In historic vote, Bulgarian voters back new nuclear plant

Stanishev votes in referendum.jpg

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.

No green party has ever made it to the Bulgarian Parliament in modern times.

Marina Dragomiretzkaya chairman of the Green Party, said:

“This referendum was a good exercise in direct democracy in Bulgaria, as it was the first referendum since 1971. The Green Party would have liked to see even more no-votes, and regrets that other political parties called for a boycott of the referendum. We hope we can work together with all who are against the Belene NPP to fight for a cleaner and healthier future.”

Georg Tuparev, chairman of the Greens, said:

“We are happy that the no-vote rose from 0% to 25% yesterday, but disappointed that only a little bit over 20% went to the polls. The referendum did help to generate interest for the topic of nuclear, which is something we have been advocating for a long time. We can now only hope that Parliament will vote no.”

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.

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. However, recently he opened the door to the Gazprom-favoured South Steam pipeline much to the surprise of his Western partners [more].

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