Bulgaria's Safe Nuclear Power Deserves Justice

Views on BG | May 29, 2004, Saturday // 00:00| Views: | Comments: 0
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By John B. Ritch
International Herald Tribune

Surprising as it may seem, Bulgaria has emerged as a European energy powerhouse and a key supplier of cleanly generated electricity to its neighbors. Equally surprising - and disappointing - is the European Commission's effort to blackmail Bulgaria in a way that will undermine this capacity.

Exported Bulgarian kilowatts have become crucial for the countries of the former Yugoslavia, and Greece will need Bulgaria's cross-border transmissions in August during the Olympics. When last summer's heat wave hit southeast Europe, Bulgaria was the only country helping to offset regional shortages.

Half of Bulgaria's electricity comes from nuclear reactors, as compared to 30 percent in Europe overall. Among countries just joining or waiting to join the European Union, Bulgaria's nuclear sector is the largest. In recent years, Bulgaria upgraded this asset while instilling a rigorous safety culture. The International Atomic Energy Agency rates Bulgaria's nuclear standards and practices on a par with those in Western Europe.

Bulgaria's strategy also supports European goals on climate protection. Nuclear reactors produce virtually no pollution or greenhouse gases.

This energy success story owes much to EU aid and expertise. Bulgaria upheld its side of the bargain in 2002 by deactivating two old-model reactors to comply with EU demands. These reactors still produced electricity safely in large quantity, and shutting them was a painful sacrifice by the Sofia government on the road to EU partnership.

Now, however, the European Commission insists that two much newer power plants be shut down in 2006 - well short of normal life spans - as a condition of Bulgaria's scheduled accession to the EU in 2007. Construction of advanced replacement reactors will take at least until 2010, raising the specter of a serious energy gap that can only be filled, if at all, by burning high-carbon coal with a severe impact on human health and the environment.

Safety is not the real issue. None of Bulgaria's four operating reactors resembles the unsafe type involved in the 1986 accident at Chernobyl. IAEA inspectors have repeatedly concluded that Bulgaria's reactors meet "all contemporary requirements and best practices for safe operation of nuclear power plants" of their vintage.

Instead, the looming crisis arises from an arbitrary EU deadline that could rupture energy supply for Bulgaria and its neighbors and weaken Bulgaria's economy just as it enters the EU.

Five years ago, at an early stage of EU accession talks, Bulgarian negotiators accepted this closure schedule. But Sofia now seeks a pragmatic reconsideration based on new facts: Bulgaria's critical energy role and its proven record in nuclear safety. So far the European Commission has turned a deaf ear.

EU policy seems to emanate from the antinuclear environmentalist dogma that apparently infuses the team around the European Commission's president, Romano Prodi. This ideological mindset, more prevalent in Western Europe than elsewhere, is a liability for more than just Bulgaria. In an era of crucial environmental decisions, the myths and mantras of the militant green lobby continue to inhibit a serious analysis of Europe's genuine energy choices.

The 21st century's paramount challenge is to sustain modern societies while saving the global environment. Most energy analysts recognize that well-managed nuclear power has a central role in achieving this goal. This is well understood across Asia and informs policy in Washington and Ottawa, as well as in much of Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.

The same realization is also dawning again in a Western Europe that once welcomed, then doubted nuclear power. Finland and France are starting to build new reactors, public opinion in Switzerland and Sweden has swung back in favor of nuclear power, and even a majority in Germany now opposes Green-inspired plans for nuclear closures.

Meanwhile, having contemplated EU membership with pride in their national energy policy, Bulgarians ask why they are being discriminated against. Bulgarians' good will as prospective EU partners is being jeopardized by the EU itself. Bulgaria's is not a plea from special interests, but rather a national reaction to the commission's apparent determination to bully a small country. Such arbitrariness in Brussels compromises Europe's prospects for integration as well as its energy policy.

The current European Commission's mandate expires this spring. In the time remaining, Prodi and his team should seize the opportunity to review and resolve the Bulgarian impasse.

John Ritch, U.S. ambassador to the IAEA from 1993 to 2001, is director general of the London-based World Nuclear Association.
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