Bulgaria prepares to select Belene partner

Bulgaria aims to begin the selection process for a strategic investor at its on-again, off-again nuclear power plant (NPP) project by the end of February.

Sofia is seeking a partner to build two 1,000-MW reactors in Belene, in the north of the country. An ideal candidate will offer to complete the plant within eight years at a cost of around 9 billion euros (US$10.2 billion), the government has said.

According to authorities, the chosen investor must be prepared to take on the venture without state guarantees or a power purchase agreement (PPA) in place. And while Bulgaria intends to retain a blocking stake in Belene, the government insists it will not commit any further public funds to the project. These terms have been criticised as unrealistic.

“At present, our experts are drafting an invitation for the first stage of choosing a strategic investor,” Energy Minister Temenuzhka Petkova said on national radio on February 4. “I hope the selection process will start before the end of February.”

Sofia had previously planned on holding a tender for an investor in January, with the aim of finalising a partnership by the end of this year. China’s CNNC, France’s Framatome, owned by EDF, and Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power (KHNP) have already expressed interest in taking part. Speaking in December, Petkova said an invitation would also be extended to Russia’s Rosatom.

Rosatom previously worked on the Belene project under a contract it secured in 2006. Construction formally began in 2008 but was halted the following year, after a new government dropped plans to take a 51% stake in the development, stating that 20% was more realistic. Germany’s RWE, which had been poised to acquire 49%, promptly pulled out.

The project was officially called off in 2012, because of financing problems and EU and US pressure on Bulgaria to cut its dependence on Russian energy. Sofia was later ordered by a court in Geneva to deal out 620 million euros (US$708 million) in compensation to Rosatom for contract violations.

The third government of Boyko Borisov, after assuming power in May 2017, began talking up prospects for reviving the Belene project. It reasoned that as Bulgaria had already invested 3 billion lev (US$1.75 billion) in equipment for the plant, construction should continue. Parliament voted to resume the search for investors in June 2018.

Bulgaria generates more than 40% of its energy supply from lignite and another 10-15% from two reactors at the Kozloduy NPP. Belene’s construction would help the country reduce its carbon emissions, which are a growing expense at its coal plants because of the EUA permitting system. But prior to its cancellation in 2012, the NPP had been viewed as a replacement for the Communist-era units at Kozloduy.

Sofia now hopes to use Belene to expand power exports, although while there is a market for extra electricity in the Balkans, sales fluctuate greatly depending on water levels at the region’s dams.