SOFIA – Bulgaria’s government yesterday awarded Russia’s Atomstroyexport a contract to build a 3.99-billion-euro, 2,000-megawatt nuclear power plant in the Danube River town of Belene. The plant – Bulgaria’s largest infrastructure project since the fall of communism – is part of Sofia’s plan to remain the Balkan region’s top power exporter after shutting down two older nuclear reactors before it joins the European Union next year. Under the project, Atomstroyexport, which is 49.8 percent-controlled by gas giant Gazprom, will team up with France’s Areva and Germany’s Siemens to build two new 1,000-megawatt reactors at Belene. «We are one step closer to implementing a dream, a hope. Bulgaria has begun building its second nuclear power plant,» the Black Sea country’s economy minister, Rumen Ovcharov, told reporters. Construction will begin next year. It will take six-and-a-half years to finish the first unit. The second should come online a year later, pending approval of various aspects of the project by Bulgarian and EU authorities. Bulgaria’s Socialist-led government will keep at least 51 percent of the plant and seek a strategic partner to take a minority stake and operate it. That process has not yet started, but the government has already held initial talks with Italy’s Enel, Czech group CEZ, Russia’s Unified Energy System, Germany’s E.ON, France’s EDF, Belgium’s Tractabel and Spain’s Iberdrola. Seeking financing «We are preparing the documents for searching for an investor,» said Lubomir Velkov, executive director of dominant Bulgarian state utility NETC, which is also the main investor on behalf of the state. «Our plan is that next year there will be financing secured for the project.» Earlier this month, the Energy Ministry said the European Commission had given Bulgaria initial approval for a 300-million-euro loan from the Euroatom atomic body to finance part of the project. A final decision by Euroatom is still pending. Under pressure from Brussels, Bulgaria agreed to shut down two 440-MW reactors at its Kozloduy nuclear plant before January 1 EU entry and two more 1,000-MW units next decade. The issue has drawn sharp criticism from the Socialist-led government, which has warned of power shortages in the Balkan region, but the European Commission has said that is unlikely. Atomstroyexport is also building nuclear power plants with five reactors and a combined 3,000-MW capacity in China, India and Iran. It has said it is involved in 20 percent of the global market of nuclear power plant construction.