Russia strives to dust off nuclear plant it started building years ago in Bulgaria

radioactive symbol Radiation symbol. Credit: Nils Bøhmer

Bulgaria is moving to revive the Belene nuclear power plant seven years after the Russia project was cancelled due to funding shortfalls and concerns that the country was relying too heavily on energy produced by Moscow.

Earlier this week, Bulgarian officials announced that the project on the Danube would break ground in 2020-2021, according to a briefing that accompanied Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s visit to the capital of Sofia.

The 2-gigawatt plant was to have been built by Rosatom, Russia’s state nuclear corporation, but the project is now up for bid. Rosatom’s competitors to build the plant include China National Nuclear Corporation, France’s Framatome, Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power and GE of America.

But Russia is making a hard pitch to complete the plant it started building in 2009. The plant was sidelined in 2012 after Sofia came under pressure from the EU and the United States to limit its dependence on Russian energy.

After Medvedev appeared in Sofia for discussions on the plant, he addressed an EU gathering in Luxembourg, where he told those gathered that Russia was ready to “implement the project, no less than other countries,” according to Reuters.

Lesser ministers in the Russian government, such as First Deputy Chief of Government Staff Sergei Prikhodno, have made similar remarks to Russian official media in recent days.

The stoppage of work on the Belene plant was a bitter turn for Rosatom, which had already sunk some €620 million in construction in hopes of using Bulgaria as an EU-based showcase for its VVER-1200 line of nuclear reactors. As a result Russia sued Bulgaria for lost costs and won.

In 2018, however, the Bulgarian government had a change of heart toward the Belene plant and announced an open tender to complete its construction – and Rostam immediately announced it would take part.

But the Bulgarian government is pushing hard terms in its tender, which may not be to Rosatom’s liking. For instance, Sofia is demanding the prospective plant not exceed a cost of €10 billion, and that construction last no longer than 10 years.

Further, Sofia has said that it refuses to provide any state guarantees or long-term power purchasing agreements for any of the nuclear construction companies putting in bids. These refusals appear to be based on a nuclear plant Rosatom is building in Hungary, which is expected to come in at well over cost, and will be controlled by Russia for the first 50 years of its operation.

The Belene plants reactors are intended to replace four old Soviet-built units that were shut down more than a decade ago. Those reactors constituted part of the Kozloduy plant, which still has two of its original Soviet reactors in service. Those were built in 1987 and 1991, respectively and supply some 30 percent of the country’s electricity.