The Bulgarian government on 16 May requested parliament to lift a ban on the development of the 2000MWe Belene NPP after state-owned China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC) confirmed its interest in the project. Parliament has given the government until end-June to decide how to proceed. Energy Minister Temenuzhka Petkova has said Bulgaria plans to launch a tender in 2018 to pick a strategic investor for the  €10bn ($11.92bn) plant. She has invited France’s Framatome, majority controlled by EDF, to take part and the European Investment Bank (EIB) is also looking into the project. In March, Petkova said CNNC had officially confirmed its interest in Belene NPP but that EIB interest would depend on the government’s financing plan. Meanwhile, several opposition parties are calling on the government to abandon the project, alleging that its completion would double domestic electricity prices.

Bulgaria cancelled the Belene project in 2012 after failing to find investors and in the face of pressure from the USA and the European Union (EU) to limit its energy dependence on Russia, which had been contracted to build the plant. Nuclear supplies around 35% of Bulgaria's electricity, from two Soviet-built VVER 1000 units operating at Kozloduy NPP. However, four smaller units at Kozloduy were closed under pressure from the European Union (EU) as a condition for Bulgaria’s EU membership, ending Bulgaria’s status as a regional energy exporter. Construction of a new plant, the Belene NPP, had been planned in the 1980s but was abandoned following the Soviet collapse. The project was resurrected in 2002, and in 2006 Russia’s Atomstroyexport (part of state nuclear corporation Rosatom) won an international tender to build the two-unit plant.

 In 2008, Bulgaria signed a contract for the design, construction and commissioning of two Russian VVER-1000 reactors, but the project was cancelled again in 2012 following a change of government after work had begun. The International Court of Arbitration under the International Chamber of Commerce in Geneva in 2016 awarded Atomstroyexport €620m ($688m) over the cancellation of the project for equipment already manufactured, and Bulgaria agreed to take possession of the reactors and related equipment. Meanwhile, Russia has been assisting with life extension work at the two operating Kozloduy reactors. Rosatom, for its part, has consistently said that it is prepared to assist Bulgaria in building the Belene plant, and a senior company official confirmed this  in mid-May during the Atomexpo 2018 Forum in Sochi, which Energy Minister Temenouzhka Petkova attended. Bulgarian President Rumen Radev after talks with Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev on 22 March that the revival of the Belene project “presupposes Russian participation as well”.

Bulgaria has already spent BGN3bn ($1.82bn) on Belene, and the government has repeatedly said that it does not want to commit more public money, extend state guarantees for a possible loan, or sign any long-term electricity supply deals for the plant. However, some form of state participation seems likely. Petkova told bTV on 21 May that state participation in Belene NPP through the National Electricity Company (NEK) would be the best option. “NEK will participate in the project with a contribution that will allow us to hold at least a blocking quota in the company. The state will be able to exercise control,” she said. “We are proposing no commitment for the state to providing state guarantee or long-term contracts for power purchase. Our idea is that the project should be developed entirely on market principles,” Petkova said. Other options: the sale of the equipment, 100% state participation or the complete sale to a private investor imply a loss, high costs or risks for the state, she said.

Despite its best efforts, Bulgaria has been unable to sell the Belene equipment. Talks with Iran, the only country to show any interest, led nowhere. However, the interest expressed by China has clearly given the project a new lease of life, with many arguing  that restarting the project is the only way to recoup the losses sustained so far. In recent months, Bulgarian officials have held several rounds of talks with CNNC, but reports in the Bulgarian media suggested that CNNC had no interest in using the Russian reactors and would prefer to use its own technology.  However, sources close to Bulgaria’s nuclear sector told NEI that the Belene site was originally designed for four units and  the plan being discussed involved  using  the Russian reactors for the first two units and Chinese technology (probably ACP1000 reactors) for two more.

After the cabinet meeting on 16 May, Deputy Prime Minister Tomislav Donchev said several potential investors had shown interest in Belene, adding that an official tender to find a strategic investor, which could be announced at the end of 2018 or early next year, would test the market interest. He said if there were then no investor interest, the government would still have  the option to sell the equipment or use it at Kozloduy.

Donchev stressed that there are no political nuances in the decision to revive Belene. The project will be realised as a market project or it will not be realised, he insisted.