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Europe Thursday, 2 December, 1999, 18:03 GMT
Kozloduy: who'll blink first?
The Kozloduy nuclear power plant sprawls by the banks of the Danube
By Max Easterman

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In a week's time, the European Union will invite countries like Bulgaria, from Central and Eastern Europe, to begin talks on joining the EU. Bulgaria wants to be at the front of the queue; but, for the moment, it's firmly at the back.

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The reason is not what you might imagine: the poor state of the economy. The stumbling-block is Kozloduy, a nuclear power station on the banks of the Danube. Kozloduy is Bulgaria's pride, and its power-generating lifeline; but for several members of the EU, it's become the symbol of Bulgaria's unfitness to join Europe.

The United States Department of Energy has branded it one of the world's most dangerous nuclear installations. Kozloduy's problem is that it was built 25 years ago by the Russians - to a design that wouldn't stand a chance of being approved today.

It has no 'secondary containment' - a technical euphemism that means there's no protective shell to stop a radiation leak going straight into the environment.

The control room at Kozloduy: is it safe to keep running?
When Bulgaria emerged from its Communist winter 10 years ago, Western experts who visited Kozloduy came back with alarming reports of its leaking pipes and dilapidated reactors. It's a huge power station, which sprawls for nearly two kilometres along the flat meadows that border the River Danube, the border with Romania.

Since then, a lot of - mainly Western - money has been spent on dragging Kozloduy into the nuclear present - but it's not practical to build containment shells round the four oldest of its six reactors. That's why the EU has now put a price on Bulgaria's ambitions: set a date to close down those reactors before next week's talks, or there won't be any talks. So who will blink first? And who should?

The EU has a point: Kozloduy may no longer be another potential Chernobyl, but if there were a leak, even a small one, it could be everywhere in minutes. And there are also problems with the storage of nuclear waste, big enough problems for the Bulgarians' own nuclear regulator to have temporarily withdrawn Kozloduy's storage licence.

Maz Easterman interviews Marin Stoev at the plant
The Government in Sofia, on the other hand, retorts that if Britain's ageing Magnox power stations have been updated and given several more years of life, then Kozloduy should get the same. It is, they say, no more dangerous than these British stations. The Chief Engineer at Kozloduy, Marin Stoev, put it succinctly: "The UK and the EU are guilty of double standards".

And the truth is that, if they were closed, Britain would not lose a vast amount of generating capacity; but if Kozloduy goes, Bulgaria not only loses nearly half its annual electricity output, it also jeopardises its lucrative contract to supply power to Turkey - for hard currency.

Outside the plant, a sculpture celebrates the split atom
Much is at stake, and many Bulgarians would echo the words of a former Director of Kozloduy, Ivan Ivanov: "Europe is interfering; it's attacking our sovereignty."

That's not the view of Bulgaria's small but enthusiastic Green movement. They are determined to see the four reactors closed, and they're appalled that the EU is offering Bulgaria cash compensation for lost generating capacity, if it goes along with the plan.

Some anglers fish right by the plant's outlets, where the water is warmer
We found out from them - and witnessed for ourselves - that people fish right by the plant's outlets; we were told the warm water there makes for bigger catches. Campaigners like the Za Zamiata (For The Earth) group are few, and most Bulgarians regard them at best as misguided, and at worst as unpatriotic traitors.

Many ordinary Bulgarians are not sure which way to turn. Even in Kozloduy town, which is so obviously much more prosperous than its neighbours because of the money the power-workers' high wages bring in, people are ambivalent: "The station should stay, it's no more dangerous than any other"; "The EU shouldn't take advantage of us like this - they wouldn't try it on anywhere else."

But then, when faced with the choice, they sigh and admit that, in the end, it'll have to be Europe. The future without Kozloduy may mean unemployment and a reduced local economy; but a future outside Europe appears bleak indeed.

Also in this edition of Crossing Continents:: an investigation into the crime and corruption which are still plaguing the economy; and a visit to Bulgaria's most modern winery, changing the image of Bulgarian plonk.

Kozloduy, nuclear power station, Bulgaria, Nov 1999
I believe it's safe...
Polina Kireva, Kozloduy, Bulgaria, Nov 1999
describes the plant's hazards
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