Bulgarian socialists file Belene referendum petition

Bulgarian socialists have filed in Parliament on July 27 a petition, which they claimed was signed by 773 447 people, in support of a nationwide referendum to test public support for the construction of the country’s second nuclear power plant at Belene on the Danube River.

Bulgaria signed a contract with Russia’s Atomstroyexport to build two 1000MW reactors at Belene in 2008, when the socialists were the leading partner in the country’s tripartite governing coalition.

The current Cabinet of Prime Minister Boiko Borissov adopted a more lukewarm stance to joint energy projects with Russia, previously championed by the socialists, when it took office in 2009. It scratched the project for a oil pipeline linking Bourgas to the Greek town of Alexandroupolis, bypassing the busy Bosphorus, last year and then shelved the plans to build Belene earlier this year, after a report by financial consultants HSBC estimated construction costs to exceed 10 billion euro.

In the wake of the Cabinet’s decisions, the socialists initiated the petition for a referendum. Under Bulgarian law, any petition found to have gathered more than 500 000 valid signatures, has to go to Parliament, which can then amend the question of the referendum, but cannot block the plebiscite from going through.

The question in the socialists’ petition is “Should nuclear energy be developed further in Bulgaria through the construction of a nuclear power station at Belene?”

Parliament will now have to be sent to the Civil Registry office for verification before the petition is filed for debate on Parliament floor. According to reports in Bulgarian media, ruling party GERB will exercise its option to change the formulation of the plebiscite question to ask voters whether they agreed that the state Budget should spend 10 million euro to build a second nuclear power plant.

The parliamentary debate on the petition could be held as early as late September, with the referendum then to be held before the end of the year, making it the first nationwide plebiscite held by Bulgaria since the fall of communism in 1989. In 2008, a regional referendum on the Bourgas-Alexandroupolis planned pipeline was held in Bourgas region, but low turnout invalidated the outcome, with the majority of voters rejecting the project.

For the nationwide referendum to be considered valid, turnout must be higher than at the previous parliamentary elections. That would require the plebiscite turnout to top the 60 per cent figure registered at the 2009 elections, which, opinion polls suggest, was a long shot.

Economy Minister Delyan Dobrev described the prospective plebiscite as a “free public opinion survey” meant to gauge the socialist party’s support ahead of parliamentary elections in 2013.

The question formulated in the petition was misleading, he said. “People should know that we still do not know how much this project will cost. In the best-case scenario, that is 10.35 billion euro. We have no strategic investor or financing,” Dobrev told reporters at a news conference called after the socialists filed their petition.

“If all those 800 000 people are in favour of a nuclear plant at Belene, are they prepared to put up 25 000 leva to 30 000 leva each? This is, roughly estimated, how much each of them should contribute for Belene to be built,” Dobrev said.

Even then, that would not mean free electricity for all. “They would just be shareholders in this power plant and still have to pay for their electricity,” Dobrev said.

(Bulgaria’s sole nuclear power plant at Kozloduy. Photo: uvioc/flickr.com)



Alex Bivol

Alex Bivol is the Deputy Editor-in-Chief of The Sofia Globe.