When Chernobyl melted down in 1986 I was a thousand kilometres away, in Bulgaria. I was spending some of my happiest childhood moments at my grandparents' house. In step with the Communist and pro-USSR policy of the time, my mum, dad and sister were away on a trip to Kiev, now called Kyiv. Like all "ordinary" Bulgarians, we had no idea what was going on.
When my dad, a healthy and moderate man in every respect, suddenly got sick and died of cancer in 2007, Chernobyl was one of the demons we silently blamed for the nightmare. I admit it was the easiest thing to do – vengeance is part of human nature. Yet besides our anger, we had our arguments – the unofficial figures.
The full effect of Chernobyl on Bulgaria remains unclear, largely because of the information blackout the authorities imposed following Soviet orders. Yet the rise in cancer rates and genetic defects speaks for itself. The blackout hid thousands of deaths, while safety concerns turned the nuclear energy issue into a political one – in Bulgaria and across Europe. Twenty-two years after the Chernobyl disaster, Bulgaria is an EU member state – and one of Europe's most vocal proponents of atomic energy. The country, which satisfies a third of its power needs with nuclear energy, is drumming up support for re-opening of the two decommissioned reactors at the Kozloduy Nuclear Power Plant. It also plans to start construction on the Belene Nuclear Power Plant's two 1,000-megawatt reactors by the end of 2008.
The Kozloduy saga could be an article unto itself. In brief, as early as November 1999 it was clear that not only the ageing Reactors Nos. 1 and 2, but also 3 and 4 needed to be decommissioned. However, the sob stories of thousands of nuclear professionals from Kozloduy turned the once despised Soviet-built plant into a national cause. To no effect – Brussels does not believe in tears, to paraphrase the title of a Soviet film popular in Bulgaria in the 1980s. The EU firmly stood its ground, reiterating its commitment to pay for the decommissioning of the oldest units and the upgrade of Reactors Nos. 5 and 6, as well as the facilities envisaged in the 2007-2013 financial plan.
The flimsy arguments behind key aspects of the Belene project have raised doubts about the real reasons behind Bulgaria's enthusiastic pursuit of a nuclear future.
Bulgaria's Kozloduy Nuclear Power Plant used to cover 40 percent of the region's energy deficit. At the beginning of 2007, the country shut down the two Communist-era reactors in accordance with EU accession requirements – and it was forced to impose a ban on electricity exports.
"Bulgaria may soon turn into a disco! What more proof do you need that we must take urgent measures?" fumed President Georgi Parvanov in defence of the state energy policy.
Faced with this ominous prospect, Bulgaria – or rather the ruling Socialist-left coalition – set its hopes on an ambitious solution: the constructions of a second nuclear plant near the Danube town of Belene. The country is pushing the four billion euro project in a bid to restore its position as a major electricity exporter in the Balkans.
For Bulgaria nuclear energy is a solution to more than just the problem of climate change. Yet the project has come under fierce criticism, on both the domestic and foreign fronts, fanning heated controversy.
Key aspects of the Belene project lack transparency, triggering rumours of kickbacks to officials, shady contracts and well-connected contractors. The biggest question mark is what the price of electricity will be when the two 1,000 megawatt reactors come online in 2013 and 2014, respectively. The Bulgarian authorities and the Russian contractor have made controversial statements, while the way the price is calculated remains hazy at best.
The Russian contractor Atomstroyexport, which is controlled by Gazprom, won the tender for Belene with an offer for 3.5-3.7 eurocents per kilowatt. However, the price is expected to jump to 4.5 eurocents per kilowatt – even before construction starts. The rate is twice as high as the electricity generated by the Kozloduy Nuclear Power Plant and can hardly be competitive. How much will the Bulgarian consumer pay in the end? Nobody knows. As the economy and energy minister put it, "it's all a matter of market supply and demand".
The recent murder of an energy boss whose company was in charge of maintenance of the Kozloduy reactors gives new meaning to the term "forces of market supply and demand," as applied in Bulgaria. It fuelled suspicions that links between the mafia and the political system run deep in the energy sector. Reports surfaced about an intricate electricity price-calculation scheme that exploited corrupt practices during public procurement orders. The result? Artificially inflated prices for the consumer. When a similar electricity price-fixing scandal hit California, voters threw out the governor and elected ex-body building champion Arnold Schwarzenegger. But with ex-wrestlers already running the show in Bulgaria, where can Bulgarian voters turn?
The cost of the Belene project – which may well exceed six billion euros, making electricity exports unprofitable – comes next on the list of criticisms. But opponents, including politicians, economists and environmentalists, don't stop here. Other serious problems include the lack of public debate, questions over the extent of state-backed financial guarantees, environmental risks, the danger of seismic activity in the region and, last but not least, Bulgaria's dependence on Russia.
Belene is one of several huge energy projects that Bulgaria's Socialist-led government has used to tie Bulgaria very closely to Russia. The past and future of Bulgaria's foreign policy lurks behind such "business" initiatives.
Former Russian President Vladimir Putin clinched two of the most important deals – the construction of two 1,000-megawatt reactors by Russian contractor Atomstroyexport and the Burgas-Alexandroupolis pipeline during his visit to Bulgaria in January this year.
The people from the coastal town of Burgas were quick to slam the pipeline as "the new Chernobyl." Europe also wasted no time in passing its verdict – Bulgaria was turning into the Trojan Horse for Russia's energy policy in the EU.
Did Bulgaria really betray the EU by getting into bed with Putin? Absolutely, argues the rightwing opposition, which is fuming over the decision to stake the future of the new century's most important economic sector – energy – on Russia.
Definitely not, according to the government. The Socialist president and prime minister are trying to make their case, citing the involvement of European companies and going as far as claiming that Belene represents a step towards gaining independence from Russia, Bulgaria's main fuel supplier.
Yet, one would have thought that independence meant a variety of choices.