WHAT IS 'NPP BELENE'?

WHAT IS 'NPP BELENE'?

Fri, 10/30/2020 - 12:10

Failed Communist-era megaproject refuses to die

040508-7373.jpg
The entrance to the never-constructed Belene Nuclear Power Plant The Bulgarian letters spell out NPP, or Nuclear Power Plant

Whichever Bulgarian government translator devised the incomprehensible acronym "NPP" could have had little idea that those three letters would live on in many Bulgarians' consciousness for longer than the thing they were supposed to signify. To speakers of English, NPP stands for Nuclear Power Plant, a literal translation of the Bulgarian АЕЦ. Understanding why that acronym has been so important to Bulgarian politics both prior to and after the 1989 collapse of Communism will entail knowledge of both the background and the current state of the debate about the town of Belene, on the River Danube – and the perceived future of Bulgarian nuclear power engineering.

The Belene NPP in fact started as early as 1981, when the Todor Zhivkov government issued a decree ordering Bulgarian workers to start the construction of a second nuclear power plant in Bulgaria.

It would be impossible to make sense of the story of Belene without referring to its older brother, the first Bulgarian nuclear energy project at Kozloduy, a few miles upriver. The Kozloduy Nuclear Power Plant has been operating since 1974. Communist propaganda at the time portrayed it as a huge feat of Soviet-style nuclear power engineering and a commendable bid by Bulgaria to start generating on its own the electricity it needed. What the agitprop apparatchiks at the time did not divulge to the general public was that the power plant, constructed entirely with Soviet equipment and by nuclear engineers invited from the Soviet Union, would make this country almost completely dependent on Soviet supplies and expertise.

Belene

The European, Bulgarian and... Russian flags in central Belene next to a billboard picturing what the Belene NPP would have looked like

Kozloduy sported four Chernobyl-type 440 MW VVER reactors. The power it generated was efficient and presumably cheap. Bulgarians paid little attention to it as long as it sent electricity to their homes. Those were the days when the economic crisis of the 1980s was still in its early stages, and the massive political upheaval spawned by the 1984-1985 forcible Bulgarisation of Bulgaria's ethnic Turks was yet to come. So was the unusually harsh winter of 1985, when sections of the Black Sea froze over, and the ships carrying coal from Soviet Ukraine were stranded. As a result the whole of Bulgaria was plunged into electricity rationing. At the time the Kozloduy NPP looked like a viable alternative that would defy both Cold War politics and the cold climate.

But then came Chernobyl, in 1986. Notoriously, the Bulgarian government followed the example of the comrades in Moscow and lied to its people about the nuclear fallout and all the dangers it entailed. In all major cities Bulgarians were made to march in 1 May Labour Day rallies without any protection – and under some radioactive rain. The apparatchiks themselves were being treated to specially prepared meals and iodine tablets, and so were the senior army officers.

Belene

Putting the cart before the horse: A housing estate called Dimum was erected for the would-be Belene employees before the nuclear power plant had any employees. It has been decaying under the elements since the late 1980s

When Communism collapsed three years later the very mention of Kozloduy provoked disquiet, even outrage. The overwhelming majority of newly democratised Bulgarians considered the NPP to be a leftover of a ramshackle Soviet-era factory. The European Community, which Bulgaria was aiming to accede to in those years, thought the same. Various inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency revealed the Kozloduy reactors lacked basic safety standards and procedures. In fact, decommissioning of Kozloduy's reactors was posed as a condition to beginning membership negotiations.

At approximately the same time Bulgaria's nuclear lobby realised that if that happened it would sound the death knell for the Bulgarian nuclear power engineering effort it was making money out of. A huge propaganda campaign in defence of the Kozloduy NPP was set in motion. With hindsight, it was probably one of the most successful publicity stunts in Bulgaria ever. Over the course of just a few years public opinion in this country swayed from condemning Kozloduy as a dangerous powder keg full of plutonium to considering it a symbol of Bulgarian national pride. Whoever opposed Kozloduy, the new masters of agitprop maintained, opposed "Bulgarian national interests" and were attempting to derail "Bulgaria's bid to become a power engineering hub in the Balkans." In those years the term "fake news" was yet to be devised, but what the NPP publicists made much of was how much money Bulgaria would be losing if it did decommission the Kozloduy reactors. No one knew how much money it would actually "lose," as no one knew how much the Kozloduy Nuclear Power Plant had cost to construct in the first place. The Communist-era economy, with its odd system of convertible versus non-convertible currencies and the influx of "friendly" labour from as far away as Cuba and Vietnam, was totally inconsistent with the market concepts of the 1990s.

