Bulgarian President Plevneliev: Referendum before Belene restart

Bulgarian President Rossen Plevneliev said on October 1 that the country’s MPs should focus on the national referendum on the future of the Belene nuclear power plant rather than negotiations with a prospective group of investors who declared their interest last week.

“As the president and as an engineer, I always seek the reason and ask myself basic questions, such as – we have more than 500 000 valid signatures for a referendum, therefore we must hold a referendum or democracy in Bulgaria will take a hit. We are already practically in the referendum procedure, so why are negotiations being held in Parliament with a last-minute arrival, a fund that is not a strategic investor,” Plevneliev said.

MPs were expected to vote later this week a motion that would give the Cabinet a mandate to discuss the sale of the Belene project to Global Power Consortium (as reported by The Sofia Globe in detail elsewhere). That motion has now been withdrawn.

Opposition socialists, who have made Belene’s restart a key objective in their electoral campaign ahead of next year’s parliamentary polls, have gathered more than 543 000 valid signatures in favour of a national referendum on Belene (the petition had a total 717 000 signatures, but a check showed 24 per cent to be invalid) – more than the half a million needed by law to begin preparations for a plebiscite.

“We must listen to the people and they want a referendum,” Plevneliev said. “I would be very happy if Parliament sped up the referendum procedure instead of starting talks with this uncertain financial and non-strategic investor, formulating the plebiscite question correctly and launching a national debate [on Belene],” Plevneliev said at the opening of the academic year ceremony at the Technical University in Sofia.

Just hours later, Prime Minister Boiko Borissov echoed Plevneliev’s words, saying negotiations with the group should be halted in order to hold the plebiscite as soon as possible. Previously, Borissov and his ruling party, GERB, were in favour of postponing the plebiscite so that it can be held alongside the parliamentary elections next summer, in order to save money.

But this could be an opportunity to test the electronic voting system, due to be implemented by spring next year, he said.

Asking the ‘right’ question
Borissov’s Cabinet has been at best a reluctant promoter on Belene – when HSBC, hired to evaluate the costs of financing and construction, estimated the cost at more than 10 billion euro, the Government pulled the plug on the project in March, which prompted harsh criticism from the socialists, the leading partner in the tripartite coalition that signed the Belene deal in 2008.

A final contract was never signed as neither the current government, nor its predecessor, reached agreement with contractor Atomstroyexport on the inflation escalation clauses before the project was shut down.

The socialists want Belene to be built, with the Bulgarian state taking a lead and maintaining a majority stake in the future plant; Finance Minister Simeon Dyankov, who has repeatedly stated his opposition to any sort of state guarantees for Belene, and his fellow Cabinet members see the only possible future for Belene as a private project.

Parliament cannot ignore the plebiscite petition, but it can amend the wording of the referendum question. The one suggested by the socialists is a straightforward “Should nuclear energy be developed in Bulgaria through the construction of a nuclear plant at Belene”.

The Cabinet and the parliamentary majority backing it favoured a more nuanced formula. Plevneliev – a former minister in the current Cabinet elected to the presidency on GERB’s ticket, but not a formal member of the party – argued the same case.

“It is very important how the question is asked, because the way it is formulated right now, it is misleading,” he said. “We should not hold a referendum for an individual project, but we can hold a referendum on the principle. Members of Parliament have the right and should, during their debate, formulate the right question.”

A right question, he said, would be asking whether Bulgaria should build new reactors or asking whether new reactors should be built at Belene or Kozloduy (the latter is the site of Bulgaria’s sole currently operational power plant).

This wider reach would negate the thrust of the socialist argument – building Belene – since the Cabinet already plans to use the equipment ordered for Belene to build a new unit at Kozloduy, and has already hired US firm Westinghouse to carry out a feasibility study.

Belene would benefit a tight group of electricity resellers, whereas investment in energy efficiency would be felt by millions of Bulgarians, Plevneliev said, re-iterating one of his declared priorities in the energy sector.

“Is it worth wasting 20 billion leva on a poorly-structured and expensive Belene project and leaving Bulgarians to live in their pre-fab buildings with high electricity bills? Electricity will become ever more expensive everywhere in the world and electricity produced at Belene will be even more expensive. Or should we start a national energy efficiency programme for those same pre-fab buildings and make Bulgarians richer by reducing their electricity bills in half?” Plevneliev said.

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



Alex Bivol

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