Nuclear Row Threatens Bulgaria's EU Plans

Sofia's promise to decommission its ageing reactors is meeting growing resistance at home.

Nuclear Row Threatens Bulgaria's EU Plans

Sofia's promise to decommission its ageing reactors is meeting growing resistance at home.

Fears are growing that a political struggle in Bulgaria over the decommissioning of ageing reactors at the Kozloduy Nuclear Power Plant on the Danube may delay or derail Bulgaria's European Union accession.

Over the past year, the Bulgarian Socialist Party, BSP, a civic group claiming it has garnered 518,000 signatures to protest against the decommissioning and a powerful nuclear engineering lobby have united to put pressure on the government to drop its commitment to the EU to decommission four reactors.

While pro-nuclear groups say the commitment to close the reactors was made under duress, few analysts doubt that attempts to renege on the deal would damage Sofia's accession negotiations.

In an opinion poll in February 2004, 46 per cent of respondents said keeping the reactors was more important than joining Europe, while only 30 per cent took the opposite view.

At the same time, the BSP, President Georgi Purvanov (a former BSP leader), the Civic Committee in Defense of the Kozloduy Nuclear Power Plant and the nuclear lobby have continued a campaign against what was agreed with Brussels.

The Soviet-designed Kozloduy plant has six reactors. The two oldest VVER-440s went into operation between 1974 and 1982. Two newer ones, the VVER-1,000s, have been operational since the late 1980s.

The conflict over their future started more than 10 years ago when, in 1992, the G7 declared four of them "non-upgradeable at a reasonable cost" due to structural defects and recommended closure. The EU took up this position.

Bulgaria resisted closure until 1999 when it had to shift its stance to start accession talks with Brussels. The last two governments agreed to shut down the four reactors in pairs, in 2002 and 2006.

But the decision has always been unpopular. A pro-nuclear lobby has successfully identified its own interests with the national interest, and resistance to decommissioning has become a tool for the opposition parties in their struggle against the government.

The BSP - the successor to the old Communist Party, which ruled Bulgaria for more than four decades after the Second World War - remains the largest political party in the country and may well win the 2005 general election, partly thanks to the nuclear issue.

The nuclear power plant was built under communist auspices as a symbol of the "fraternal" relationship they cultivated with the Soviet Union.

In recent months, the Socialists have stepped up the campaign to force the government to abandon its EU commitments, threatening street protests to force it to retain the old reactors.

According to the newspaper Daily Sega of May 18, BSP leader Sergey Stanishev said his party would increase pressure on the government to revisit the nuclear issue with Bulgaria's EU partners. "The time for renegotiations was running out," it quoted Stanishev as saying.

The paper said the Socialists wanted a referendum over decommissioning the reactors and would keep them going in defiance of the EU deal if it won the next election.

"The left will use all means available not to close reactors as scheduled," Bulgaria's Mediapool news agency quoted Rumen Ovcharov, deputy chair of the BSP, as saying on March 17.

President Purvanov has also put pressure on the government to revisit the agreement with the EU. At an international nuclear conference on the Bulgarian coast on June 2, he complained that Sofia had "acted in a hurry" over the deal to decommission the reactors.

The president said completing the Power Engineering Chapter of the EU accession talks had been a tactical mistake by Bulgaria in pursuit of union membership.

The Ñivic Committee to Defend the Kozloduy Nuclear Power Plant has meanwhile collected several hundred thousand signatures in favour of a referendum and called for protests against the decommissioning.

Atanas Semov, the committee's legal counsel, says the group wanted to see the energy chapter in the EU reviewed and a popular vote on the plant.

The nuclear power lobby has publicly questioned the EU's opinion on the safety of the plant and presented its own opposing hypotheses.

The lobby links the Civic Committee in Defense of Kozloduy with a range of professional and scientific organisations, such as the Bulgarian Atomic Association, the Bulgarian Atomic Forum and the Bulgarian Power Engineering Forum.

The success of their campaign has dismayed supporters of the reactors' closure. "Their exemplary PR act has turned a national disaster into a national treasure," said Aleksandur Bozhkov, a former industry minister and now co-chaiman of the Centre for Economic Development, a right-wing think-tank.

"The Kozloduy issue epitomises the fears of many people about the little-known EU," added Svetlozar Kovachev, an analyst with the Euro-Atlantic Civic Foundation.

Kovachev said although the pro-nuclear groups "would not say it in the open", their campaign "has an obvious anti-European connotation".

Ognyan Minchev of the Institute for Regional and International Analyses, another right-of-centre think-tank, said the BSP campaign contained a large element of bluff, however. "The BSP and the pro-nuclear lobby will not dare to stand up to the EU over the long term," he said.

Minchev said even those working in the nuclear power industry would find they had an interest in the decommissioning process, as the long and expensive task would provide them with a great deal of work. Plans to build a new nuclear plant at Belene will satisfy their long-term professional interests, Minchev added.

Though closure is unpopular, public opinion may be more confused than some believe, for while polls say 64 per cent oppose shutting the Kozloduy reactors "whatever the price", the same polls say 88 per cent still back EU membership.

According to the Alpha Research polling agency, the Kozloduy power plant is thought of in emotional terms as a symbol of national sovereignty, rather than pragmatically as an economic asset.

The agency said it found 66 per cent of the plant's supporters believed preserving it would keep electricity prices low and 53 per cent felt the reactors would ensure Bulgaria remained strong in the international energy market. Some 41 per cent opposed foreign experts making any decisions on the country's national interests.

Such convictions reflect the information put forward by the plant's champions. Opponents dispute it has much economic value. They point out that throughout the 1990s the plant operated at less 60 per cent of capacity, and that a state monopoly on electricity distribution mandated other energy producers to generate less power, simply to provide work for Kozloduy.

Krasen Stanchev, of the Institute for Market Economy, maintains that Kozloduy served Russia's economic interests over those of Bulgaria.

It was, he said, built "because the Soviet Union wanted to use Bulgaria as a middleman for its raw materials en route to the western markets. Petrol, coal, steel, and zinc had to be processed in Bulgaria, and a lot of electricity was needed for that".

EU representatives continue to warn Bulgaria that it must fulfill the deal to close the reactors if it wants to accede to the union in 2007.

On a visit to Bulgaria on June 7, Enlargement Commissioner Guenther Verheugen's spelled this out, "The only consequence of Bulgaria reopening the energy chapter would be delayed accession to the EU," he said.

Albena Shkodrova is a freelance journalist in Sofia.

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