Belene drama: Bulgarian Parliament sets up committee to probe feasibility of nuclear project

With Bulgaria now seemingly about three months away from a referendum on whether to go ahead with the controversial Belene nuclear power station project, Parliament voted on October 3 2012 to set up an ad-hoc committee to investigate the feasibility of building Belene.

The proposal was tabled by the centre-right ruling party GERB and the minority right-wing Blue Coalition and was approved by 112 votes to 19 with eight abstentions.

The committee is to investigate all facts and circumstances related to the project from 2002 to the end of March 2012 – the latter being the date when the current Government said that it was abandoning the project for once and for all. The multi-party committee will have a lifespan of two months.

This means that the Belene committee’s mandate is to investigate matters related to the Belene saga during three successive governments – those headed by former monarch Simeon Saxe-Coburg, the tripartite coalition that was in power from 2005 to 2009 with socialist leader Sergei Stanishev as prime minister, and the current government, headed by Prime Minister Boiko Borissov.

Given the ruling party’s recent flip-flopping on Belene, with the recent sudden emergence of a mystery US-based would-be investor being overtaken by moves to hold a referendum on Belene, the opposition socialists have been eager to exploit the issue, especially given next summer’s national parliamentary elections.

The Bulgarian Socialist Party initiated the referendum proposal, which gathered a sufficient number of legitimate signatures to prompt government agreement to go ahead with such a vote.

Bulgarian President Rossen Plevneliev said that he would decree the referendum as soon as the move was approved by Parliament. If Parliament approves the calling of a referendum, the President has a month to sign and promulgate the decree, but Plevneliev said that the country would not have to wait that long.

On October 3, Borissov – responding to allegations by the socialists that his government had driven away previous investor inBelene,Germany’s RWE – publicly ordered that it be clarified why RWE had quit its 49 per cent in the project.

RWE withdrew in October 2009, reportedly unhappy with a lack of transparency about the project. At the time of its withdrawal, Borissov’s government had been in power since July.

AUSembassy diplomatic cable posted on the internet by Wikileaks said that the Belene project was a “lemon”.

The cable, signed by then-US ambassador Nancy McEldowney and sent in February 2009, said that the relationship between the government (then headed by the socialists’ Stanishev) and RWE had broken down four months after RWE was brought on board.

“When Bulgarians talk about the Belene nuclear power plant, they increasingly do so in hushed tones. Issues of delays, financing woes, non-transparent horse-trading and side deals, Russian influence, middle-man rent seeking, and the interests of well-connected politicians and energy oligarchs inevitably come up,” the cable, posted by Wikileaks on December 20 2010, said.

On October 3 2012, Economy and Energy Minister Delyan Dobrev told a news conference that the reasons that RWE had withdrawn were quite clear – that no financing had been provided and no EPC contract had been signed.

The previous government held the negotiations, he said and added that the current government only received the company’s refusal.

The negotiations were underway for 16 months and if someone did not manage to provide these two things – financing and an EPC contract – you should ask the previous government why it had not done that, Dobrev said, quoted by local news agency Focus.

He added that there was no new information about the potential US investor in the project.

Negotiations with the prospective investor, Global Power Consortium, are on hold pending the outcome of the referendum.

A further factor emerged on October 3 regarding whether the referendum would be decisive on the long-standing issue. For the referendum to be valid, turnout would have to be a minimum calculated on the basis of voter turnout figures in Bulgaria’s previous two elections.

Should the referendum fail, it would be a further blow to the socialist circles who long have advocated the Russian-linked project.

Concidentally, the October 3 drama unfolded on the same day that the BBC, quoting leaks of a draft report due for release on October 4, said that hundreds of problems have been found at European nuclear plants that would cost 25 billion euro to fix, says a leaked draft report.

The report, commissioned after Japan’s Fukushima nuclear disaster, aimed to see how Europe’s nuclear power stations would cope during extreme emergencies.

The draft says nearly all the EU’s 143 nuclear plants need improving.Bulgariahas an existing nuclear power station at Kozloduy.

“On the basis of the stress test results practically all [nuclear plants] need to undergo safety improvements,” says the leaked draft. “Hundreds of technical upgrade measures have already been identified.

“Following the accidents at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, urgent measures to protect nuclear plants were agreed. The stress tests demonstrated that even today, decades later, their implementation is still pending in some member states.”



The Sofia Globe staff

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