Bulgarians voted yesterday (27 January) in favour of building a new nuclear power plant in their first referendum in the post-communist era. However, due to the low turnout, the referendum result is not binding and the matter is referred to Parliament.

Slightly over 60% voted for a 2,000-megawatt plant at Belene on the Danube River, exit polls showed. Turnout was slightly above 20%. For the referendum to be binding, a turnout of more than 60% of eligible voters was needed.

The referendum was initiated by the opposition Socialist Party (BSP), which last year gathered 800,000 signatures in favour of holding a referendum for building a new nuclear power plant at Belene.

Under the Constitution, 500,000 valid signatures are needed to hold a referendum. The plebiscite on Belene was the first nationwide referendum in the country’s modern history.

The Socialists decision to hold the referendum was a response to the freezing of the construction at the Belene site last March. Prime Minister Boyko Borissov says the Belene plant would cost more than €10 billion, too high a sum for the struggling country. Some interpret Borissov’s move as an effort to reduce the country’s dependence on Russia for its energy.

Russia was expected to build the nuclear plant and supply the reactors.

According to opinion polls, the Socialists are the biggest power base among the supporters of nuclear energy in Bulgaria, estimated at 60% of the population.

Bulgaria’s first nuclear plant, at Kozloduy (see background), has been operational since 1974 and is reputed for providing inexpensive power and hard currency through exports.

Vote in the cold

The prime minister’s ruling GERB party was unable to stop the referendum, but it made sure it took place in January, the coldest month in Bulgaria, and removed the name ‘Belene’ from the referendum, which read: “Should nuclear power in Bulgaria be developed through the building of a new power plant?”.  

In such conditions, the referendum was seen by many as a test of public support for the policies of Borissov ahead of the parliamentary elections in July.

Socialist leader Sergei Stanishev, who is also president of the Party of European Socialists, called the referendum “successful” and said it had been “a powerful impulse for changing the political status quo” in the country.

Interior Minister Tsvetan Tsvetanov rejected the view that the referendum should be seen as a vote for or against Borissov. He accused the Socialists of organising an expensive party survey, estimating the cost at 20 million leva (€10 million).

Borissov said that if the turnout exceeded 20%, enough for Belene to go before parliament, GERB would reject the project again. His party controls a majority which is able to reject any motion from the opposition.

The Bulgaria for Citizens party of former EU Consumer Commissioner Meglena Kuneva, who according to polls may enter the next parliament, was strongly opposed to the referendum and had asked supporters not to vote. But opinion polls showed that most of Kuneva’s supporters also supported Belene.

According to opinion polls, the Socialists and GERB are neck-and-neck ahead of the July elections with about 20% of public support each.