It was clear from the start that the first referendum held in Bulgaria since the fall of communism was going to be a farce. Last Sunday, January 27, the farce reached its conclusion.
Bulgarians expressed themselves on the issue of nuclear power by massively staying home. According to exit polls, only 21.8% participated. Of those, 61% voted YES and 39% NO. For the vote to count, 60% of eligible voters had to turn out. So, the poor turnout means the issue now has to be referred back to the Parliament.
The original referendum question, put forward by the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) last summer, was: “Should nuclear energy be developed in Bulgaria through the construction of the Belene nuclear power plant?”
The current governing party GERB's leader, Prime Minister Boyko Borissov – a competent populist and former body-guard – then gave the referendum a twist that can only happen in Bulgarian opera: He joined the initiative for a referendum, but changed the text: “Should nuclear energy be developed in Bulgaria through the construction of a new nuclear power plant?”
A little history. Currently, Bulgaria has two nuclear reactors at Kozloduy. Four were closed before the country’s EU entry because they were too dangerous. Nevertheless, Bulgaria is the second largest exporter of electricity in Central Europe. Building of the Belene nuclear power plant began in the 1980s but it was shelved in 1990 after severe protests about its safety and its costs.
In 2002, former king and then Prime Minister Simeon Saxecoburgotski restarted the project because he needed a nice issue for a dinner speech. The original contract with Atomstroyexport, the main construction arm of Russian state nuclear corporation Rosatom, of €4 billion appeared to be an understatement. First the strategic investor RWE, then later financial advisor HSBC, discovered the real costs would be over €10 billion.
This and heavy manipulation by Rosatom and state utility NEK was sufficient for RWE to walk away from the project in 2009. In March 2012, Prime Minister Borissov announced that Belene was cancelled.
And so Borissov's reformulation of the referendum question was a stroke of genius. Whatever the outcome, it would not change reality. Belene was not mentioned. The Bulgarian government states that it is not against construction of a new nuclear reactor at Kozloduy, as long as it is done without state money. No matter the referendum outcome, Borissov will be able to sell the status quo as fulfilling it.
And there the situation is clear: the government of GERB has a solid majority and will vote Belene down. What happens to Kozloduy will be left to private investors, which means there will be no new reactors. Nothing will change.
The only thing that has happened is that another €10 million – the costs of this completely superfluous referendum – has been taken from Bulgarian taxpayers and thrown into Belene's black hole. In Bulgaria, like everywhere else, nuclear power is above all a pocket-liner for political pundits and their friends.
What Bulgarians need is affordable and reliable energy services and that means support for energy efficiency (Bulgaria’s energy efficiency is three times lower than the EU average) and the development of renewable energy, for which the country has great potential. Belene is dead – time to build the future.
(Image ©Greenpeace / Denitza Petrova. The picture says 'Nuclear = danger, cost, corruption. Choose the alternative. Vote NO.')