In the contemporary energy debate in Bulgaria, there are four dominant projects on the agenda. The first is the South Stream pipeline, deemed necessary for the security of gas supply to the country from its only supplier – the Russian Federation. The second is the Burgas-Alexandropolous pipeline, aimed at improving the oil link between Bulgaria and Greece. The third is the Nabucco pipeline, aimed at diversifying energy supply by bringing gas from Central Asia. Yet, all those projects are transnational in scope and depend on international agreements. The only local energy project is the nuclear power plant to be built in Belene.
On 10 December 2009, the Bulgarian Minister for Regional Development and Public Works Rossen Plevneliev took part in the conference “Passive buildings in Bulgaria”, the main topic of which was financing energy efficiency of buildings in the country. The Minister stated: “why do we prioritize energy projects; we are ready to inject 10 billion Euro in the Belene NPP instead of financing energy efficiency. We are ready to inject a further 1 billion Euro for the Burgas – Alexandropolous pipeline, which is equal to the cost of all Bulgarian highways” (quoted by Dnevnik). The question here is why the Minister is comparing apples and oranges, when they are obviously different?
The financial figures which the minister stated cannot be disputed. Investments in to these projects really reach the proportions described. Yet, the problem is that Bulgaria does not have to choose between its energy priorities and the building of highways. The issue should not be an “either – or” question, but rather how to combine investments and realize all these developments. According to the document “Energy strategy of Bulgaria until 2020”, nuclear power is extremely important to the development of the economy and will have a positive effect not only on the production of environmentally-friendly electricity, but also on lowering unemployment, as well as contributing to better health of citizens. In comparison, projects like the Trakia or Hemus highways only create temporary working opportunities, which often have to be filled by foreigners, because of the lack of experts in the local labor force.
From the words of Minister Plevneliev, we can conclude that the Bulgarian government is investing a lot in the energy security of the country and in lowering harmful greenhouse gas emissions. When it comes to nuclear power, the most important project is NPP Belene. If we take a wider perspective and include the currently operational NPP Kozloduy, we can draw several important conclusions. First, Bulgaria has a lot of experience in the development of nuclear power. The first reactors at Kozloduy were turned on in 1974, giving the country more than 35 years of experience in the sector. As a result of this, there is a large number of nuclear experts in the country which can be used in the new power plants. The availability of this human and knowledge resource should not be forgotten.
Second, from the viewpoint of the energy sector, reactors five and six of the NPP Kozloduy generate 35% of Bulgaria’s electricity, having a combined output of 1906 MWe. The other energy sources are the coal (which causes huge amounts of pollution), gas and hydro-power. With the eventual construction of NPP Belene, the share of nuclear power in the country will double since the two planned reactors will have a combined output of 2120 MWe which is more than those at Kozloduy. As a result, this can contribute to a reduction in the use of coal and gas for electricity production and therefore help to reduce pollution. This will have a great positive effect on the environment as well as on the health of citizens who live in especially polluted areas (like the town of Pernik, which has one of the most polluting power plants in Europe).
Furthermore, there are many issues when it comes to heat energy. We can observe that there is great potential for nuclear power to contribute to the decentralization of this sector. At the moment, most Bulgarians use the central heating system which bears the standard of communist inefficiency. Water is heated in a power plant using fuel, then transferred through pipes to buildings, where it enters into the central heating system and heats homes. The alternative, which is growing in popularity, is to use electrical heaters in individual households for this purpose. Those who choose not to use the central heating system and switch to electricity have the following advantages: 1) they can control the amount of energy they use, which is impossible with the way the pricing and calculation of energy consumption is organized by the heating companies; 2) they do not have to pay the so-called “losses” which occur during the transportation of energy from the power plant to the home; and 3) the price of energy efficient electrical heaters is cheap, while the cost for modernization and improvement of the old heating system can be very high. Also, we should add the fact that the price of electricity produced by NPPs is not as susceptible to the change in price of nuclear fuel as is the case with natural gas, which has caused violent price changes many times before. It is also true that Bulgaria’s nuclear power industry is the most efficient producer of electrical power. All of these points contribute to the opinion that heating with environmentally friendly and cheap electricity is part of the future.
Lastly, we have to consider the aspects of geo-politics because when it comes to energy policy, they play a large role, which is also the case with NPP Belene. To state the facts, the main contractor for the plant is the Russian Atomstroieksport company; the three utility companies in Bulgaria – CEZ, E.ON and EVN, are European corporations; also, according to the Euratom treaty which Bulgaria signed upon accession to the EU, there is the duty to ensure safety in nuclear installations and the right to ask the other member states for security of fuel supply and removing nuclear waste. All three facts play a major role in the development of the NPP Belene because its aim is to provide environmentally friendly electricity in an ecologically safe environment for the whole country. Yet, it becomes obvious that Bulgaria is between Russia and the EU – a Russian company is building the NPP with European standards and three European companies will distribute the electricity. The threat of a conflict of interests is great and the government should be aware of this.
If Bulgaria does build the NPP Belene and it does modernize its electricity grid, the effect will be the following: Bulgaria will have increased its energy security and reduced its dependency on foreign energy resources; the possibility of an environmental disaster will be small and there will be a decrease in pollution; the price of electricity can be kept stable; a lot of employment opportunities will open up, especially for highly trained experts. The effects on the environment will be a significant decrease of greenhouse gas emissions, which will result in less pollution and therefore contribute to the health of citizens as well as help fight climate change. Yet, let us not forget that in this battle we also have to use means other than changes in the energy production system – means like better energy efficiency of buildings, which was the topic of the conference mentioned earlier. But if we take all the positive outlooks from investing in the new NPP Belene into account and weigh them against investments in infrastructural projects like highways, we have to conclude that Minister Plevneliev’s comparison is inaccurate.