Bulgaria has plans to finish a nuclear power plants by 2016. Government officials say the facility, located on a geologic fault, can withstand the region's seismic activity. Environmental protection groups disagree.
After 30 years, the Belene nuclear plant still isn't finished
The nuclear crisis in Japan dampened the nuclear euphoria that had taken over much of Bulgaria, but only slightly.
Despite criticism for environmental groups, the government announced plans to learn from the disaster in Japan, while continuing its search for investors to fund a nuclear power plant in Belene, an earthquake-prone region on the border with Romania.
"It's not as seismic as Japan, but there are some problems in this direction," Sergey Tzotchev, chairman of Bulgaria's nuclear regulator, told reporters in Brussels, adding that safety plans call for the facility to be capable of withstanding a 7.0 magnitude earthquake.
But environmental groups want much more than reconsideration. They said plans for the construction of a 1,900 megawatt nuclear energy plant were approved by the European Union but based on faulty information and should be scrapped.
"We still see in the case of Belene that the European Commission is relying on bad data and that the Commission accepted a statement saying that there was no seismic risk in northern Bulgaria," said Greenpeace nuclear campaigner Jan Haverkamp.
The Belene plant is not designed to withstand a quake like the one that shook Japan
Two years ago, however, the region suffered a 5.3-magnitude earthquake and another quake rocked the region in 1977 and killed 120 people.
A report by the World Nuclear Industry in 2008 stated that documents filed to the European Union did not "contain adequate information on the seismic conditions." Additional planning work, however, went ahead.
Plans for the Belene plant originated in the 1970s but were put on ice by the fall of communism in 1990.
Bulgaria announced its intent to restart construction in 2003 and a contract was awarded to the Frano-German consortium Areva. But work was halted again in 2009 when the newly elected conservative government feared too great of a Russian influence on Bulgarian energy supplies.
Doubtful energy independence
In 2007, Sergei Stanishev, Bulgaria's prime minister at the time, said, "Bulgaria's choice of building the Belene nuclear power plant is first and foremost a choice in favor of energy independence from fossil fuel supplies, which come precisely from Russia."
The Bulgarian state-owned electricity company NEK, however, awarded a construction contract for the 6.8 billion euro ($9.5 billion) power plant to a Russian firm controlled by energy giant Gazprom.
"Every project has to be evaluated on its own, but we think that investment [in the Berlene plant] will definitely pay off," Bulgarian nuclear power lobbyist Tanya Nikolova said.
Two nuclear reactors deliver about 35 percent of Bulgaria's electricity
Scheduled to be completed by 2016, if the facility is built, the power plant would be the first Russian-made nuclear facility in the European Union.
But doubts remain as authorities continue looking for Western investors participate in the site's construction and funding. German utility company RWE abandoned its stake in the Belene plant in 2009, saying the project's funding was unclear.
After shutting down two of the four reactors at the Kozloduy nuclear power plant, Bulgaria's only other nuclear facility, in order to join the EU, Sofia has said it will not shutter the remaining 1,000 megawatt reactors ahead of their scheduled switch-offs in 2017 and 2019.
Author: Andreas Meyer-Feist, Sean Sinico (Reuters, AFP, dpa)
Editor: Cyrus Farivar