Bulgaria is to start talks with the United States on nuclear technology, but construction of Russian-designed reactors at the Belene nuclear power plant is still expected to go ahead.
The Bulgaria’s government on 14 October gave state-owned energy company Bulgarian Energy Holding (BEH) a mandate to start talks with US companies that develop nuclear technologies to study the options for the building of a new reactor, Energy Minister Temenuzka Petkova said. This followed remarks the previous day by Prime Minister Boyko Borissov, during a visit to the Kozoduy nuclear power plant, that a new reactor at the site should be based on US technology.
Bulgaria operates two VVER-1000 units (5&6) at Kozloduy after units 1-4 (VVER-440s) were closed as a condition for accession to the European Union. It is also seeking investors for construction of two VVER-1000 units at its planned Belene nuclear power plant. Petkova stressed that the Belene project would go ahead regardless of developments at Kozloduy because Bulgaria will have to start a gradual phasing out of its coal-fired power plants after 2030.
"The procedure for Belene continues. This is being developed within the framework of a parliamentary decision," Petkova said, adding that it was a question of national energy security, as in 30 years the operation of the two operating reactors at Kozloduy will end while coal-fired power plants had to be phased out and replaced with emission-free options. She noted that the procedure for selecting an investor for Belene had been delayed because of the coronavirus pandemic and the inability to travel freely.
Bulgaria's plans for Belene and Kozloduy 7
Preliminary site works at Belene originally began in 2008, and contracts for components including large forgings and I&C systems were signed with suppliers. Initially, the plant was to be built by Atomstroyexport (part of Rosatom) after Russia won an international tender in 2006, but the project was cancelled in 2012, after a change of government.
Following the cancellation, Bulgaria began talks on Kozloduy 7. Borissov, then in his first term as prime minister, said it would be more realistic than building two new units at Belene and US-based Westinghouse was awarded a contract to carry out a feasibility study for use of its AP1000 technology as a reference.
In 2013, the subsequent socialist government approved a new unit at Kozloduy and announced it would begin exclusive talks with Westinghouse, which signed a shareholder agreement with the government in 2014. However, the financing terms and conditions were never finalised.
The Belene project was revived, again, in 2018 after a series of arbitration procedures, which saw Bulgaria pay €601.6 million ($691.5m) in compensation to Atomstroyexport for the equipment already manufactured. These components are now stored at the construction site, and if Bulgaria goes ahead with the project, Atomstroyexport will be the main contractor. In December 2019, Bulgaria invited five companies to file binding offers for the project: China National Nuclear Corporation, Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power, Russia's Atomenergoprom, a subsidiary of state nuclear corporation Rosatom, France's Framatome and US-based General Electric.
Rosatom in June agreed to cooperate with the Framatome and General Electric in the process to select a strategic investor. Under the agreements, subject to the selection of Rosatom state corporation as the strategic investor following the tender, General Electric will be considered as an equipment partner for a turbogenerator plant based on Arabelle technology and a machine room equipment, and Framatome as a key partner in equipping an automated process control system (ACS).
Motivation behind the talks between US and Bulgaria
Local analysts saw the talks with the US as an attempt to placate Washington, which had hinted at possible sanctions against the Bulgarian extension of Russia’s TurkStream gas pipeline. “We should look at this plan in the light of the need to avoid US sanctions on the TurkStream pipeline on Bulgarian territory at least until it is built,” said political and energy analyst Ilian Vassilev. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned in July that investors in Nord Stream 2 and a branch of the TurkStream pipeline could face sanctions as part of US policy aimed at reducing Russian economic influence in Eastern Europe.Elsewhere in Eastern Europe, the US is progressing its policy to extend its influence in the energy sector. On 9 October, Washington signed a draft cooperation agreement with Romania for the refurbishment of one nuclear power reactor and the construction of two more at the Cernavoda nuclear power plant.
Following announcement of the BEH mandate, Petkova stressed in subsequent media interviews that it did not imply a decision to build a seventh unit at Kozloduy. She said in an interview with Hello Bulgaria that BEH would investigate US nuclear technologies, including small reactors, but that no decision would be taken on the construction of a new unit of Kozloduy.
"The decision we are discussing sets a deadline within which the energy minister must report on the results of this study and the results of the negotiations that have taken place with American companies that develop nuclear technologies. This period is will end in January 2021. Within that time, I hope we will have much more specific information," she added.
At another briefing, she said that despite Borissov’s comments at Kozloduy, the latest development was not about avoiding US sanctions. "We cannot talk about courtesy to the US, we work only in the interest of Bulgarian citizens and our national interests. This about our energy policy and EU policy."
Photo: US technology is under consideration for a further unit at Kozloduy nuclear plant in Bulgaria