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An Unsafe Nuclear Plant in E. Europe Appears Unclosable

Say the word "Kozloduy" in the presence of nuclear-safety experts, and they're likely to shake their heads with disgust.

Kozloduy - 60 miles north of the Bulgarian capital, Sofia, - is home to one of the world's most notoriously unsafe nuclear-power plants, an enormous six-unit facility plagued by shortfalls in everything from design and construction to maintenance and personnel.

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Experts at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) - which strongly recommends the closure of Kozloduy - privately express concerns about the potential for a serious accident.

Kozloduy has faced a number of mishaps since its first Russian-designed reactors went on-line in 1974. In one serious incident, the plant contaminated surrounding ground water. Radiation leaks and fires have caused numerous reactor shutdowns, some resulting in widespread power outages.

"If anything, the IAEA has downplayed the danger," says nuclear physicist Ivan Uzunov, whose involvement with the project started in the early 1970s, citing a 1995 IAEA safety expert's report he says was suppressed.

Bulgaria keeps operating the reactors because it lacks alternatives. The country's coal- and hydro-powered plants could produce all the electricity Bulgaria needs, but most are in disrepair.

With its coffers empty, the government can't afford to import expensive gas and electricity from Russia. "A closure of Kozloduy would result in an electricity catastrophe for Bulgaria," says Nikolai Petrov, an editor at the Sofia financial weekly newspaper 24 Chasa.

Despite the dangers, Bulgaria continues to operate the plant, which provides nearly 40 percent of the country's electricity. Once replacement supplies are secured, officials say Kozloduy's oldest reactors will be shut down.

Costly new plant in the works

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But the government's plans for securing new energy supplies have stunned many observers.

Instead of repairing existing power plants and improving energy efficiency - as called for in the officially approved energy strategy - officials intend to complete another controversial, Soviet-designed nuclear-power plant, this one in Belene, on the border with Romania.

"We've received threats and been told to keep quiet and to quit fighting the Belene project," says Roumen Gantchev, president of Totema Engineering, the firm that prepared the country's now-ignored energy strategy. "It's not in Bulgaria's interests at all, but it is in [the interests of] those who stand to profit from its construction."

Located at a Danube site originally prepared for six units, Belene-1 was half-finished when the dissolution of the East bloc stopped all work there in 1990. Environmentalists were relieved, as the area is prone to earthquakes, and there were concerns about the reliability of Soviet reactor technology in the wake of the Chernobyl disaster in 1986. But last year, officials at the state utility NEK announced their intention to finish the reactor at a cost of more than $1.2 billion.

The unexpected announcement raised eyebrows in the energy industry. The official strategy - repairing existing power plants - would make up for the energy lost by shutting down Kozloduy at a fraction of the total cost of finishing the Belene reactors. Bulgaria already has one of the world's highest per-capita debts and lacks the foreign currency needed to import food for the winter.

Mixed motives?

"Belene makes no sense from an economic, safety, or technical point of view," Mr. Gantchev says. "But if the purpose were to make Bulgaria more dependent on Russia, it makes perfect sense." He added that the addition of a single 1,000-megawatt generating unit such as Belene would destabilize the national power grid. The only solution would be to integrate with a much larger grid, such as Russia's.

While some Western diplomats do not see any signs that Russia is trying to meddle in the decision to build Belene, they say that there may be ulterior motives to finishing the plant, despite the costs. NEK and other firms affiliated with the Bulgarian Ministry of Energy would stand to profit from Belene's construction.

Mr. Uzunov says the official calculations underestimate the real cost of completing construction of the plant and entirely ignore waste-management and disposal costs, which he estimates at $1 billion over the plant's lifetime.

"You can tell them over and over that this is not the least-cost approach, and they just say 'We're building Belene,' " he says.

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