Prof. Yanko Yanev, Director of the Institute for Nuclear Knowledge Management in Vienna and Executive Director of the International Academy of Nuclear Energy
We entered a cyclical election and it is not clear when and how we will go out. If for democracy, repeat elections are a good exercise in clarifying policies and finding a common denominator among political activists, then an unstable parliament and often changing governments are the worst options for projects related to the country's energy security. It is clear to everyone that energy is the backbone around which the whole economy is built. We are now in the first corrective of the election process, hopefully the last, and produce a stable majority that will govern our country wisely.
A few days ago, the caretaker Minister of Energy Andrey Zhivkov admitted that the state energy is "in the red" and this is not news, but a trend that is deepening. There are many issues in it, but two of them are really urgent - the fate of the coal-fired power plants and the Belene NPP project. Apart from not being postponed, these two issues require a solid consensus, which we all hope to see in a new functioning parliament.
It may be too late soon…
No matter how much some people imagine and are afraid to say it out loud, Bulgaria will have to close the Maritza East TPP at some point and it is not far away. President Rumen Radev speaks of this as a loss of autonomy, but I understand it as a loss of domestic production and import of electricity. If that happens, electricity traders will rub their hands and people…it is unclear how they will pay their bills. I am convinced that within 10 years the state-owned Maritza East will not be operational, and from a strategic point of view, the Belene NPP must be built in order to replace these facilities. Visits and media noise surrounding the construction of Unit 7 at Kozloduy NPP do not work when it comes to guaranteed replacement of 2,000 megawatts by 2030. Yes, the closure of lignite plants is a difficult step on the way to reforming the electricity system not only in our country but also around the world. However, Europe, America, China, Australia and others are moving too fast in this direction and no one will ask us whether we like it or not. Even the most coal-fired country in the EU, Poland, will sooner or later join European energy policy. And although it has no experience in the nuclear industry, Poland is seriously preparing to build up to 9,000 megawatts of nuclear power. Hungary is building another 2,000 megawatts, the Czech Republic is working on one or two more power units, Romania, Slovenia / Croatia and Slovakia as well. Even the Baltic states are considering the introduction of nuclear power in the near future.
It is true that thousands work in the Maritsa East complex and they will lose their current jobs, but these people can be retrained. Europe is allocating billions for this, and implementing a good energy strategy can not only answer the social question of jobs in the Mari basin, but also kick-start the recovery of the environment. There are also opinions about gasification of coal-fired power plants. Obviously, someone wants to profit from the sale of gas, and it will become more expensive. Let's not forget that up to 80% of the price of electricity from gas power plants is determined by the price of gas. This will never pay off.
Not a desire, but a strategy
So the completion of the Belene NPP is not a goal, but a strategy in which the role of the state is fundamental. Now she says she has little interest in a second nuclear power plant, and someone else, called an investor, on a commercial basis, has to come and build it. How will you make an investor invest 10 billion euros when you demonstrate that you are not interested in the project? We brag that we have a super computer or that we make headlights for luxury cars, but if our energy system fails, the investors, who are still on their toes, will leave, and the supercomputer will run on a diesel generator.
Why do I say that the lack of strategic thinking and the hole in the energy sector are not news. As early as 2018, when BULATOM commissioned the Vienna Center for Nuclear Competence (VINCC) to report on the risk of completion of the Belene NPP project, an international team of experts pointed out that the project has a low risk of completion. It was presented to the Energy Committee in the National Assembly and it was stated that the construction risk to the project is low, as there is a competent builder with vast experience, all equipment with a long production period has been produced, a licensed and prepared site is available. . Then, and now, one of the biggest risks we mentioned is the so-called political risk. It has different dimensions - delaying decisions, incompetent decision-making, postponement, freezing, etc. This risk continues to be a major brake on energy. Time goes by, the hole in the sector is getting bigger and we still do not have time to draw a clear direction for the development of nuclear energy. From election to election, we are again in a situation of political ideas and almost zero expert assessment of what is possible and what is not. Moreover, this process is saturated with public speaking, with which some "experts" have lately literally mocked people's ignorance and fears - about seismicity, technology, safety and so on. Now everyone can check the facts with one mouse movement, for example for the technology, about which you can hear a lot. The facts show that WWER technology is used and built most widely in the world. The same goes for the safety systems that are on a generation 3+ evolutionary reactor, and for whatever you can think of related to the Belene NPP.
Do we have staff and where is the problem?
The problem with the staff is like with the Belene NPP project itself - it is only talked about, not acted upon. Does anyone ask why, for example, the United States again so actively thought of developing nuclear energy? No major reactor has been built in America for 30 years. This is a serious loss of competence in various fields - construction, engineering, design personnel. After realizing that they were far behind large reactors, they decided to focus on another technology - the so-called small and medium modular reactors. Extremely interesting and advanced both as a technology and as an industry. The problem is that it will take at least another 10 years to demonstrate and license the technology and the same amount of time to build and introduce the industrial production base. This is a new nuclear energy platform that has yet to be tested, developed and introduced. However, the name of Bill Gates alone is not enough. A serious state strategy and support is needed now and in the future. This is fully valid for Bulgaria as well. A nuclear energy program consumes and must create a wide range of specialists. The science of the peaceful uses of nuclear energy is based on the fission of uranium. And when you have such specialists in our country, whom you are not even interested in having, you lose an invaluable advantage - in front of the world, in front of the Great Powers, in front of the neighbor.
A serious state strategy and support for nuclear energy is needed now and in the future. And the lack of such is evident for some time two months ago. Seven heads of state, led by French President Emmanuel Macron, then handed a démarche to the European Commission, urging that the benefits of nuclear energy for decarbonising the European energy system be carefully considered and given due consideration in future reforms. Who knows why, however, Bulgaria was absent from this initiative. And all these countries, except France, are participating in the Three Seas initiative, and this is a new potential platform for cooperation. I am convinced that very soon even current opponents of nuclear energy will realize that in order for the sun and wind to be in the country's energy mix, there must be a certain amount of nuclear energy in order to be truly "green" and reduce carbon. There is simply no other way, and going back to the parable of the blind and the elephant just doesn't make sense.