Bulgarians Vote for New Nuclear Power, but Referendum Is Not Binding
By Andrew MacDowall
Those (few)Bulgarians who made it to the polls in Sunday's referendum on nuclear power have voted in favour of further development.
The vote was a political exercise which is unlikely to lead to the building of new atomic plants any time soon. But it was an unusual show of support for the much-criticised industry. How many other European Union countries would have voted in favour?
Initial reports suggested that 60 per cent voted in favour of a new nuclear power plant (NPP), but that turnout was just over 20 per cent, meaning that the vote will be non-binding.
The referendum was forced by the opposition Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) after the right-wing government of Prime Minister Boyko Borisov scrapped the construction of the 2000MWBelene NPP on the Danube last year.
Belene, which has been planned since the 1970s, was already partly constructed, but Borisov pulled the plug citing high costs. Estimates suggested that the plant would require €10bn investment – around a quarter of Bulgaria's GDP. Furthermore, the project was being developed by Russian state-owned company Rosatom, leading to concerns about Moscow's influence in the energy sector in Bulgaria, already heavily dependent on Russian gas.
Construction had started under the previous BSP-led government, and the Socialists, struggling to gain traction in the polls, have rallied round the project. Borisov and his GERB party had urged a "no" vote, and the prime minister said that the meagre turnout had confirmed that Belene was a non-starter.
Constitutional rules mean that the referendum would only have been valid had turnout reached the same level as the last general election – around 60 per cent. Even then, it is far from certain that the Belene project would have been restarted. The government ensured that the wording was kept vague, not referring to Belene, but merely "building a new nuclear plant".
Some argued that this could potentially have included building new reactors at Bulgaria's existing NPP, down the Danube at Kozloduy, seen as a more cost-effective option. Two Soviet-era reactors at Kozloduy were closed in 2007 as a condition of Bulgaria's EU membership. At the time, the closure was deeply unpopular in Bulgaria. Indeed, Borisov, then mayor of Sofia, used to say that restarting the reactors should be the first priority of a new government.
Such is the popularity of nuclear power in Bulgaria. The Belene plant had widespread public support, though this has waned in recent years. Advocates argued that it could enhance Bulgaria's position as a regional energy exporter as well as boosting economic growth and bringing down domestic power prices, another sensitive political issue. However, with Bulgaria's budget constrained, and long-term power demand likely to be moderated by rising prices and a shrinking population, many analysts took the view that the new NPP was becoming- an expensive white elephant.
The BSP's decision to force a referendum that it knew would be at best inconclusive should be seen in the context of the forthcoming general election in July. As well as linking their party to a cause célèbre, the Socialists doubtless wished to highlight Borisov's indecision over Belene (and other policy areas) and paint him as out of step with public opinion.
The Socialists have probably succeeded in rallying their core supporters. But the lack of public enthusiasm for the referendum indicates that nuclear power is not the hot-button issue that it once was. And construction at Belene is no closer to being restarted.
"It is a mistake to expect that referendum will affect Bulgaria'snuclear program in any way," says Tomasz Daborowski, an energy analyst at Warsaw's Centre for Eastern Studies.
"First of all the campaign was highly-politicised and was more a political test before July's parliamentary elections than about deciding energy policy priorities. Secondly the referendum question was tricky and confused voters. It was not clear if voting "yes" meant building new nuclear power plant in Belene, or it meant continuing plans to build a seventh reactor in current at Kozloduy – the programme of the government.
"In a nutshell: there was a lot of fuss but right now we are back at square one. The direction of further development of the Bulgarian nuclear programme is still not clear."
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