Environmentalists prevent construction of nuclear reactor in Belene, Bulgaria 2002-2012

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Time Period:  
Location and Goals
Location City/State/Province: 
Belene, Pleven Province
Location Description: 
Nothern Bulgaria, bordering Romania
Short term: to stop plans to complete construction of/ total decommission of the planned nuclear reactor in Belene. Long term: getting Bulgaria, getting the Balkans, getting the EU on the path to a clean and sustainable energy system

The Belene Nuclear Power Plant (NPP) in northern Bulgaria was originally proposed in the mid-1980s. The project was cancelled in the 1992, after significant environmentalist campaigning, when it became clear that the seismic risk in the region was unacceptable. Indeed, 120 people had died in an earthquake only 14km from the project site in 1977. There was also concern that the project would not be economically viable.

Despite the project’s cancellation, Bulgarian state utility NEK maintained the partially-build facility in hopes that political will would return to finish the job. Their hopes were met in 2002, when Prime Minister (and former King) Simeon Saxe-Coburg-Gotha unexpectedly revived the project. The government signed a $4 billion contract with the Russian state-owned firm Atomstroyexport to construct the Belene NPP.

The project had to cross the bureaucratic hurdles of filing an Environmental Impact Statement and meeting with the European Commission, all while continually assuring investors that the plant was viable. Environmental campaigners adopted a two-pronged strategy: challenge the plant through the regulatory process, and pressure investors to abandon the project. Education and mass action among Bulgarians and international supporters was employed in the service of the two prongs.

Many different groups joined the effort to stop Belene. It’s unclear from the record exactly when the different groups joined, but all were involved by 2006, if not before. The BeleNE! coalition of 17 Bulgarian environmental groups organized many protests and educational events. Greenpeace also organized educational events and rallies, and, in conjunction with Friends of the Earth, spread word of the campaign to an international audience. Other international organizations like Bankwatch helped with pressuring banks to withdraw funding. It is unclear from the record which of these organizations managed the legal appeals process, though it is clear that BeleNE! and Greenpeace were both involved.

Campaigners were able to delay approval of the Environmental Impact Assessment for several years. In early drafts, seismic risks were ignored, alternatives were not explored, and effects on neighboring Macedonia were disregarded. After the first EIA court hearing, on December 19, 1994, Albena Simenova became the subject of anonymous death threats, harrassment, blocking of credit, and land-grabbing. Employees on her farm were also harassed. According to Jan Haverkamp, the personal attacks were the doing of the TIM Group, a large holding company widely known to be an organized criminal ring, which hoped to profit from contracts related to Belene. Greenpeace and the Goldman Foundation organized 24/7 security, and called on international allies to pressure Bulgaria to put an end to the harassment. After nine months, the head of police Boyko Borrisov provided Simenov with state security.

Meanwhile, on April 26 1995, the BeleNE! coalition organized a march, moment of silence, and rally to commemorate the 19th anniversary of the Chernobyl explosion. Exact numbers are not known, but photos show at least 100 people in attendence. The event doubled as a protest against construction of the Belene NPP.

Public education continued in August 1995 through Greenpeace’s “Energy Revolution Tour.” The small ship SV Anna did a two-week tour of Northern Bulgaria on the Danube, stopping in each city to educate people on the risks of nuclear and upsides of renewable energy. The tour concluded by dropping a 50-foot tall banner reading “Stop Belene” near the construction site.

Campaigners held another Chernobyl vigil for the 20th anniversary on April 26 1996, this time at the Bulgarian Ministry of Economy and Energy. They wore white nuclear protection jumpsuits for visual and dramatic effect.

Later that year, campaigners intensified their pressure on banks to defund Belene. On October 23, activists in 23 countries held rallies at banks owned by UniCredit Group, a main investor. In June 2007, the same action was taken against BNP Parabas.

