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Bulgaria Backtracks on Reactor Closures

Sofia risks confrontation with EU after backtracking on agreement to close two nuclear reactors.
By Elena Yonceva

The Bulgarian government has placed new conditions on the closure schedule for two reactors at the Kozloduy nuclear power station, in a move that could complicate its admission to the European Union.


Four out of six of Kozloduy's reactors were earmarked for shutdown at a G-7 summit a decade ago. But Sofia is now insisting that the EU should inspect the Russian-built station before a closure programme, agreed in 1999 as part of the country's application to join the union, is fully implemented.


The station is vital to the economy and millions of dollars have been spent over the last decade on upgrading it.


Under the Brussels agreement three years ago, two of the six reactors would be shut down by 2003, and a common memorandum anticipated the closure of two more by the end of 2006.


On September 26, the government announced that the first two would be closed as agreed by the end of this year, but that the others - reactors three and four - will only be shut after the EU sends a technical team to the station to confirm that they are still unsafe.


The government's new stance follows the latest report on Kozloduy by the International Atomic Energy Agency, IAEA.


The IAEA first inspected the station in 1992, when it criticised both the management and maintenance of the station as sloppy and inadequate. Ten years, 200 million dollars and twenty IAEA missions later, the agency has finally given Kozloduy a clean bill of health.


"Present standards at the Kozloduy nuclear power station meet the level of improvements made to other power stations of the same generation. Many of the safety measures applied to reactors three and four exceed those required to ensure the operation and the seismic safety of the power station," said an IAEA report published in June of this year.


The government is confident that reactors three and four at Kozloduy will now pass a safety check from any team of experts. "I have kept track of all inspections since 1990 and the same experts who criticised the state of the reactors back then, now maintain that all the problems have been solved," said energy minister Milko Kovachev.


Moreover, power stations with the same Russian VVER 440 reactors continue to operate in Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Russia and Finland. Lithuania and Slovakia did shut down some of their Russian reactors, but have kept their upgraded ones in operation.


Kozloduy is vital to the Bulgarian economy, as it supplies 40 per cent of electricity domestically. Bulgaria in turn produces 45 per cent of all electricity consumed in the Balkans, with exports to Turkey, Greece, Serbia, Macedonia, Albania and Kosovo.


The shutdown of the first four reactors will cost an estimated 6.5 billion dollars, both in lost exports and in the imports needed to make up the domestic electrical power deficit.


Bulgaria's loss will create a business opportunity for other energy providers, prompting suspicions in some quarters that the EU is not wholly motivated by safety considerations. "It's all about lobbying, the reasons for the early shutdown of the reactors are purely economic," said Emil Vapirev, chair of the Bulgarian nuclear regulatory agency. "Russia and countries such as France and Germany have a huge interest in selling electricity to the Balkans."


Some support for Bulgaria is now emerging in Brussels, where 20 MEPs recently called on the EU to send a technical commission to inspect Kozloduy.


"In the aftermath of Chernobyl, even the mention of an east European reactor was enough to bring calls for a shutdown," said MEP Gordon Adam.


"But these were based on an assumption that the reactors were either impossible to upgrade, or that the countries in question couldn't afford to do so."


The EU environmental office made a conciliatory response to the September 26 announcement. "Certainly, what Bulgaria has to say about this will be listened to very carefully," said spokesperson Emma Odwin, in an interview with Radio Free Europe. "Candidate countries have every right to be listened to, and indeed they will be."


Guenter Vergheugen, the European enlargement commissioner, said that Bulgaria's efforts to solve the Kozloduy problem were laudable, but added that decisions connected with accession lay not with the European Commission, but with member states.


In an unusual role reversal, Bulgaria now appears to be laying down the conditions on which it will agree to enter the EU. The minister for European integration, Meglena Kuneva, has said that she will not sign the energy chapter of Bulgaria's admission negotiations unless Brussels agrees to send inspectors. The Bulgarian parliament has also passed a declaration that reactors three and four must not be closed in advance of Bulgaria's joining the union.


Public opinion supports this firm stand, as many feel that Brussels is condemning the country to economic ruin as the price of entry. A recent survey indicated that over 75 per cent of Bulgarians oppose the closure of the old reactors and that two-thirds would support a decision to postpone shutdowns, even if that delayed Bulgaria's entry into the EU.


"We will comply with any technical evaluation unequivocally," said President Georgi Purvanov, calling on member states to assemble the necessary technical taskforce. "But if it turns out that reactors three and four are safe, they should be taken off the dangerous reactors list. Give Bulgaria a chance!"


Elena Yontcheva is a Sofia-based freelance journalist


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