Bulgarian gov’t to announce plan for nuclear plant

SOFIA (Reuters) – Bulgaria’s Cabinet has agreed on how to complete a multi-billion-dollar nuclear power plant and will announce its plans today, a source familiar with the process said. The plant is crucial for the EU aspirant to keep its place as the energy exporting leader of the Balkans, as it shuts down some Soviet-era reactors ahead of its planned entry into the union in 2007 in response to safety concerns in Brussels. «The ministers discussed the new plant at a closed meeting on Thursday and made a decision which Prime Minister Simeon Saxe-Coburg will announce during a visit to the nuclear plant construction site,» said the source, who asked not to be named. A government spokesman declined comment on the issue, but Saxe-Coburg is scheduled to visit Belene, 250 kilometers (155 miles) north of Sofia, today. It was not clear why the Cabinet did not announce the decision. The project also faces a potential scandal, with the Energy Ministry requesting an investigation after media reports that Atomic Energy Canada Ltd (AECL) said it was asked for a kickback of up to $80 million to win the construction deal. The ministry said in a statement it had asked AECL for details on the matter. AECL and four other companies have expressed interest in building the plant, which the government says will cost at least $1.0 billion to complete. The other four include US firm Westinghouse Electric Co, which is a unit of British state-owned nuclear company BNFL Plc; France’s Framatome; Czech firm Skoda and Russia’s Atomstroiproekt and Atomenergoproekt. Bulgaria has already sunk $1 billion into the project, which originally began in the 1980s but was later halted due to a lack of funds. There is already one Soviet-designed reactor at the site that has yet to be installed. The head of the project told media earlier this week that officials would directly negotiate with investors once the government had decided on a scheme. AECL said it wanted to build a brand-new plant, while some of the the other companies have proposed topping off the Russian-made reactors with modern control mechanisms. The Energy Ministry expects the deal to be finalized by the end of the year and the plant, which is to have an operational life of 40 years, should start producing in 2009 or 2010. As part of its EU accession efforts, Bulgaria has agreed to close two units at the Kozloduy nuclear plant, which produces 40 percent of Bulgaria’s electricity, by 2006. It closed two other reactors at the six-reactor plant early last year.

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