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Bulgaria: Nuclear construction to re-start

The country is pressing ahead with plans to maintain its role as a regional electricity supplier. In November, the government signed a preliminary deal with Russia's AtomStroyExport to restart construction of the long-stalled Belene nuclear power plant.

AtomStroyExport, together with its partners, France's Areva and Germany's Siemens, saw off the other bidder in the tender – a consortium led by the Czech Republic's Skoda – to build and equip the nuclear power plant, which will comprise two 1 gigawatt (GW) reactors at a maximum cost of almost Euro4.0bn ($5.3bn).

Price was a main determining factor in the AtomStroyExport consortium's success – the cost of electricity produced, at Euro0.036-0.037 per kilowatt hour (kWh), compared favourably with the Skoda consortium's Euro0.040-0.043/kWh. AtomStroyExport is scheduled to finish the first reactor in mid-2013, with the second coming on line in 2014.

Another favourable aspect of the AtomStroyExport bid was that the Russian firm was prepared to dispose of all the old equipment delivered to the Belene site in the 1980s, before construction of the plant was frozen in the early 1990s following the collapse of the Soviet Union. According to experts, AtomStroyExport will find plenty of takers for this kit back home in Russia.

Additionally, AtomStroyExport proposed new AES-92 reactors, which are third-generation pressurised-water reactors – approved by the European Union (EU). The V-230s proposed by the Skoda consortium, on the other hand, use second-generation Soviet-era technology. Keeping the EU happy is a priority for Bulgaria, which joins the club this month. After all, it was the EU that insisted Bulgaria close the two oldest Soviet-vintage reactors at the country's sole nuclear power plant, Kozlodui, at the end of 2002, because of safety concerns. It also ordered the shut-down of the plant's newer Units 3 and 4 by the end of 2006.

It was the loss of Kozlodui – which produces well over 40% of the country's electricity – that forced the government to restart construction at Belene. As well as needing the electricity for domestic purposes, Bulgaria receives much-needed foreign currency from its role as an electricity exporter to countries in central Europe. With the closure of Kozlodui at the end of 2006, exports are forecast to drop from 8.0 terawatt hours (TWh) in 2005 to just 1.5 TWh this year.

Despite this, there are still grumblings about the project and the government's choice of contractor from both inside and outside the country. Inevitably, there are complaints from environmentalists. But there is also criticism from neighbouring Romania about whether it is wise to build another nuclear power plant on the river Danube, with some suggesting that the country should instead contribute to building more units at Romania's Cernavoda nuclear plant. Cernavoda uses Canadian technology, which to the EU is preferable to anything from Russia, given the region's desperate attempts to reduce its dependence on Russian energy supply.

But Bulgaria appears determined to move ahead with the project despite these worries. The next step for the government and national power company NEK is to find a strategic partner to help finance the project. NEK plans to sell on a 49% stake in the venture, retaining 51%. Interested parties are likely to include Italy's Enel, Germany's E.On, the Czech Republic's CEZ, and even Russian Gazprom.

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