ECONOMY

Bulgarians fear Kozloduy closure will lead to power cuts, high prices

FILIPOVTSI, Bulgaria – Many Bulgarians fear that electricity rationing and higher power bills could be the bitter price to pay for EU membership when their country shuts its oldest nuclear reactors down today to please Brussels. Bulgaria bowed to European Union pressure and agreed to close the first two reactors installed at its Soviet-era Kozloduy nuclear power plant in a bid to avoid derailing accession talks with the EU. The EU wanted the reactors shut before 2003 on safety grounds and officials in Sofia said it was a necessary sacrifice, but some Bulgarians branded the closures a national betrayal. Kozloduy, Bulgaria’s only nuclear power plant, has six 3,760 megawatt reactors that produce more than half of the former communist country’s power and help make it a leading power exporter in the Balkan region. Sofia has agreed to close two other Kozloduy reactors before 2007. Many in the Balkan state of eight million, where people already struggle on average monthly wages of just $130 and pensions of around $35, are worried that today’s closures will lead to electricity rationing and higher power prices. They remember power rationing before Kozloduy was fully operational, but officials do not see a problem with domestic supplies. The country also has hydro power stations. Power cuts already Electricity supplies have been cut recently in most homes in the shanty town of Filipovtsi on the outskirts of the capital because its 4,000 Gypsy residents have no money to pay the bills. Kostadin Ivanov puts sanitary pads into a bowl of melted suet to produce a makeshift candle to light up his shack. Other Filipovtsi residents, often crammed 10 to a room, burn tires and clothes to keep warm. «We’ve heard that they will close Kozloduy and raise (power) prices, but we don’t know why they’re doing it,» said Ivanov’s wife Emilia. «We only know that no one offers us jobs and comes to see that we are starving and live in misery.» Kozloduy has generated Bulgaria’s cheapest energy and enables it to provide around half of the annual regional power shortfall in the Balkans. Brussels says Kozloduy’s two oldest reactors, launched in 1974-75, cannot be made safe at a reasonable cost. Last month the government agreed to close down two other reactors at Kozloduy, numbers three and four, by the end of 2006. The more modern five and six units will remain operational. The EU has rewarded Bulgaria by setting 2007 as a target date for entry to the bloc. «The key to this success is the energy chapter, which was our biggest hurdle toward membership,» Foreign Minister Solomon Passy told Reuters. «The pre-accession aid of some $1.5 billion, which we will get in the next four years, exceeds considerably the profit we generate from Kozloduy’s reactors,» Passy said. The government has said it will restart building a second nuclear plant next year but has not explained how the cost of some $1 billion will be covered. Officials at Bulgaria’s power export monopoly NETC say they are confident today’s reactor shutdowns will not hurt domestic power supplies next year. «If Bulgaria wakes up without electricity on New Year, the closure will be the last to blame,» said Mityo Hristozov of the NETC.