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Failed referendum leaves Bulgaria without nuclear future

Published time: January 31, 2013 13:26
Edited time: January 31, 2013 17:26
A workman and a cranes are pictured on the site of Bulgaria's second nuclear plant near the town of Belene. (AFP Photo / Dimitar Dilkoff)

A workman and a cranes are pictured on the site of Bulgaria's second nuclear plant near the town of Belene. (AFP Photo / Dimitar Dilkoff)

A referendum on nuclear energy in Bulgaria failed due to low turnout, and the country's ruling party has confirmed it will not build a new nuclear plant. Critics warn that without nuclear energy, Bulgaria may become a third-world country in 20 years.

The referendum, which was supposed to determine the future course of nuclear energy in Bulgaria, has been officially declared invalid: The final voter turnout was about 20 percent, far less than the required 60 percent.

Nearly 61 percent of voters who participated in Sunday’s referendum approved of building the nuclear plant.

Bulgarian Prime Minister Boiko Borisov confirmed that his ruling center-right GERB party would not resume construction on a nuclear power plant in Belene.

In March 2012, the GERB party scrapped the 2,000-megawatt nuclear plant project, which had been under construction by Russia's Atomstroyexport since 2008. The Bulgarian government said that the country could no longer afford the plant’s 6.4-billion euro price tag.

During the negotiations that preceded the cancellation, GERB attempted to bring an American or European contractor on to the project. Bulgaria also demanded that the price be lowered to less than 5 billion euro, which Atomstroyexport refused to do. A breakdown in negotiations led to the termination of the project.

Following the failure of the project, the opposition Socialist party called for a referendum on the Belene plant. Though the government supported the referendum, Prime Minister Borisov urged Bulgarians to vote against the project.

“The question [of the referendum] was put pretty vaguely, no one explained to an average voter the particulars of nuclear energy,” Krasimira Ilieva of the Bulgarian Nuclear Society told RT.

Bulgarian Socialist MP Peter Kurumbashev said the plant would eventually have justified the expense. Kurumbashev told RT that the cost of the nuclear plant proposed by Atomstroyexport is good, when compared to the costs of similar nuclear plants proposed for construction in neighboring Turkey.

“It takes 12-14 years to pay back the money, whereas [the] life of this type of reactors is 60 years. So, in the next 44 years you’re just ‘printing’ money,” he said, adding that the referendum had become too politicized and unclear.

Kurumbashev said that negative campaign continued throughout the entirety of the referendum. The ruling party even said there was no need for referendum at all, “which is a very interesting statement on the part of [a] democracy,” he said.

The Socialist Party of Bulgaria announced plans to revive the project if they win the 2013 elections.

Bulgaria currently operates only one nuclear power plant in Kozloduy, about 200 kilometers from the capital Sofia, which went online in 1974. At its peak production, the plant’s six reactors delivered over 45 percent of Bulgaria’s electricity. The EU ordered four of the reactors to be shut down over safety concerns.

A general view shows the Kozloduy Nuclear Power Plant, some 200 km (124 miles) north of Sofia. (Reuters / Oleg Popov)
A general view shows the Kozloduy Nuclear Power Plant, some 200 km (124 miles) north of Sofia. (Reuters / Oleg Popov)

The Belene nuclear plant was intended to replace the four reactors of Kozloduy plant that were taken offline.

Kozloduy’s two operational 1,000-megawatt reactors, designed by the Soviet Union, were modernized in 2005 and 2006 to meet EU safety demands. They will be operable until 2027 and 2032 respectively, at which point Bulgaria will no longer generate nuclear energy.

Some analysts believe that losing atomic power could lead Bulgaria to disaster. “If Bulgaria keeps using only the two reactors that it already has, it will soon find itself out of power as their service time is running out,” Krasimira Ilieva warned.

Ilieva told RT that alternative sources of power have proven too expensive for Bulgaria, and that “We’ve lost out on the economic assets over the past years… Losing nuclear energy would turn us into a third-world state completely.”

So far, only one country in Europe, Lithuania, has given up nuclear energy following EU demands to shut down Soviet-built nuclear power plants. The Ignalinskaya nuclear power plant was shut down on December 31, 2009; Lithuana is still searching for an investor to construct a new one.

Lithuania also does not have the capability to safely dispose of the Ignalinskaya plant’s radioactive waste and thousands of tons of scrap metal, which is also partially radioactive. The country now imports up to 65 percent of its electricity, the Litovsky Courrier website reported.