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Bulgaria: Sofia Appears Prepared To Risk EU Membership Bid Over Nuclear-Power Issue

The long-standing tension between the European Union and candidate country Bulgaria over the Kozloduy nuclear-power plant has flared up again. The Bulgarian side is threatening to reject the Energy Chapter in the negotiations with Brussels -- tantamount to stopping the whole accession process -- unless the EU agrees to key demands.

Prague, 26 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Bulgaria appears to be taking a bold course in its application to join the European Union. Sofia is telling the EU that, in effect, it won't accept some of the terms being offered, and that Brussels must rethink those terms.

This sort of bluntness indicates Bulgaria is willing, if need be, to risk damage to its prospects for EU membership in favor of what it considers its short-term national interests.

At the center of the row is, once again, the Kozloduy nuclear-power plant. This plant, which features Soviet-era nuclear reactors, has long been a bone of contention between successive Bulgarian governments and the European Commission.

The plant generates some 40 percent of the country's electricity, with excess electricity being available for export around the Balkans.

The problem is, the EU considers four of the six reactors at the site to be unsafe. Two of them are scheduled to close by the end of this year, and the newest two are not considered dangerous. The problem is reactors 3 and 4, each of which is more than 20 years old.

These are of Soviet pressurized-water design but have been substantially upgraded with Western equipment. The Bulgarians say they are now safe and are determined to keep them open for some years beyond the 2006 date, which was agreed upon long ago with the EU.

The International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA, sent a team to the site this past summer, and it reported that units 3 and 4 now meet the IAEA's own safety norms. As the chief spokesman for the IAEA, Mark Gwozdecky, put it: "Indeed, our team was satisfied with the fact that all of the recommendations that had been made to the Bulgarian operator had been implemented. In fact, they had gone further in some respects than the recommendations indicated."

The spokesman noted that his agency has been working with the Bulgarians for the past 10 years to improve Kozloduy, with this result: "In safety terms, we would say that they are the equivalent or better than reactors of the same vintage in other countries."

Gwozdecky noted, however, that the IAEA does not monitor safety at nuclear plants on a day-to-day basis, and therefore takes no definitive stand on the safety issue at Kozloduy.

At any rate, in Sofia this week, the government of Prime Minister Simeon Saxecoburggotski put its cards on the table. The minister for European integration, Meglena Kuneva, said she would not sign the chapter on energy in the negotiations with Brussels unless the EU agrees to send a team of experts to inspect the operational state of the two reactors.

The aim of this request is to have the EU rethink its stand on the closure. Sofia does not think closure makes economic sense, given the export market for electricity and the local jobs that are dependent on Kozloduy.

In Brussels, a spokeswoman for the EU's environment office, Emma Odwin, said the EU has not yet received any formal communication from the Bulgarians. "It's up to the European Union's member states now to respond to the Bulgarians' position once we have formally received it," Odwin said.

She added that the European Commission takes Bulgaria's concerns seriously. "Certainly, what Bulgaria has to say about this will be listened to very carefully. Candidate countries have every right to be listened to, and indeed they will be," Odwin said.

Public opinion in Bulgaria seems to support the government on the reactor issue. A recent survey indicated that more than three-quarters of Bulgarians oppose the closure of the old reactors and that two-thirds support a government decision to postpone the closures, even if that would delay Bulgaria's accession to the EU.