Belene

Not very high-tech equipment at Bulgaria's second NPP

Bulgaria did decommission the Kozloduy reactors in the 2000s and successfully joined both NATO and the EU, but the 1981 project for the Belene NPP quietly lived on in the background.

Back in 1981, the Communist-era planners envisaged Belene as having four WWЕR-1000/V 320 reactors. Atomenergoproyekt-Kiev started the Belene NPP construction in 1987. A huge hole was dug in the ground at Belene, an area of seismic activity. It was supposed to be the foundation of the would-be nuclear power plant.

Todor Zhivkov was ousted from power in late 1989. Several months later all activity at Belene was halted.

But the Belene NPP project did not die. Throughout the years governments of various shades and hues have taken up the issue of the would-be nuclear power plant. They had various ideas, various intentions and proffered various solutions how to fulfil the 1981 project. In 1991, the caretaker government of Dimitar Popov, which was dominated by former Communists, decided to officially suspend the project. In the late 1990s, the rightwing government of Ivan Kostov decided to resuscitate it, citing the millions of dollars already spent on it. The revival effort was picked up by the subsequent government of Simeon Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, the last Bulgarian king, who was elected this country's prime minister in 2001. Saxe-Coburg-Gotha officially announced the restart of Belene in 2005, and promptly issued a public tender to select contractors. The bid was won by a Russian company, Atomstroyexport. The would-be investors included the German RWE and the French BNB Paribas.

Belene

A road sign along the access to the Belene construction site

The Germans left the project in 2009. Boyko Borisov became prime minister that same year. In 2010 he visited the site, and infamously commented that the "frog pond" that the original hole in the ground had turned into had cost as much as 800 million leva. In fact, the money Bulgaria had spent on Belene up to that point amounted to as much as 3 billion leva. Borisov vowed to continue with the project, provided a "European investor" was identified.

In 2012, Borisov suspended the Belene project citing lack of investors. It appeared the Belene NPP was doomed for good.

However, the following year the Bulgarian Socialist Party initiated a referendum to inquire whether Bulgarians would support "the continued development of Bulgarian atomic energy by constructing a second nuclear power plant at Belene." The answer was a resounding yes, but as the turnout was too low the referendum failed to gain legally binding status and reverse the Borisov decision. Atomstroyexport sued for breach of contract, and in 2016 Bulgaria coughed up damages of 602 million euros for work never done.

Belene

A self-explanatory sign in central Belene

Wrangling over the fate of Belene continued. In 2018 a Chinese company, CNNC, expressed interest in taking over the site. Boyko Borisov then came up with a novel idea: to complete the project but turn it into a pan-Balkan one, with the involvement of Serbia, the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia and Greece. The National Assembly got involved and approved yet another restart of the project: a reincarnation of the pan-Balkan "energy hub."

Nothing significant has happened since then. The "frog pond" Boyko Borisov described in his inimitable style back in 2010 is still there, on the outskirts of nondescript Belene. Bulgaria continues to be almost entirely dependent on Russian supplies for its energy needs. And the general public becomes increasingly cynical as it considers any continued debate about Belene just empty talk designed to prolong its agony providing Bulgaria's kleptocracy with ample opportunities to continue to steal. 


us4bg-logo-reversal.pngVibrant Communities: Spotlight on Bulgaria's Living Heritage is a series of articles, initiated by Vagabond Magazine, with the generous support of the America for Bulgaria Foundation, that aims to provide details and background of places, cultural entities, events, personalities and facts of life that are sometimes difficult to understand for the outsider in the Balkans. The ultimate aim is the preservation of Bulgaria's cultural heritage – including but not limited to archaeological, cultural and ethnic diversity. The statements and opinionsexpressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the America for Bulgaria Foundation and its partners