Bulgaria was required to submit the project to the European Commission for a nonbinding, but important, opinion. Campaigners received crucial support from Georghi Kashchiev the former head of the Bulgarian Nuclear Regulatory Agency and former operater of Kozloduy, Bulgaria’s only other nuclear plant. Jan Haverkamp wrote that Kashchiev’s “wisdom and access to many information sources, up to then inaccessible to us, provided the depth needed to not only force the Commission to ask critical questions, but also to explain to banks and investors the complete swamp that the Belene project had become. His line: A project with so many short term interests, shady lines and manipulations cannot be guaranteed to be safe.”

Despite campaigners’ efforts, the European Commission issued a favorable opinion on the project in December 2007. This setback was frustrating to campaigners, but their informational campaign with Kaschiev’s expert testimony had brought forth crucial information that would prove valuable later.

Mini-campaigns against the investors continued for the next two years. Albena Simenova also continued to rally the opposition near the plant--eventually, 13 of 14 mayors of the nearby towns opposed the plant. In April 2009, the project was dealt a PR blow when the region near Belene was shaken by a minor earthquake.

According to Jan Haverkamp, “The turning point came after the elections in 2009. The new government stepped away from the cronyism and pro-Russian lines of the earlier socialist government and the 1990s right-wing parties, and ordered a financial analysis of the project.” Only three days after the new government of Boyko Borrisov (the former police chief) took office, a high-ranking minister indicated that the project was likely to be cancelled, though construction continued for the time being.

With government support wavering, and the projected cost of the project having climbed from $4b to $10b, investors started to withdraw. German investor RWE backed out in November, and BNP Paribas followed suit three months later. HSBC briefly attempted to rally support for Belene in early 2011, without success.

Finally, in March 2012, the Prime Minister declared the project dead. BeleNE!, Greenpeace, and their many partners had won a ten year fight, which they had kept up even when the plant was actively being built.

Research Notes
Friends of the Earth, Europe. (2007). BNP Paribas, stop funding nuclear power. Retrieved from http://www.foeeurope.org/press/2007/June5_DM_BNP-Paribas.htm. Accessed March 3, 2013.

Greene, A. (2013, March 13). Negative energy. The Prague Post. Retrieved from http://www.praguepost.com/news/15690-negative-energy.html. Accessed March 20, 2013.

Haverkamp, J. (2013). Bulgarians dismiss nuclear power by staying home. Blog: Greenpeace International. Retrieved from http://www.greenpeace.org/international/en/news/Blogs/nuclear-reaction/bulgarians-dismiss-nuclear-power-by-staying-h/blog/43798/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+GreenpeaceNews+%28Greenpeace+News%29 Date accessed March3, 2013

Haverkamp, J. (2012). Bulgarian reactor at Belene finally cancelled: 10 years of struggle successful. Blog: Greenpeace International. Retrieved from http://www.greenpeace.org/international/en/news/Blogs/nuclear-reaction/bulgarian-reactor-at-belene-finally-cancelled/blog/39796/ Date accessed March3, 2013

Joint-Project.org The short story of Belene NPP – the victory: Key points of the campaign against the nuclear power plant. Retrieved from http://www.joint-project.org/upload/file/Belene_story_short-2012-ZaZemyata&FEA.pdf Date accessed April 1, 2013.

Kovatchev, P. (2005). Nuclear Fault Lines. Transitions Online. Available from: Academic Search Complete, Ipswich, MA. Date accessed March3, 2013

No Nukes Inforesource. (n.d.) Bulgaria: Electricity generation in Bulgaria. Retrieved from http://www.ecology.at/nni/index.php?p=country&c=4 Date accessed March3, 2013

NPP Bele Ne! (n.d.). About the campaign. Retrieved from http://old.bluelink.net/belene/about-en.shtml Date accessed March3, 2013

U.S. Geological Survey. (2013). Bulgaria: Seismic hazard map. Retrieved from http://earthquake.usgs.gov/earthquakes/world/bulgaria/gshap.php Date accessed March3, 2013