SOFIA (Reuters) – Bulgaria will pick investors and a builder for its new nuclear power plant in early 2006, as it struggles to remain the region’s leading energy exporter ahead of planned 2007 EU entry, its economy minister said yesterday. The poor Balkan state has agreed to shut four of the six reactors of its aging Kozloduy nuclear power plant ahead of joining the wealthy bloc and aims to replace the lost capacity with a 2,000-megawatt plant in the Danube River town of Belene. Rumen Ovcharov, who is also minister of energy, said he expected two consortia, one led by Russia’s Atomstroiexport and the other led by Czech-based Skoda Praha (a subsidiary of Czech energy utility CEZ), to submit binding bids to build the plant, valued at up to 3.5 billion euros ($4.1 billion), by December 15. While his ministry evaluates the offers, it will also open one-on-one talks with top energy firms interested in financing the plant, with the aim of choosing both investor and builder «perhaps by February or March,» he said. «Many investors have shown interest,» said the 53-year-old Socialist, a key figure in the three-party government of Prime Minister Sergei Stanishev which took power in August. «The processes will be carried out in parallel. We will hold talks with each of the potential strategic investors, will listen to their conditions and will then choose one or two.» He refused to name potential investors or their number, but said they included Western European energy majors. He said an important factor in the selection process would be guarantees to buy Belene’s electricity for resale to their customers.