Bulgaria’s NPP Project in Belene: Meltdown and Resurrection

It was 48 years ago, on April 6th, 1970, when Bulgaria chose to walk down the path of nuclear energy. On that day, the communist country started building reactor no. 1 of what was going to become the largest nuclear power plant (NPP) in the region, near the town of Kozloduy.

A cooling system called Danube was already there. The Sofia regime’s bold plan was to build six reactors at that location. The Soviet brothers did the job. Soon, Bulgaria would be the biggest energy producer and exporter in the region. But that was about to change.

In 1995, the U.S. Department of Energy released a report which listed “The 10 Most Dangerous NPPs” in the world. It does not take a degree in nuclear physics to figure out which NPPs had prominent places on that list: reactors no. 1 and 2 in Kozloduy.

Years later, the European Union would list demands for Bulgaria’s accession. Since it did not feel like having another Chernobyl. it pressured Bulgaria into a deal, which made sure those two time bombs were shut down in 2004.

Bulgaria desperately wanted to continue running reactors 3 and 4. For a while, things looked good, since the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and other organizations provided documentation to Bulgaria, saying those two reactors were good to go for another few years, until 2011 and 2013, respectively.

But Bulgaria wanted to be an E.U. member more than anything. And there was no way the European Commission would accept those reactors on its soil. Reactors 3 and 4 were therefore shut down in December of 2006, just before Bulgaria joined.

The PA systems for the bands playing in the early morning hours of New Year’s Day 2007 in front of the National Palace of Culture in Sofia, during the big E.U. membership celebration, had to be powered by reactors 5 and 6.

The E.U. deal was in effect. But Bulgaria would not have been Bulgaria if it had not asked its new peers in Brussels for an exception, just hours after the country joined the union. The Sofia government wanted to play with its toy, even though mother had locked it away. But she was persistent. Europe turned down that request.

So, out of six reactors in Kozloduy, two are in service today. Together, they have an output of 2000 Megawatts, more than enough to run a toaster, a microwave and a TV-set in nearby Sofia. Those two reactors are working right now, but, all in all, hardly anything is. Bulgaria’s nuclear energy drama is being extended as we speak.

It was towards the end of communist times, when Bulgaria wanted even more nuclear energy. In 1987, the Soviets started building two reactors at a new location, further down the Danube, near the town of Belene. Up to six reactors with an output of 1000 megawatts each were planned. Until 1990, reactor no. 1 was partially built and some 80 percent of the equipment needed was delivered from Russia.

But at that moment, shortly after the fall of communism, the Belene project was halted due to protests and a chronic lack of funds.

Thirteen years later, in 2003, several international nuclear power companies voiced their interest in completing the Belene reactors and in building additional ones. The new socialist government under Sergei Stanishev approved Belene again in 2005. Two reactors were supposed to be built. The Russian conglomerate Atomstroiexport (ASE) was chosen to complete the NPP.

It took until January of 2008 until the contract was signed. The latter had a volume of 3.9 billion U.S. Dollars. But the funding ran into trouble yet again, after several banks pulled out of the endeavor. At the same time, the projected costs for the Belene project skyrocketed. In 2008, the German RWE group was chosen to fund and finish Belene.

But there were new problems. Environmentalists staged protests, saying the NPP’s construction site was located in the middle of an earthquake area. Indeed, a German institute for geological studies predicts tremors with magnitudes of 7.5 to 8.5 on the Richter Scale in that very region. And if there are two things which are not compatible, they are nuclear reactors and strong earthquakes. So, in 2009, RWE pulled out of the project. Bulgaria wanted to find new players.

A year later, in August of 2010, the projected costs had reached the sky. They were now at 9 billion Euro. The Russian government offered a 2 billion Dollar loan, but Sofia insisted on a Western investor.

Bulgaria performed yet another u-turn in 2012, when the government announced it was throwing the NPP project overboard, in order to build a natural gas power plant at the same location. The socialists, by now they were in the opposition, were furious. They made sure there was a referendum on the question whether the nuclear power project in Belene should be built or not. But the turnout reached only 20 percent, while 60 percent would have been necessary to make the outcome binding.

It would not take long until Bulgaria received a rather high invoice. The Russians wanted their money, and an arbitration court confirmed they had the right to charge Sofia 550 million Euro. This meant interests amounting to 167,000 Euro per day, as long as the bill was not paid. The Sofia government, now headed by Boiko Borissov, tried to sell parts of the Belene NPP, without success. The big invoice was finally paid.

From that moment, it did not take long until the government said those reactors in Belene should be built after all. This was the third resurrection of that NPP. Another few years later, yesterday, to be precise, the National Assembly in Sofia gave the government the mandate to find foreign investors. Until October, an international tender needs to be prepared.

In the meantime, the drama around Bulgaria’s nuclear power ambitions is continuing. Several meltdowns and resurrections, as well as other scandals, such as indictments of former ministers, because of alleged mismanagement of the Belene project, filled the headlines of Bulgarian and international media. And it looks like they will continue to do so.

Besides: Even if Bulgaria finds an investor and finally gets that project off the ground, it would still be a nuclear power plant in an earthquake region.


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