(This post is by Jan Haverkamp, Greenpeace expert consultant on nuclear energy)

“You are far too optimistic! This is Bulgaria!” I can’t count how often I got this remark from one of my Bulgarian friends over the last 10 years. But 10 years after former Bulgarian king Simeon II and then Prime Minister Simeon Sakskoburggotski (Saxe-Coburg-Gotha) ended a dinner with the remark that it was time to revive the Belene project, this symbol of nuclear megalomania has finally been removed.

Occupation of a watch tower on the Belene site with the mothballed construction in the background that was stopped in 1992 and was to be torn down completely in 2009. - (c) Greenpeace / Prochazka

Occupation of a watch tower on the Belene site with the mothballed construction in the background that was stopped in 1992 and was to be torn down completely in 2009. - (c) Greenpeace / Prochazka

The King's remark was quite unexpected by the small Bulgarian environmental movement at the time. The Belene project started in the mid-1980s and during the 1989 revolution it became clear that it was built on quicksand: Russian engineers had warned that the seismic risk was too high for a nuclear power station, an argument the communist Bulgarian Academy of Science waved away. A 412-page white-book prepared in 1990 by the post-communist Academy, however, concluded that seismic data were tweaked and that Belene indeed was unsuitable. That was not a surprise after 120 people were killed in 1977 by an earthquake in the town of Svishtov, only 12 km from the proposed Belene site. Environmentalists had also pointed out the potential devastating effects for the Danube ecosystem in case of nuclear accidents, the incredible cost and the safety concerns linked to the proposed Soviet VVER 1000/320 reactor design. The result: In 1992, the project was officially cancelled. However, the state utility NEK continued to dream of a second nuclear power station, and carefully maintained the frame and few concrete walls, as well as the already imported reactor pressure vessels and piping.

In the pre-accession times to the EU, Bulgaria had to fulfil proper planning obligations. An Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) in 2004 spent years in court because of its low quality. Seismic risks were denied, no alternatives were assessed, there was no proper assessment of the effects of large beyond design accidents, and there were many formal mistakes in the procedure. Macedonian citizens challenged the fact that the trans-boundary EIA only extended to Romania. At this time I got to know our lawyer Alexander Kodjabashev.  We planned every legal step in detail, although sometimes he also filed complaints in my name and then months later informed me: “By the way, I have also done this and that.” I trusted him blindly. It was always a brilliant move in a complicated legal play of chess moves to secure that not only pro-nuclear experts and politicians, but also that concerned experts and local citizens were heard in the process. That it took so long was not our fault: it was the fault of the arrogant authorities, who thought that these environmental extremists could easily be overruled.

The legal steps also introduced us to the dirty games behind the scenes. After our first court hearing on 19 December 2004, Albena Simeonova — a veteran activist, eco-farmer, 1996 Goldman Environmental Award winner and pre-1989 Miss Bulgaria — received an anonymous text message during the night that she should give up her resistance against Belene and leave her multi-generation farm only 20 km from the proposed power plant. During nine tense months, this escalated into personal death threats, land-grabbing, blocking of credit, constant harassment, including of her 150 seasonal workers, and two attempts to kill her. Behind it were people from the infamous TIM Group, who thought that crushing the Belene resistance would help their careers in this former mafia organisation with a large interest in getting the security and chemical contracts for Belene. Greenpeace and the Goldman Foundation organised 24/7 protection, but it took a month before we could find a security firm that was reliable and not linked to TIM. During that time, I was a nuclear campaigner and also de facto bodyguard, with the help from our Greenpeace security specialists. It was Boyko Borissov, then head of the police, who helped find protection after an international wave of support for Albena. The same Boyko Borissov, now as Prime Minister, was courageous enough to move beyond Russian geo-political plays and cancel the project for reasons of common sense.

