Belene, the nuclear power station that may not speak its name, was much mentioned in Bulgaria’s first live television debate in the campaign ahead of the January 27 2013 referendum on the future of nuclear power in the country. In fact, it was so much at the core of the debate as to underline the farcical nature of the claim that the referendum is about nuclear energy in general.
The Belene saga may have led to the referendum being held, but specific mention of the controversial project was excised from the phrasing of the question – the theory officially being that the issue is whether to further develop nuclear energy in Bulgaria by building further capacity.
The hour-long debate, on public broadcaster Bulgarian National Television on January 9, was not without its notable aspects.
First, the absence of an official representative of ruling party GERB, whose Cabinet in March 2012 officially scrapped the Belene project which in turn led the opposition socialists to gather signatures for a national referendum on the issue. After earlier mixed signals, GERB is officially favouring a “no” vote. The ruling party , in the form of Prime Minister Boiko Borissov, is arguing instead of further developing the existing Kozloduy nuclear power station.
This absence made, by default, the highest-profile participant in the debate Roumen Ovcharov, a senior figure in the Bulgarian Socialist Party, twice a cabinet minister, most recently as in charge of energy and economy in the 2005/09 tripartite coalition, an arch-advocate of Belene.
Two of the registered “no” groups were represented, with the most prominent role being played in the debate by lecturer Nadia Mironova, of Maria Cappon’s anti-Belene group.
To listen to Ovcharov, who came armed with little paper graphics that he held up to lure the lens, long familiarity with the Belene issue and long familiarity with the practices of Bulgarian debate (notably, loudly interrupting if it seemed anyone else was likely to make a telling point), Belene would be such a wonderful thing that every loyal Bulgarian should be rushing at once to the banks of the Danube, shovels, cement mixers and trowels at the ready.
Given that the parameters of the January 9 debate were economic issues (environmental aspects are due to be on the agenda in the next debate, on January 16), Ovcharov confined himself to those – he rattled off figures about the 10 000 jobs that would be created, the many billions of leva that a completed Belene would generate in electricity exports, the relatively cheap electricity it would mean for consumers, the foreign investors whose teeming masses would be wanting to get into the game.
Mironova and the other representative of the no camp, Dimitar Buchvarov, were having none of this.
Mironova cast herself in the role of an ordinary Bulgarian being asked to sign the bill for Belene. Belene would cost – one estimate said – 22 billion euro to build, and even with a foreign investor picking up half of that, Bulgaria would have to borrow 11 billion, she said. She flung question marks all over the studio, insisting that the real price of construction was not known, that there was no economic project, that there was no real guarantee of what electricity generated by Belene would cost consumers, just a motley collection of estimates vastly at variance with each other.
Mironova put it to Ovcharov that he and his party had been in power but had not built Belene: “there’s something wrong with this project,” she challenged.
Buchvarov’s arguments were similar, with Ovcharov disputing his figures all the way, but with Buchvarov adding the additional argument that Belene – initiated as a project in communist Bulgaria 30 years ago – represented the biggest corruption scheme in recent Bulgarian history and anyone voting yes was also voting yes to enormous opportunities for corruption.
Against Ovcharov’s argument that Bulgaria needed Belene to be economically competitive, Buchvarov said that Germany, Europe’s most powerful economy, had put a moratorium on nuclear power.
Ovcharov, insisting that the cost of Belene was three billion and not 11 billion (the debate was interspersed with arguments about what an HSBC report on Belene actually said) alleged that the current Ministry of Economy and Energy had “manipulated” figures and conclusions in the report and that his threefold challenges to current minister Delyan Dobrev in Parliament on this issue had gone unanswered.
The rules of the debate did not include an exit poll at its end; should sufficient Bulgarian voters feel moved to turn out on January 27 to vote on a question that those calling for a boycott decry as meaningless – about 4.3 million people would have to vote for the referendum to be valid – then there may be an answer. Or, if you prefer the it’s-better-to-boycott school of thought, there may not, and all that is happening on the last Sunday in January in Bulgaria is a 14 million leva opinion poll of questionable value.
(Photos: Clive Leviev-Sawyer)