget," said Finance Minister Simeon Dyankov Feb. 26. The construction of the site will be renewed only if the European Commission approves the project and provides a new trustworthy investor.

Regardless of Brussels’ verdict on the case, it is only a matter of time until Bulgaria redefines its atomic energy policies as economically feasible and independent. A small step towards Europeanization now, however, could turn into a major breakthrough in terms of the country’s long-term standing on the global energy market.

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