Issue 169 Communism The Danube

Commenting on www.vagabond.bg

Vagabond Media Ltd requires you to submit a valid email to comment on www.vagabond.bg to secure that you are not a bot or a spammer. Learn more on how the company manages your personal information on our Privacy Policy. By filling the comment form you declare that you will not use www.vagabond.bg for the purpose of violating the laws of the Republic of Bulgaria. When commenting on www.vagabond.bg please observe some simple rules. You must avoid sexually explicit language and racist, vulgar, religiously intolerant or obscene comments aiming to insult Vagabond Media Ltd, other companies, countries, nationalities, confessions or authors of postings and/or other comments. Do not post spam. Write in English. Unsolicited commercial messages, obscene postings and personal attacks will be removed without notice. The comments will be moderated and may take some time to appear on www.vagabond.bg.

0 comments

Add new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.

Restricted HTML

  • Allowed HTML tags: <a href hreflang> <em> <strong> <cite> <blockquote cite> <code> <ul type> <ol start type> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd> <h2 id> <h3 id> <h4 id> <h5 id> <h6 id>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • Web page addresses and email addresses turn into links automatically.

Discover More

communism bulgaria political prison belene.jpg
DARK TALES IN BELENE
Belene is a backwater of a town on the Bulgarian bank of the River Danube. It is inhabited by less than 8,000 people. Yet, for more than one reason, its name is known to all Bulgarians.

Petrified Wedding in the Rhodope
QUIRKY ROCKS OF BULGARIA
The ability to spot visual patterns in seemingly chaotic landscapes, preferring false positives to false negatives, has been cruciвal for the survival of the human race.

palace remains
BULGARIA'S FIRST CAPITALS
If power and the economy were gravity, the gravitational centre of modern Bulgaria would be Sofia, where the population and the important agencies of the state, economy and culture are located.

ancient and medieval fortress matochina night
BULGARIA'S TOP 10 FORTS
Castle-wise, Bulgaria is nothing to compare with Scotland – and many other European countries. There is little reminiscent of Transylvania's menacing fortifications, Bavaria's fairy tale confections, or the Loire Valley's romantic châteaux.

Monument to Father Paisiy in the centre of Bansko, his supposed birthplace
WHO WAS FATHER PAISIY?
The Revival Period. Any visitor who has been to Bulgaria for more than a couple of days for business and/or pleasure has heard this combination of words, but what does it mean?

stunning stone pyramids bulgaria
PINNACLES OF LEGEND
We often take landscapes for granted: the mountains and the river valleys we love to look at and explore seem immune to the passage of time, eternal and unchanging, even though we know this is not true.

gods bridge
FINDING GOD'S BRIDGЕ
It is easy to say that the Bulgarian Northwest has been forgotten by God. Economically depressed and depopulated, it has for years consistently topped the EU's least developed regions list.

beautiful dam bulgaria
BULGARIA'S SPECTACULAR MANMADE LAKES
Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, industrial development has taken its toll on communities and landscapes. Polluted air, water and soil, the destruction of nature and a decimated biodiversity are all its consequences.

woodrow willson monument bulgaria sofia
WOODROW WILSON COMES TO SOFIA
Seen from a US standpoint, the 28th American President is usually being put in the "upper tier" of US leaders despite criticism of his propagation of racial segregation.

urbex bulgaria cold war radio jamming site
COLD WAR REMAINS AT PADARSKO, BULGARIA
If you ever find yourself in the Thracian Plain northeast of Plovdiv, Bulgaria's second largest city that holds many enticements to both expats and casual visitors alike, you will probably be bored.

bishops basilica of philippopolis mosaics
FIVE STUNNING EARLY CHRISTIAN CHURCHES
Early Christian communities appeared in the Balkans as early as the middle of the 1st century. A couple of centuries later, there were so many followers that dozens of them were martyred for their faith during Roman persecutions.

Bulgarian Black Sea beaches
BULGARIA'S WILDEST BEACHES
Anyone who's visited Sunny Beach or the stretch of coast south of Sozopol will be amazed: Bulgaria's Black Sea shore, actually, is not just a concrete jungle dotted with multi-storey hotels, casinos and bars.