Bulgarian Parliament drops Belene off nuclear referendum question

Written by on October 24, 2012 in Bulgaria, Business, News - No comments

Bulgarian MPs approved on October 24 the wording of the question for the plebiscite on the future of nuclear energy in the country, dropping, as expected, any reference to the controversial Belene project.

The question that will be asked at the referendum, to be held most likely in mid- to late-January 2013, is: “Should Bulgaria develop nuclear energy through the construction of a new nuclear power plant?”

The motion, whose wording was approved by the legal affairs committee last week, passed with 106 votes in favour and seven against. MPs from the two biggest opposition parties – Bulgarian Socialist Party and Movement for Rights and Freedoms – walked out prior to the vote in protest against the non-inclusion of Belene on the ballot.

The two parties have argued that the wording fails to reflect the wishes of those who signed the petition for the referendum. They have the option of referring the case to the Constitutional Court, but it was not immediately clear whether they would do so.

After the Cabinet decided to shelve the Belene project in March, the socialists spearheaded a large signature-gathering campaign for a plebiscite on the future of Belene. It gathered about 717 000 signatures, but 24 per cent were found to be invalid upon examination, still leaving more than 543 000, enough for the petition to be valid and force the Government to organise the referendum.

This will be Bulgaria’s first exercise in direct democracy since the fall of communism in 1989. The threshold for the validity of a referendum in Bulgaria is set based on recent election voter turnout, meaning that the plebiscite would require at least 60 per cent voter turnout to be valid.

Bulgaria signed a contract with Russia’s Atomstroyexport to build two 1000MW reactors at Belene in 2009, but it was never finalised because of disputes over cost escalation clauses. The costs were initially set at four billion euro, but a report by consultants HSBC, hired by the Cabinet to carry out a financial feasibility study, set the final bill at more than 10 billion euro, which led to the freezing of the project.

Atomstroyexport has since sued Bulgaria, demanding one billion euro in damages for equipment already ordered – even though Bulgaria’s Government said that it would use the equipment to build another unit at the existing Kozloduy nuclear power plant. The Cabinet hired US firm Westinghouse in August to carry out a feasibility study for the project.

(Belene nuclear plant site, screengrab from Bulgarian National Television.)

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