Bulgaria: Construction of the Nuclear Power Plant “Belene” Cancelled

On March 28, Bulgaria officially announced the cancellation of its newest nuclear power plant (NPP) “Belene” construction. The Parliament has stopped this controversial project after years of discussion and more than half a billion euros invested in the construction of the first reactor. The decision was announced not only by the mainstream media, but also by the Bulgarian Minister of Foreign Affairs Nikolay Mladenov, who tweeted:

@nmladenov: #Bulgaria suspends controversial #Belene Nuclear Power project that has cost hundreds of millions for the last 31 years…

A Facebook page screenshot of ‘the European campaign to prevent the construction of a nuclear power plant in an earthquake-area in Belene, Bulgaria.’

A long-lasting fight surrounds this joint venture with Russia [ru], which was to be built in an active seismic zone. Activists have been continuously advocating to raise awareness about the risks of building a nuclear power plant in this region, recalling the Vrancea earthquake of 1977 [en], which caused the deaths of more than 1,600 people. In Svishtov, a major Bulgarian city in the area, located 14 km away from the construction site, 120 people were killed back then; the 1977 earthquake also destroyed buildings in the city of Belene, just 3 km from the NPP site.

A report on the seismic risks, produced by Greenpeace activists and the Green Policy Institute in Bulgaria and published on the anti-NPP National coalition “BeleNE” website, showed that the previous report was inconsistent and no real risk assessment had been completed. Thus, they concluded that no argument exists to claim that the zone is safe from a seismic standpoint and went on calling for the cancellation of the project.

But other considerations went into play in the Belene controversy. Edvin Sugarev, a former MP, started a huge discussion on his blog svobodata.com [bg] (translates as “the freedom”):

Започваме тази гражданска дискусия в момент, в който страната ни е на ръба, отвъд който следва срив: срив на геополитическите ни приоритети, срив на шансовете да се превърнем в нормална европейска страна, срив отново към руската орбита на влияние. Над България е упражнен огромен натиск да бъде подписан протокол 12 от договора за АЕЦ “Белене” – с което този проект става необратим, а нашата енергийна и политическа зависимост от Русия – също. Доколкото можем да съдим по изявленията на българския премиер, управляващите вече са се поддали на натиска – и реално са предали българските национални интереси. Като българи сме длъжни да направим всичко, което е по силите ни, за да не позволим това предателство да стане факт – и то да определя оттук нататък дневния ред на България.

We begin this civil discussion at a time when our country is on the edge, beyond which it will collapse: a crash of our geopolitical priorities, a crash of chances to become a normal European country, a crash back to the Russian orbit of influence. Enormous pressure to sign Protocol 12 of the contract for NPP “Belene” has been exerted on Bulgaria – signing it makes this project irreversible, – and so do our energy and political dependence on Russia. As far as we can judge from the statements of the Bulgarian Prime Minister, the government had already succumbed to the pressure – and actually betrayed the Bulgarian national interests. As Bulgarians, we must do everything in our power to not allow this betrayal to become a fact – and thus, to prevent it from setting the agenda from now on in Bulgaria.

Such a standpoint has also been defended by a well-known journalist and blogger Ivo Indjev. He is famous for his much more furious opposition to the NPP “Belene” construction. And he was actually the first non-government person to be informed [bg] about the cancellation of the project by the Prime Minister himself. Yesterday, Indjev asked [bg]:

След СССР и неговата проекция в Белене отиде в небитието- накъде сега?

After the Soviet Union and its projection Belene went to nothing – what now?

The use of the “Soviet Union” denomination of Russia is not random: in his positions [bg], Indjev frequently dubs Russia in such a way to depict its imperialistic desires about the former “16th republic,” as Bulgaria used to be called. Indjev has also written about the Russian government that he refers to as “the Russian mafia”.

These provocative words made him the media black sheep, but seem to be confirmed through the recently leaked Stratfor files. The Bulgarian citizen analyzer Bivol (a WikiLeaks partner for Bulgaria) thus writes [bg] about a meeting in April 2009 between the Bulgarian then-Prime Minister Sergei Stanishev and the Russian “minister of organized crime” Yuri Luzhkov. The latter is defined as such by Stratfor and was in charge of a special budget dedicated by the Kremlin for maintaining interactions with organized crime actors in Russia. The outcome of this meeting is announced as “a negotiation aiming at increasing Russia's implication in the NPP “Belene” project.”

After the announcement that the NPP “Belene” construction was cancelled, the media said a gas plant would be built on the very same site, using gas supply by Russia. On March 30, Bulgarian representatives, led by the newly-appointed Minister of Economics and Energy Delyan Dobrev, met their Russian counterparts to discuss a diplomatically friendly way out of the current situation, since Bulgaria has to pay a 1-billion-euro compensation to Russia [ru] as a result of the cancellation. This meeting provoked sarcasm on Twitter, where Ognyan Georgiev ‏(@OGeorgiev) tweeted:

@OGeorgiev Бедни, бедни Добрев. Руснаците ще го сдъвчат и изплюят. Опасявам се от тази визита. #belene

Poor, poor Dobrev. The Russians will chew and then spit him out. I'm afraid of this visit. #belene
"Learn Russian in a day" textbook. Picture from @OGeorgiev, CC-by-SA 3.0

"Learn Russian in a day" textbook. Picture from @OGeorgiev, CC-by-SA 3.0

Whole-heartedly, @OGeorgiev also tweeted a picture of a Russian phrasebook “Learn Russian in a day,” wishing best of luck to Dobrev.

Reactions following the official announcement were mixed. Andrew MacDowall, a journalist writing about the Balkans, tweeted:

#Belene #nuclear plant scrapped. Is this the end of a four-decade saga? NPP could have been a boost for #Bulgaria http://t.co/ITf1IOhn

Many Bulgarians believe this NPP would have helped the country to alleviate the ever-increasing prices of electricity. Also, the question to arise is: how will the money spent on the now-aborted project be taken back? Hristo Ivanov (@cipisec) tweeted ironically:

@cipisec: а ся ми вдигнете осигуровките,за да ги избиете RT: @nmladenov:#BG suspends #Belene that has cost hundreds of millions for the last 31 years…

now you can increase social insurance fees to get the money back RT: @nmladenov:#BG suspends #Belene that has cost hundreds of millions for the last 31 years…

Others suggest that building the reactor was just a political manoeuvre:

Как Ви се струва обаче хипотезата, че всъщност цялото протакане на решението за Белене през последните 2-3 години е било нарочно за пред „публиката“, колкото да се стигне до завършването междувременно и изплащането му на реактора – така че сега да сме в положение с готов и платен реактор и следователно, да бъде почти неизбежно слагането му в Козлодуй? […] Ако се бяхме отказали от АЕЦ Белене още преди 2-3 години, такъв вариант би бил много малко вероятен.

How do you feel, however, regarding the hypothesis that, in fact, the whole delay about the decision on the NPP in the last 2-3 years has been deliberately targeting the “public” so as to reach completion and repayment of the reactor in the meantime? Thus, now we are in a position with a ready and paid reactor and therefore almost inevitably we'll be putting it in the [already existing] nuclear plant of Kozlodui. […] If we had given up “Belene” 2-3 years ago, this option would have been highly unlikely.

Indeed, as the Prime Minister announced, Bulgaria has still to add only 140 million of euros [bg] to finish the reactor. The sarcasm website Не!Новините (NotNews) found an alternative explanation [bg] of what is to be built on the “Belene” site: a huge fermentator for rakia [en], the famous traditional Bulgarian alcoholic beverage (alcohol content ranges from 40° to more than 60°).

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