SOFIA (AFP) – European nuclear safety requirements may cause Bulgaria to lose its strategic position as a top energy exporter in the Balkans in 2007-2008, Energy and Economy Minister Rumen Ovcharov said yesterday. Bulgaria had exported about 7.2 billion kilowatt-hours of energy in 2005 but «the years 2007-2008 might prove critical and Bulgaria risks losing its strategic position as the biggest energy exporter in the region,» Ovcharov told an energy conference in Sofia. Ovcharov told AFP in an interview on Wednesday that the closing in 2006 of two old but revamped 440-megawatt reactors at its nuclear plant at Kozloduy, in the northwest, would force Bulgaria to cut all its energy exports. Bulgaria would still be able to generate enough to satisfy its own energy needs, he added. The Balkan state, which aims to join the European Union in 2007, accepted EU safety requirements during its accession negotiations and agreed to close down four of its six nuclear reactors at Kozloduy. In 2002, it closed its two oldest 440-megawatt reactors, No. 1 and 2. The No. 3 and 4 reactors are also to be closed down in 2006, despite being recently modernized. «It is difficult to explain why the (No. 3 and 4) reactors have to be closed when they function well and enable Bulgaria to cover for the energy deficit in the Balkans,» Ovcharov told AFP. He referred to a 2004 report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), saying the UN nuclear energy watchdog was satisfied with the state of reactors No. 3 and 4. Bulgaria is to lose «a production capacity of almost 2,000 megawatts. If we have to construct four new reactors nowadays, they will cost us 4 billion euros,» Ovcharov added. But as «the Bulgarian government respects its engagements to the EU… and we expect that our European partners will also respect theirs,» he said. Bulgaria is due to join the 25-member bloc on January 1, 2007, but its accession is still threatened with a postponement of one year should there be major failures to live up to Brussels-pressed requirements. Sofia is also planning to make up for its lost energy capacity by constructing a new 2,000-megawatt power plant at Belene, east of Kozloduy, and have the first of its two 1,000-megawatt reactors operational by 2011.