text and photography by Anthony Georgieff

Failed Communist-era megaproject refuses to die


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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. 


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