Bulgarian referendum reflects uncertainty of nuclear power development

Bulgarians have postponed construction of a new nuclear power plant for an indefinite future, according to unofficial data released on Sunday evening after a low-turnout referendum held on this issue.

According to parallel vote tabulation conducted by Alpha Research agency, although 61 percent of the voters said “yes” on whether the country should build a new nuclear power plant, only 21.8 percent of Bulgarians with eligible voting rights went to the polls on Sunday, well below the required threshold of 60.2 percent.

The official results are expected to be released on Wednesday, and the issue now has to be discussed and voted in the parliament before any decisions can be made.

Construction of the 2,000-megawatt new nuclear plant at Belene was approved in 2005. The Russian company Atomstroyexport, an engineering branch of the state-owned Rosatom, won the bid to build the plant in 2006. However, the project was frozen after the GERB party came to power in July 2009.

The petition for the referendum was initiated last year by the main opposition, the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), after the GERB suspended construction of the country’s second nuclear plant.

“The issue is important to be solved because the safe operation term of the fifth and the sixth reactors of Kozloduy will expire in 2017 and 2021 separately,” said Vasil Tonchev, director of Sova Haris agency.

Bulgarian environmentalists gathered in front of the building of the parliament on Jan. 25 with dozens of lighted lanterns lined up in the form of the sign of radiation.

The representative of the Greens party said that they aimed to pray for the safety of the Bulgarian children and hoped they would never live through the catastrophy caused by the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine in 1986.

German MEP Rebecca Harms, co-president of the Greens-European Free Alliance, spoke at a briefing at the Council of Ministers after meeting with Bulgaria’s prime minister Boyko Borrisov on Jan. 24 that the construction of Belene will bring to Bulgaria high risks.

“It is not appropriate to build a nuclear power plant in the earthquake-prone region,” said Harms.

The development of nuclear energy in Bulgaria is stalled due to various political and economic interests of some leading powers in the world and there is indication that the problem will influence the domestic politics in Bulgaria before the parliament election this summer.

Sergey Stanishev, leader of the main opposition Bulgarian Socialist Party, said on a press conference last week that the referendum was a test for the government. He added that the government frequently changed its attitude on the project.

“The referendum itself is a reaction to the baseless, opaque decision of the Bulgarian authority.” said Stanishev. He also considered the turnout of the referendum as “start of change” against the ruling party GERB.

Besides the possible political influence of the referendum, there is also dispute on the economic future of the Belene nuclear plant.

The Belene nuclear plant project will lead to the “economic catastrophe in Bulgaria,”Ivan Hinovski, president of the Bulgarian energy forum, said at an interview with Bulgarian On Air.

Sergei Novikov from Russian company Rosatom, which won the bid to build the 2,000-megawatt nuclear power plant in 2006, said the cost proposed in 2010 to build Belene was 6.297 billion euros, while Borissov said Bulgaria should take 10 billion euros from the national budget to finish the project

The ambiguous construction pricing mechanism confused most of the Bulgarian voters. And the referendum seemed like to make a choice of which party you support for rather than a question of nuclear energy development.