Russia to finish halted nuclear plant project in Bulgaria

Nuclear plant Belene, Bulgaria

Publish date: January 21, 2008

Written by: Charles Digges

In a weekend of high level power brokering with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Bulgaria’s National Electric Company (NEK) announced Russia’s Atomstroiexport, the foreign reactor building arm of Rosatom, will for EUR 4 billion ($5.9 billion) complete an unfinished nuclear power plant in the northern Bulgarian city of Beline, officials with NEK and Rosatom, Russia’s nuclear agency, said.

Russia is counting on the new nuclear plant deal – which was accompanied by Bulgaria’s support for Russia’s plans to build the South Stream gas pipeline to western Europe across it’s territory – as a major inroad into the apparently burgeoning market for nuclear reactors in Europe, Rosatom officials said. Officials with Atomstroiproekt and NEK expect the new plant to make Bulgaria one of Europe’s leading electricity exporters, analysts with the World Nuclear Association, an industry body, said.

Construction could begin as early as next year and the plant could be operational by 2012-2013, Atomstroiproekt said. The rapid prediction is based on the fact that the plant was under construction until 1990, when environmental protest ground the project to a halt.

Following Great Britain’s governmental green light for a raft of new reactors to be built in the coming decade, Europe’s major nuclear vendors are gearing up to build in England and anywhere else wanting the expertise. France has carved itself a market in the Middle East, where it is building a reactor for Libya and considering reactors in Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.

European Union (EU) diplomats have also said that countries on the continent are looking to revise their stances as well and will likely being reactor construction of their own.

Bellona is against further nuclear construction within the EU, especially since non of the gold rush plans, including the one announced by Bulgaria this weekend and Great Britain last week, include any feasible means for dealing with the nuclear waste that will arise. This is especially pressing for the Russian environment, as Moscow, which has already accepted spent nuclear fuel from the now-closed Soviet built Kozloduy plant for decades.

The Belene plant, as per Russia’s usual arrangement as builder and likely fuel supplies, will likely be sending its waste back to Russia as well. At present, Russia’s single operational reprocessing facility at Mayak cannot reprocess fuel from VVER 1000 reactors, meaning the Belene fuel will be shipped to Russia for what amounts to storage – adding to Russia’s indigenous 15,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel that has undergone no reprocessing nor put into permanent storage.

Bellona also considers the current surge in nuclear plans to be poisoned bait that governments are buying as a solution to carbon emissions and climate change. Yet none of the ambitious plans as yet unveiled would have even a minor effect on lowering carbon emissions as even the first plants will not be operational for several years – far after irreversible damage to the climate has occurred.

The world will then be faced with the double bind of defending against climate change and the growing and as yet unsolved problem of nuclear waste. This is an especially unreasonable approach given the volume of cheaper, climate friendly renewable technologies and efficiency strategies currently available.

Russia rolls dice for nuclear rebirth
Russia’s move over the weekend, however, shows that Moscow hopes to cast its lot with the nuclear renaissance.

The announcement of the Belene plant came a number of days after Bulgaria also said it was considering re-opening it’s aged Kozloduy plant, which it had to shut down as a condition of it’s membership in the European Union (EU), which it received last year.

The EU has already approved the plans for the Belene plant via the Euratom treaty. Under the deal, Atomstroiproekt will build two VVER-1000 reactors at the existing but empty site. Corsib, part of the Areva/Siemens consortium, will build the reactors’ control and automation systems, and as many as 100 firms in Russia will contribute. Atomstroiproekt will act as the main contractor.

The AES 92 model VVER-1000 reactor that Atomstroiproekt will now be building are a "unique combination of active and passive safety systems," officials said.

Russia is currently building the same reactor model in Kudankulam, India and two of the Russian-built units recently went online in Tianwan, China. The most notorious foreign building project for Russia is the complete of the AES 92 model VVER 1000 in Bushehr, Iran, slated to finally come online later this year after almost two decades of construction and political delays.

Second coming of Kozloduy?
It was not clear from reports from Bulgaria this weekend if Putin and his Bulgarian counterpart Georgi Parvanov discussed reopening two of Kozloduy’s four aged VVER 1000 reactors, which were switched off just hours before the country became a member of the EU on January 1st, 2007.

The matter is confirmed to be under discussion within Bulgaria, however, and would require consent from the 26-member EU.

"We are holding active diplomatic talks to achieve the necessary support to prolong the life of Kozlodui’s units 3 and 4," Bulgarian Prime Minister Sergei Stanishev told reporters last week, the Associated Press reported.

Stanishev did not elaborate but said reopening the reactors was a "clear political choice of the government."

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