Why Bulgarians still seem to want nuclear power plants

«You’d better not go to Kozloduy for a while. Some people here are furious with you,» a friend told Albena Simeonova when she returned to Sofia from the Rhodes Anti-Nuclear Festival. It was not the first warning the 40-year-old Bulgarian activist had received. A biologist and the mother of a 7-year-old child, Simeonova was also warned off the Belene nuclear station if she «wanted to live longer,» by representatives of major interests in her country. The threats might frighten her, but they cannot discourage someone who was a member of the only environmental group active in the former socialist republic, but which has been declared illegal. Today, the internationally known activist, who in 1996 received the Goldman Prize for her involvement in activities such as protecting native fauna, fighting toxic waste leaks from factories, the use of banned pesticides and the cutting down of forests, is director of the Bulgarian branch of Greenpeace and participates in an alliance of 30 environmental groups under the title of BeleNE (NE means «no» in Bulgarian), against the construction of new nuclear stations in Belene. In this interview with Kathimerini, Simeonova explained why politicians in Bulgaria still want nuclear energy and why the public does not protest. She also sets out her reasons for withdrawing from the Green Party which she helped found. «It is no longer green,» she said. How have the political and economic changes since 1989 affected the environment? Democracy has brought us freedom but a lack of accountability and the effect of this on the environment has been negative. People have begun to build up the cities more; the air pollution has become worse and the forests are being cut down illegally at a very fast rate. Intensive building has ruined the beautiful Black Sea coastline where there are now water and power shortages because the infrastructure has not kept pace and because these areas have suddenly filled with people. How did Bulgaria mark the Chernobyl anniversary? When people were demonstrating in 1986 in the rain, no one told us it was radioactive. Today, 20 years later, they are maintaining the same stance and there is absolutely no mention of the subject. The Energy and Economy Ministry is ignoring the effects of the accident. It is trying to sweep the problem under the rug, and refuses to provide information. Its report to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna says that at Kozloduy there is 4,000 times more radioactivity than the lowest acceptable level in Germany, but that was not announced to the people of Bulgaria. Tell us about the recent accident at Kozloduy. That is a typical example of misinformation. On March 1, Reactor No. 5 at Kozloduy stopped working. The government said it was for inspection and maintenance purposes. On March 10, we learned that work was completed and on the 14th it was announced that there was a zero-risk incident. However, on April 24, after an interview with Gyorgy Karsiev, former head of the Bulgarian Committee for the Peaceful Use of Atomic Energy, we found out that the reactor had been operating for months with 22 of its 61 security units blocked. The next day, the IAEA was informed that the incident was 1 on the risk scale and not zero, as we had been told. Would you say that it is the lack of information that has influenced the Bulgarian people to favor the construction of new nuclear energy stations? Opposition among Bulgarians is mounting, but very slowly. It is very difficult for them to understand what a nuclear station really means because on the one hand the government is spending millions of euros on a campaign to convince them of the benefits, and on the other, they do not hear about the accidents or the effects of radioactivity on health. They tell them that is a clean and safe form of energy. No one, for example, tells them that we have to keep the nuclear waste here. People believe that without these stations, we won’t have electricity. They don’t know that Belene will only be producing power for export to neighboring countries. Belene is a threat to us all, because apart from everything else, the region is extremely earthquake-prone. A few years ago an earthquake in the region destroyed a town just 40 kilometers away. What do you think of the Czech reactor that they say is to be installed at Belene? The reactor they have decided on is Czech-made, but Gazprom controls 50 percent of the firm and the decision basically is to boost the good relations they want to maintain with Russia. How is the Bulgarian Green Party reacting to all this? It belongs to the government party alliance and is not reacting at all. They do not refer to environmental problems, they never talk about Kozloduy or Belene, which is a Natura 2000 region and at risk of complete destruction.