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Facing Power Shortages, Bulgarians Rally For Nuclear Power

Man in Sofia looks through an ice-covered tram window.
SOFIA (Reuters) -- Bulgarians rallied on January 18 to demand two Soviet-era nuclear reactors be restarted in the face of global economic woes and cuts in gas supply from Russia.

About 2,500 protesters with placards reading "Speed up Bulgarian energy" and "Restart" marched through Sofia, capital of the poorest EU member, saying the two 440-megawatt units Bulgaria shut in 2006 to win EU entry were safe and must be used again.

Sofia, hard hit by the Moscow-Kiev gas row, has been without supplies since January 6 and has reduced sharply gas deliveries to consumers. It fears power shortages would come next if gas flows are not restored soon.

Ukraine and Russia said on January 18 they had reached an outlined deal to restore supplies to Europe, while the European Union warned there had been false hopes before and was waiting to see gas actually flowing.

"We are too poor to waste away the national wealth," said Zdravko Mladenov, 51, an energy worker and supporter of the opposition political group Napred (Forward), which called the demonstration.

The organizers handed a petition to the government pressing for urgent steps to diversify power supplies. Growing public anger against slow reforms and endemic graft sparked another street protest last week.

Prime Minister Sergei Stanishev said the government would study all the arguments about possibly restarting the units after meeting the organizers.

On January 16, the Socialist-led government started preparatory work to relaunch one of the reactors but said a decision to do so might come only if Sofia got a green light from Brussels and if the gas crisis were prolonged.

Bulgaria's only nuclear plant Kozloduy has two 1,000-megawatt operating units left.

Socialist President Georgi Parvanov, a staunch supporter of restarting the units, has said Brussels should allow Sofia to use them and boost power exports to cushion the impact of global economic slowdown that will hit growth and income.

Recent polls show about 70 percent of Bulgarians support the restart of the units and some analysts say politicians are trying to appease to voters ahead of elections this year.

Bulgaria has repeatedly tried to reopen the two reactors, but the EU Commission had ruled it out, saying there was no clear evidence they can meet EU's safety standards.

The EU Commission warned Slovakia it could launch an infringement procedure against it if Bratislava, also hard hit by the gas cuts, reopens a Soviet-era nuclear reactor it closed at the end of 2008 as part of its EU treaty.

Slovakia's economy minister said on January 18 he hoped to announce that the reactor would remain closed.