Bulgaria is a member of an exclusive club. No, we're not talking about the EU but of another club, consisting of only 30 countries - those operating nuclear energy reactors. Bulgaria has one existing Nuclear Power Plant (NPP) in Kozloduy and one that has been on the charting boards for over 3 decades now - Belene.
Unfortunately, membership of the EU and the nuclear club have something in common: the state exploits and develops this resource for short-term gains without a clear, strategic plan for the future. It has reached the point where even the topic's devotees can't be sure whether Bulgaria will at any point develop a new nuclear power source.
So what is the future of nuclear power in this country?
At the beginning of February, the government published its Sustainable Energy Development strategy 2030, which is supposed to be the document to guide the sector through the coming decade.
While there are many contradictory plans in the well-intentioned paper (i.e. keeping coal power plants and simultaneously launching new ones running on gas), the one that stands out has to do with atomic power.
According to the plan, Sofia is committed to build two 1,000 MW nuclear reactors between 2030 and 2040. Yet it does not mention if those are two new blocks of the existing Kozloduy NPP (7-th and 8th accordingly) or two reactors of a brand new power plant in another Danube river town, Belene.
This intentional lack of clarity is problematic, as it showcases the inability - or reluctance - of the state to plan a key component of its energy infrastructure that these projects represent.
It should be relatively easy to plan and decide (at least on paper) what is going to happen with your nuclear sector. To understand this strange lack of clarity we need to take the projects individually.
Belene NPP: a never-ending story
Let us consider the Belene NPP project first. It has been on the drawing board since the 1980s, but remained frozen for most of the time since the groundbreaking ceremony in 1987.
It got revived in 2008 as part of the "Energy Grand Slam'' of then-President Georgi Parvanov, who signed contracts for its development - alongside a gas and an oil pipeline - with Russia. The project was formally cancelled in 2012 over lack of funds, scant market prospects for the sale of its electricity output and problems with the project management, yet it had consumed over 1,5 billion euro of taxpayers' money by then.
The last - and largest - single portion of those money - 600 million euro, was forked out as compensation to Rosatom which won an arbitrage in 2016 against the National Electricity Company, the original investor, for the equipment manufactured for the Belene project. Bulgaria, in effect, got 2 tailor-made reactors which it has no use for.
Prime Minister Boyko Borissov has changed his mind about the project several times. When he came to power more than a decade ago, he called it a "grand corruption" scheme of his predecessors. As Sofia had to pay up after the arbitrage, Mr Borissov became even more vocal about the burden that the project inflicted on Bulgaria's economy.
Two years after the arbitrage, out of the blue, his Energy Minister Temenuzhka Petkova reassessed its future and announced that Bulgaria plans to open a tender to pick a strategic investor for it in 2018. The new NPP was supposed to replace the ageing and polluting coal-power plants.
Mr Borissov's second government justified their change of heart with a caveat: a strategic investor and not the state would bear the estimated costs of 9 billion euro. The investor was supposed to be selected after a bid, with Korean, Chinese, US and French firms supposedly expressing interest. Yet, it was clear that, if some company would be able to complete the NPP, it would be Rossatom, which supplied the reactors.
In January 2020, Mr Borissov tried to coax US President Donald Trump into endorsing the project, spending much time with him in Washington defending the feasibility of Belene NPP. "Donald Trump is a businessman and understood that this is a very good project," Mr Borissov then said. At the time, he was already calling the project "beautiful" and claimed that the new power station could intertwine American, Russian and French technologies.
A new future for Kozloduy NPP
Then, after about a year of suspenseful pandemic silence, in January of this year Mr Borissov's cabinet broke the announcement that the two reactors purchased from Rosatom might be used in the existing Kozloduy NPP. They would become part of the long-postponed launch of a 7th and 8th block of the power plant.
The press release, published shortly after Mr Borissov last met US Ambassador to Bulgaria Hero Mustafa, announced that the new blocks would be a "hybrid" solution to Bulgaria's nuclear problems - recycling the Russian reactors, but powering them with American nuclear fuel.
It is hard to deduce what spurred this decision, but definitely the increased activity of the US administration vis-à-vis Bulgaria played a role. In October 2020, the two states signed a civil nuclear energy memorandum that was followed by a 5 February 2021 VVER-1000 fuel licensing agreement between Westinghouse Electric Company and Kozloduy NPP.
Described as a major step forward in Bulgaria's energy supply diversification, the agreement might be seen as a prelude to a deeper cooperation - and possible upgrade - of the power plant.
Zombies and ghosts
Of course, at this stage all of this is wishful thinking. Kozloduy is dogged by the same problem that plagued the authorities with Belene NPP - the lack of a strategic investor who would salvage the project without state guaranteed loans and future commitments to purchase the produced energy. Although the Belene NPP project seems gone, it is not - it needs to be officially cancelled by Parliament, as it was approved by it back in 2018.
As of now, according to responses by the Energy Ministry to a Capital weekly query, the project is still up and running. In practice, the process to select a new investor has been halted since the start of the pandemic and potential bidders have not had the chance to see the documentation for the project at the Ministry.
So the announced plans to construct two new blocks for the existing NPP in Kozloduy using the reactors from the Belene NPP project could be seen merely as pre-election manoeuvring by the government. They seek to mute domestic opposition to the second large Russian energy project after construction of the gas pipeline TurkStream, as well as the change of tone in Brussels and Washington with regards to it.
The larger problem, however, remains - the existing reactors in Kozloduy have life expectancy until 2050 at the latest. Unless a solution for new NPP capacities is found well before then, Sofia might drop out of the exclusive list of nuclear states.