Jan Haverkamp and Albena Simeonova under bodyguard protection discussing with the director of the Belene power station project. - (c) Greenpeace / Prochazka

Jan Haverkamp and Albena Simeonova under bodyguard protection discussing with the
director of the Belene power station project. - (c) Greenpeace / Prochazka

In 2005 the Greenpeace ship the SV Anna did a two-week tour over the Danube and to the port of Varna. Because of the security scare, this required unprecedented discipline by the crew, volunteers and staff. The tour was about the Energy [R]evolution and informed people in Northern Bulgaria about the dangers of nuclear power, but above all also about the alternatives. The media were everywhere, except in Kozloduy the town that hosts Bulgaria's first nuclear power station. Journalists had been treated on a free fishing trip in the Kozloduy cooling channel the day before our visit. Only one of them was courageous enough to make the five-hour drive for the second time. A win for the Bulgarian nuclear PR machine. The action at the Belene site a few days later, however, saw pictures used all over the globe and put the project on the map of wider public interest.

The Greenpeace SV Anna at the Belene site - (c) Greenpeace / Prochazka

The Greenpeace SV Anna at the Belene site - (c) Greenpeace / Prochazka

EU accession required Bulgaria to submit the project to the European Commission. Intensive information work followed in Brussels and Luxembourg in order to explain to the Commission the manipulations around the project. We received unexpected support from Georghi Kashchiev, former Kozloduy operator, former head of the Bulgarian Nuclear Regulatory Agency and currently working for the Institute for Risk Assessment at BOKU University in Vienna. His wisdom and access to many information sources, up to then inaccessible to us, provided the depth needed to not only force the Commission to ask critical questions, but also to explain to banks and investors the complete swamp that the Belene project had become. His line: A project with so many short term interests, shady lines and manipulations cannot be guaranteed to be safe. Together with people in 23 countries, we were able to convince 13 banks that their interest in the project was too risk.  All 13 withdrew, including financial advisor BNP Paribas.

The resistance around the plant also grew. Time and again, Albena Simeonova gathered the mayors from the 14 Northern Bulgarian municipalities, with 13 opposing the project in the end, as well as those from Southern Romania. Only the mayor of the town of Belene continued to believe in the project. He still does today, even after its final cancellation.

The turning point came after the elections in 2009. The new government stepped away from the cronyism and pro-Russian lines of the earlier socialist government and the 1990s right-wing parties, and ordered a financial analysis of the project. Conclusion: the €3,2 billion contract with Russian nuclear constructor Rosatom was only the tip of an iceberg. Total costs could rise to as much as €10 bn. This also prompted RWE from Germany, 49% strategic investor, to take a closer look at the books. RWE was already increasingly weary of the project, among others, on the basis of the mishandling of the seismic risk issue, but tried to force the project to become more or less decent. In November 2009, however, also RWE stepped out.

When early 2011, British banking house HSBC tried to find new investors and a way to save the project we were flabbergasted. We informed them about the problems around the project and were assured that HSBC would take our information into account and make a fair assessment. But the questions remained. Why did they pick up a no-touch project that was even dropped by nuclear champion BNP Paribas? Why did Prime Minister Borissov continue to support the project? We noticed that the Russian press, especially the daily Kommersant, constantly denied that there were problems, and sometimes uttered bullying noises towards Bulgaria. Russia's interest in getting a nuclear Trojan Horse in the EU energy market was simply too large to let go easily. Bulgarian decision makers were under extreme pressure. Their resulting unclear statements threatened to lead to wide resignations. Every visit to Svishtov and Sofia was an attempt to keep up the spirit on the basis of plain facts and separate them from speculation. But the picture became increasingly clear. Our arguments stood and Belene was simply following the pattern of Olkiluoto in Finland and Flamanville in France: nuclear power has become too expensive to matter, instead of too cheap to meter. And that reality could not be denied by Borissov.

On 28 March 2012 he finally pulled the plug on the project. Ten years of resistance, hundreds of named and unnamed volunteers, citizens, experts, politicians and civil servants had finally broken the spell of intrigue and conspiracy that kept Belene alive. I am exhausted, but also feel deep gratitude to all these people I worked with over this time. And together we now can push forward the more important agenda: getting Bulgaria, getting the Balkans, getting the EU on the path to a clean and sustainable energy system. Bulgaria has huge potential and currently also the will. It needs all support it can get. The Belene struggle shows that the dirty backdoor policies that have held back Bulgaria's potential for so long do not have to have the last word.