Bulgarians to vote for nuclear plant

Belene site.jpg

Bulgarians will vote on whether to build a new nuclear power plant in the Balkan country's first referendum since the fall of communism in 1989, Parliament has decided.

The government earlier this year abandoned a 2,000-megawatt nuclear project at Belene, citing a lack of Western investors. But Russian state firm Atomstroyexport, which had a contract to build the plant, last month demanded €1 billion in compensation for the cancellation.

The opposition Socialists demanded a referendum to challenge the decision to drop the project, which cost the government popularity against a backdrop of rising electricity prices and high unemployment in the European Union's poorest country.

Parliament voted 106-7 on Wednesday (24 October) in favour of a referendum. The Socialists didn’t take part in the vote, because they said the government had changed the referendum question.

The centre-right government of Boiko Borissov amended the question to be posed in the plebiscite. It will now ask, "Should we develop nuclear energy in Bulgaria by building a new nuclear power plant?" without mentioning Belene specifically.

The original question was: "Should we develop nuclear energy by building a new power plant at the Belene site?"

The referendum may well prove invalid because of a tough turnout requirement of matching the number of voters in the last parliamentary elections, or about 4.25 million out of a population of 7.3 million.

"It is a complete nonsense to expect that we will have that many people showing up at any referendum," said political analyst with Sofia University Rumiana Kolarova.

Many Bulgarians had hoped the Belene plant would help to restrain electricity prices. Bulgaria already has one operational 2,000 megawatt nuclear plant on the Danube River at Kozloduy which provides cheap electricity.

The president now has a month to set a date for the vote, which is most likely to be held in January.

Bulgaria has been heavily reliant on nuclear energy since the 1970s, when the Soviet-built Kozloduy nuclear power plant became operational. 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.

The Belene project became a priority of Socialist former Prime Minister Sergey Stanishev. After years of setbacks, Stanishev turned the first sod of the planned 2,000-megawatt Belene plant in September 2008.

However, current  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.

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