Bulgaria may follow Lithuania with vote on nuclear plant

  

Lithuania will hold a referendum on whether to build the Visaginas nuclear energy plant when voters go to the polls on 14 October to elect members of Parliament. Meanwhile, Bulgarians will probably vote on the future of its Belene nuclear station before the end of the year. 

Lithuanian voters will be asked to support or reject the following statement: “I support the construction of a new nuclear power plant in the Republic of Lithuania."

In July, the Lithuanian parliament decided that the referendum on Visaginas would be held alongside the elections, to cut electoral costs and improve voter turnout. At least half of the voters must cast their vote for the referendum result to be validated.

The incumbent centre-right government of Andrius Kubilius is strongly committed to building the power plant.

President Dalia Grybauskaitė said the referendum is an opportunity for the electorate to be consulted on an important decision. “It’s an obligation for the government to make an in-depth presentation of the project to the public,” said a presidential statement quoted by the Lithuania Tribune.

If approved, the new nuclear power plant is expected to be completed within a decade. It would replace the Soviet-built Ignalina nuclear station (see background) and is to be build next to the site.

The project has the support of the parliament and finance minister, but still outstanding is the hoped-for participation of Poland in a project whose partners also include Estonia, Latvia and Japan's Hitachi Ltd. The estimated cost is of €5 billion, with construction due to begin in 2015.

Bulgarian referendum possible

In Bulgaria, no date has yet been set for holding a referendum on the future of the Belene nuclear station near the Danube, but it is widely expected before the end of the year.

Construction was halted in March, in what appears to be a political decision by the centre-right government of Prime Minister Boyko Borissov not to add to the country’s energy dependence from Russia, which wants to supply the reactors.

At that time the Belene project was cancelled, the opposition Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) slammed the cabinet for what it called a decision “influenced by some embassies, including the American one.”

The BSP says it has gathered 800,000 signatures in favour of holding a referendum for building the nuclear power plant according to plans. Under the Constitution, 500,000 valid signatures are needed to hold a referendum – which would be the country’s first in modern history.

Borissov’s government at first was hostile to holding a referendum. However, last month, Russia’s Atomstroyexport announced it was seeking €1 billion in compensation from Bulgaria for its decision to shelve Belene. Another development was the announcement that a newly registered, US-based company called Global Power Consortium was prepared to finance Belene. The idea to equip the Belene plant with Western technology was also floated.

Global Power Consortium representatives were quoted as expressing interest in taking over the project to install two 1,000 megawatt reactors at Belene and build it without state funds or guarantees. Borissov said he would consider the bid as serious if the investors deposit €200 million, agree to take up all liabilities of Belene so far and build it without state guarantees or long-term power purchase agreements.

In what appears to be a strategy of delaying its decision, the government announced that it would enter into negotiations with the investors, but only after the referendum. President Rosen Plevneliev said he would be a “personal guarantor” for the success of “the first referendum in the country’s democratic history”.

The problem now appears to be how to formulate the question for the referendum. The Socialists insist that it should be conducted on the basis of the same question used in the campaign for collecting signatures: “Should nuclear energy in Bulgaria be developed by building capacities at the Belene site?”

Detractors say the text contradicts the country’s legislation, and that an investment issue could not be the subject of a referendum. The opposition Blue Coalition, a small centre-right party, has threatened to take the issue to the Constitutional court.

Timeline: 
  • 14 Oct. First round of Lithuanian elections
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