As the global nuclear energy industry at present is recovering from the potential death blows of the 11 March 2011 earthquake and subsequent tsunami that destroyed Japan’s six reactor Fukushima Daiichi nuclear complex, the battleground for nuclear power’s future seems increasingly to be shifting to Central and Eastern Europe. There, a legacy of aging Soviet reactors, allied to EU and NATO membership is heightening tensions between governments increasingly torn between Communist-era policies and a non-nuclear future.
Nowhere are the battle lines more starkly drawn than in Bulgaria, where the International Atomic Energy Agency has recommended several improvements to Bulgaria's sole remaining nuclear power plant at Kozloduy.
The fly in the ointment?
Bulgaria’s president Rosen Plevneliev, who stated that he will vote against the proposed building of a second Bulgarian NPP at Belene at the upcoming 27 January 2013 referendum.
On 27 January Bulgarians will vote on a referendum asking them to decide, "Should Bulgaria develop nuclear energy through the construction of a new nuclear plant?"
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In the meantime, international heavyweights have added their voices to the question of upgrading Bulgaria’s Kozlody NPP, with the International Atomic Energy Agency having recommended several improvements to the Kozloduy NPP. The IAEA said, “Severe accident management guidelines have not been created for situations that involve open reactor conditions or spent fuel ponds. Analyses of the cause of events are not always performed in a thorough and timely manner to prevent the recurrence of events related to human performance" before adding that the IAEA investigative team has also "identified good practices used at the plant that will be shared by the IAEA with the nuclear industry worldwide.”
The referendum is hardly insignificant, as currently only Kozloduy NPP’s 1,000 megawatt units 5 and 6 are operational. Bulgaria agreed to shut down the site’s 440 megawatt units 1-4 in 2002 and 2006 as part of its European Union accession talks under pressure from Brussels.
So, who’s behind the vote?
The opposition Bulgarian Socialist Party, which was in power when the latest move to restart building the 2,000-megawatt Belene NPP was made seven years ago, following an international tender to choose a builder, which was won, not surprisingly, by the Russia Federation's state nuclear firm Atomstroiekhsport, which officially began building the plant in September 2008, 27 years after the site was originally approved in 1981, during the Soviet era.
At lot has changed since then, not least Bulgaria’s entry into both the EU and NATO, as well as Atomstroiekhsport’s shrinking order book.
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Looking forward to next month’s vote, many analysts believe that there is little that the referendum ultimately accomplish except to keep the Belene NPP project and its concomitant costs in a time of fiscal austerity in the public’s awareness in advance of the upcoming general election, scheduled for the summer of 2013.
Unlike many Western European countries, nuclear energy is hardly at present a burning issue in Bulgaria - a poll conducted last month by Bulgaria’s National Public Opinion Centre found that a paltry 7 percent of respondents said they were well informed about matters of nuclear energy and search both the local media and the Internet for information on the subject, while of those who intend to vote in the referendum, 62.5 percent said they would vote “yes” and 37.5 percent would vote “no.” Meglena Kuneva, leader of the party Bulgaria for Citizens Movement, says the high level of public support for nuclear power shows what a "meaningless" referendum it will be, commenting, "It is clear that people here generally support nuclear energy… The opinion of the majority of Bulgarians is clear and there was never ever doubt about it. There is no conflict in the public opinion, so there is no need for them to ask us whether we want to have nuclear energy or not."
So, an indifferent electorate, a president in opposition, and billions of dollars at stake – place your bets.
By. John C.K. Daly of Oilprice.com