Restarting the Belene Nuclear Power Plant project – trials and tribulations

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Photo: capital.bg

On 7 June the National Assembly endorsed a proposal by force of which the ruling coalition – GERB and the United Patriots – obligates the government to “resume the efforts to find opportunities for the construction of Belene Nuclear Power Plant, jointly with a strategic investor, on market principles and without state guarantees.” At the same time the National Assembly rejected the proposal of the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) to override its own 2012 decision to terminate the construction of the nuclear power station.

Public reaction is describing these latest developments in the national nuclear energy sector as “restarting” the Belene Nuclear Power Plant project. Some media outlets have been questioning the latest turn of events with headlines like: “With investor interest unclear the National Assembly formally revives project…” (Sega newspaper) or “Looking for a strategic investor for Belene NPP in conditions of moratorium” (BGNES news agency).

The Belene NPP project saga gives ample grounds for harbouring suspicions. After construction work started in 1987, in May 1990, the project was cut down to two blocks for lack of funding, in 1991 it was shelved by the first democratic government in the country due to lack of funding and because of fierce public opposition, in 1996 – it was revived by the BSP government, in 1997 it was rejected most of all over the high cost of the prospective electric energy, in 2002 it was revived again by the Saxe-Coburg-Gotha cabinet, and in 2012 it was again terminated by the first Boyko Borissov cabinet because there was no strategic investor.

At this point, the project is evidently being revived in earnest, seeing as even President Rumen Radev himself – whose relations with the government are strained at best – welcomed the “lifting of the moratorium” adding that the government should be left to do its job of collecting the relevant information, holding the negotiations needed, making an accurate estimate of the project’s feasibility, its safety, financial benefit etc.

Energy Minister Temenizhka Petkova confidently stated that the parliament’s decision allows the government to look for a strategic investor, that four candidates have declared such an interest and that the power station can be built within a period of 7 years. It is true that one day before this decision, the China National Nuclear Corporation and the Russian Rosatom did confirm their interest in investing in the Belene Nuclear Power plant project, but the Chinese side raised the question of state guarantees – something the current government does not want to commit to, while the Russian side is yet to think the proposal over on the basis of the parliament’s decision. The names of two more interested companies have come up – the French Framatome and the American General Electric, though their interest is more as suppliers than as strategic investors.

In the process of negotiations the government will have external but also internal factors to contend with. At yesterday’s discussions in parliament the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS) opposed the nuclear power plant project. Though it supports the construction of Belene, the BSP is doubtful of the sincerity of the government. The newly formed right-wing coalition Democratic Bulgaria fiercely protested against the revival of the project and even though it is not represented in parliament, it is certainly a force to be reckoned with, as it is associated with what is known as the authentic right wing forces and wields a considerable public potential.

The energy minister is confident that Belene NPP will have been constructed in no more than seven years’ time, but whether this is realistic it is impossible to say at this point. What is certain is that weary of the trials and tribulations of the Belene saga, all the public now seems to want is closure.

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