Gas Shortage Fallout Bulgaria Looks to Restart Soviet-Era Reactors

The natural gas is back, but Bulgaria says it would like to restart a mothballed nuclear power facility to avoid energy shortages in the future. The EU considers the reactors unsafe, but Sofia sees the move as fair compensation for economic damage done by the gas shut-off.

The Bulgarian nuclear power plant at Kozloduy.

The Bulgarian nuclear power plant at Kozloduy.

Russian natural gas may once again be flowing to Europe. But the fallout from the three-week supply cut-off, a consequence of price wars between Gazprom and Ukraine, continues to make itself felt across the Continent.

Particularly in Bulgaria. Without natural gas to feed its industries, the country has suffered significant economic damage. The Energy and Economy Ministry in Sofia said on Thursday the country had lost 197 million (€101 million) Bulgarian lev as a result of gas outages. And that estimate may be low: Minister Petar Dimitrov warned that final calculations were far from complete and some predictions ranged as high as 500 million lev (€256 million). Dimitrov told reporters Thursday that if losses ultimately top 0.6 percent of the country's gross domestic product, he would seek financial assistance from the European Union.

Bulgaria, though, has also begun looking at ways to avoid such a drastic energy shortage in the future -- one which Dimitrov said earlier this week "resembles a terrorist attack." Tops on the list of ideas is that of restarting reactors three and four at the Soviet-era Kozloduy Nuclear Power Plant. Ramadan Atalay, who chairs the energy committee in Bulgarian parliament, said on Wednesday that a motion to discuss the idea with the EU had passed out of committee and would go before the floor on Friday.

The idea of turning to nuclear energy as a way to reduce reliance on unreliable supplies from Russia is not unique to Bulgaria. Slovakia too considered firing up a reactor at Jaslovske Bohunice earlier this month due to an acute gas shortage. Indeed, Bratislava approved the plan before backing away once a solution to the Russian-Ukrainian gas clash began to materialize.

Four of the six reactors at Bulgaria's Kozloduy plant, located on the Danube River 200 kilometers north of Sofia, were shut down in late 2006 as part of an agreement paving the way for the country's accession to the European Union. The EU was concerned about the safety of the Soviet-era facilities, built in the 1970s. Bulgaria, though, has been trying to get EU permission to turn them back on almost since the first day they went offline. Brussels, though, has consistently refused.

Sofia now hopes that gas-related economic damage might provide a compelling enough argument. Of 406 large-scale industries Dimitrov's ministry has been monitoring, 266 have said they suffered direct losses from the gas shut-off. The shortage came when Russian gas giant Gazprom ceased sending supplies through Ukraine due to a disagreement on how much Kiev should pay for Russian gas. The flow finally resumed on Tuesday.

"The gas crisis is not a natural disaster. It is a political blow from abroad and as an EU member we have the right to political compensations and solidarity from the EU," Dimitrov told Reuters in a Monday interview. "It is fair … to ask for a restart of the reactors as financial compensation for the huge losses we are suffering."

It is a position shared by many of his countrymen. Bulgarians are not nearly as skeptical of nuclear power as many others in Europe and last weekend, thousands took to the streets of the nation's capital to demand that reactors three and four be restarted. Opinion polls show that over 70 percent would like to see the 440 megawatt reactors restarted.

Bulgaria is currently in the process of constructing a second nuclear power plant, located in the town of Belene on the Danube, which is set to open in 2013. The plant is being built by the Russian company Atomeksportstroy, and German energy giant RWE obtained a 49 percent stake last October.

cgh -- with wire reports


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