Not Glowing in the Dark: Bulgaria’s NPP Belene

Construction Site of NPP Belene

“Cost overruns, financial woes, construction delays, and serious quality assurance concerns”. This is how the US Ambassador to Bulgaria Nancy McEldowney characterizes the Belene nuclear power plant in a report found on WikiLeaks, and recently published by the Guardian.

The criticism goes on: “the Belene NPP project continues to move forward despite strong warnings about project safety and quality by project experts”. It is these concerns that drove away the strategic investor in the project, Germany’s RWE, which had acquired 49% of the project in 2008. From the viewpoint of RWE, cooperation with the Bulgarian government and the Russian contractor (Atomstoyexport), had proven to be “poison for the investment of the company”.

The main objections, delivered to the Ambassador by technical experts, were that critical safety regulations were being overlooked in order for construction to be achieved as soon as possible. The reason for this was the Bulgarian government’s aspiration not to lose the German investor. At the same time, RWE had reported that they were being “kept in the dark” about most technical aspects of the project. It had voiced its concerns and asked to see the complete documentation of the project.

Further, RWE had expressed its uneasiness in working with Atomstroyexport, and stressed the need for strengthening ‘European business practice’. In the ensuing months, the German company had tried to sell its share of the Belene NPP, most notably to Belgium’s Electrabel, without any success. It therefore comes as no surprise that, when RWE pulled out of the project, its share went back to the Bulgarian government, who froze the project temporarily while looking for a new investor (the only candidate at the moment is a Russian company, with some indication that Serbia and Romania wish to join in).

The end of the report states the following: “There is clearly something amiss at Belene… [yet] the government is unlikely to abandon the project any time soon”.

In Bulgaria, this is not news. RWE’s pulling away from the Belene project was a bad surprise, yet the government has not lost its enthusiasm at building the power plant. Traicho Traikov, Minister for Economics, Energy and Tourism, has repeatedly stated that construction of the NPP will not occur without an investor, and definitely not from the budget. This has been explicitly supported by Simeon Dyankov, Minister of Finance, whose chief aim is to balance the budget, currently marred by a huge deficit. In addition to this, public support of the Belene NPP is high, especially since the closing down of two reactors at Kozloduy in 2007.

Nevertheless, this WikiLeaks report implies three facts: 1) Bulgaria needs to improve its reporting and documentation on the Belene project, if an investor is to be found; 2) Transparency is key to attracting cooperation from other member states of the EU; 3) Bulgaria’s cooperation with Russia on the matter is being closely monitored. It seems the central issue of the debate is no longer a nuclear power plant meant to produce 34% of the country’s electricity, but a financial power-play in a small country in the Balkans. Whether Belene will ‘glow’ anytime soon remains to be seen.

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