BULGARIA: A Cold front on Europes horizon

Article published on Jan. 13, 2003
community published
Article published on Jan. 13, 2003

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Faced with a security-obsessed Europe Bulgaria is having to shut down some of its nuclear reactors. This is against the countrys best interests but will facilitate negotiations for European integration.

In a slightly abstract way nuclear power stations are, for us, sources of comfort which, for a reasonable price, heat millions of households. At the same time they also represent our societys vulnerability.

The Kozlodhui nuclear power station on the banks of the Danube has more than one safety option at its disposal. The first Soviet nuclear power station to be built outside the USSR, it was treasured from the start. Construction of reactors was spread out in stages between 1974 and 1991. The last two reactors, designed in the West with a capacity of 1000 megawatts each, are in the clear as far as safety is concerned. It is the third and fourth reactors, of a more limited capacity, which are threatened with closure in 2006, despite recent modernisation works. This does not seem to be a reasonable timetable.

"At Kozlodhui we are under strict surveillance from Vienna and we work with some of the most renowned nuclear energy experts. Few have the slightest doubt about the high standards of our installations and modernisation work" explains former chief of Bulgarian nuclear safety Mr Hristov. "Beyond our recent anti-terrorist measures, work carried out lately means that no leak can occur, even in the case of a very serious problem. Of course there is no such thing as zero risk, but our safety levels are comparable to those of American or French nuclear power stations. In some British nuclear power stations, reactors of a type much older than ours are in use and some of them have had their operating lives extended by thirty years, yet Britain is not being called to account."

In the case of Bulgaria, as the history of negotiations retraces perfectly, the closure of this nuclear power station has fast become one of the conditions to which Bulgarias accession into a security obsessed EU is subject. Many view the European inspection of the nuclear power station, scheduled for 2003, as a mere formality that will not affect the decision. The fact that Slovakia and Lithuania were able to negotiate extended deadlines for the closure of their nuclear power stations means that European concern and pressure lose credibility. These two countries lie on Europes doorstep however, and it is likely that these deadlines could be pushed back further if necessary. For Bulgaria the Kozlodhui issue is like a bargaining chip high stakes for something rather vague.

Chain reactions have been set off in a Bulgarian society alarmed by news of this scheduled cold, or rather by the prospect of a dramatic unfreezing of consumer costs which in 2007 would transform Bulgaria into a major energy importer. Right now Bulgarias resources from Kozlodhui allow the country to export to Turkey, Greece and Albania. Bulgaria is being assured that between now and then the resulting lack of energy will be compensated for by the Béléné nuclear power station (but that will not be in operation until 2008 at the earliest), the Arda project (although here nothing is possible without Turkey), and new energy sources (which are hypothetical). These declarations barely mask ill-prepared and blinkered policy for integration at any cost.

Ever since the Prime Minister announced the 2006 closure date, going against expert advice and without parliamentary consultation, which could have been a winning move in itself, government policy has not been able to dispel a certain frustration. Of course Europe means shared sovereignty, but the sudden removal of such a distinctive emblem of a nations sovereignty control over its own energy is rather humiliating, especially as behind the chorus of European safety concerns, secretly sustained by fear stemming from Chernobyl, complex interests are emerging.

Even though it is difficult to make clear predictions at this stage, it is manifest that closing down reactors three and four will leave the door open for energy multinationals who have already got more than one eye on the burgeoning Balkan market, and on Turkey with its enormous consumer potential.

Until now Bulgaria has not been given a date for entry into the EEC. Bulgarian policy seems to conform only too well with European requirements and receives nothing in return. The fate of Kozlodhui reflects this diplomatic imbalance, and will, exceptional circumstances aside, close in 2006. Closure in exchange for integration, once achieved, would have made a good deal, but this has been a missed opportunity to exploit the cold fusion between Europes fears and interests and turn an unfavourable deal to the countrys advantage.