Bulgarian PM fires minister, plans to buy Russian reactor

Belene.jpg

Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borrisov has fired a key minister and announced today (16 March) that the country would buy a Russian nuclear reactor. In previous statements, Borissov has strongly opposed further Russian nuclear energy projects.

In a surprise move, Borissov fired Economy and Energy Minister Traycho Traykov and announced that his country would buy the Russian reactor commissioned for the Belene Nuclear Power Plant that is now under construction.

He added, however, that the unit could instead be installed at the existing Kozloduy nuclear plant which now has two functioning reactors (see background).

The developments appear as a showdown after a protracted period, in which Borissov made noises that he was receptive to the advice of his government's allies in Brussels and Washington, who warned that the project will deepen Bulgaria's energy dependence on Russia.

Bulgaria depends on Russia for 89% of its petrol, 100% of natural gas and 100% of the nuclear fuel needed for its Kozloduy power station. Another reactor is planned at Belene, also with Russian technology, but the project has been frozen over a payment dispute.

Japan's Fukushima nuclear disaster last year prompted Sofia to invoke the need to review safety issues and clarify the conditions of Russian funding for the Belene project.

Environmentalists and lobby groups are staunchly opposed to completing the Belene plant. In contrast, Kozloduy – where four of six reactors have been decommissioned with EU support – has been relatively uncontroversial.

Borissov reacted strongly against a statement by Martin Dimitrov, leader of the small opposition SDS (Union of Democratic Forces), who said that Traykov had been the only safeguard against building the Belene power plant.

The prime minister argued that since Bulgaria had already paid two-thirds of the reactor's price, the best solution was to pay the outstanding amount and to make use of the unit. He also insisted that locating the new reactor at Kozloduy was his idea.

Campaigners against Belene said the developments indicate that Borissov has backed down and that the new power station will be built according to Russia's wishes. 

Bulgaria has been heavily reliant on nuclear energy since the 1970s, when the Soviet-built Kozloduy nuclear power plant became operational. But, under pressure from the EU during accession negotiations, the country agreed to close down four of the plant's six units with EU support.

Before its last units were shut down, Kozloduy produced 44% of the country's electricity, 20% of which was exported. This gave Bulgaria a strategic position in the region, which it has now lost. 

In this context, the Belene project became a priority under the previous government of Socialist Prime Minister Sergey Stanishev. After years of setbacks, Stanishev turned the first sod of the 2,000 megawatt Belene plant in September 2008.

However, new Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov said he would not move on any major energy projects with Russian participation negotiated by previous governments without the green light of the country's Western partners. Besides Belene, the projects in question are the South Stream gas pipeline project and the Burgas-Alexandroupolis oil pipeline.

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