Nearly 800,000 Bulgarians have signed a petition by the opposition Socialist Party calling for a national referendum on the Belene nuclear plant project.
By Svetla Dimitrova for Southeast European Times in Sofia -- 09/08/12
The construction of the Belene nuclear power plant was stopped in March. [Reuters]
Bulgaria's parliament will have to decide in the next three months whether to approve a referendum petition filed by the opposition Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) on Sofia's decision to abandon the Belene nuclear power plant project.
After four months of incessant criticism of the March decision to pull out of the controversial venture, BSP leader and former Prime Minister Sergey Stanishev told parliament that his party collected 773,447 signatures in support of its bid. "We do not want important issues like this one … to be decided behind closed doors," Stanishev told lawmakers.
If at least 500,000 signatures are verified, the legislature will have to approve the holding of a national referendum. President Rosen Plevneliev would set the date for the plebiscite, most likely in early 2013.
After nearly three years in office, the government headed by GERB leader Boyko Borisov, said on March 28th that it was abandoning the plans for the construction of the Belene plant.
The main reasons behind the move were the lack of strategic foreign investors and the high cost of the project, which had been plagued by numerous problems and delays since 2006.
Financial consultants HSBC said in a report released earlier this year that the price of building the Balkan nation's second nuclear plant would exceed 10 billion euros.
"We still do not know the cost of that project," Bulgarian Economy, Energy and Tourism Minister Delyan Dobrev told reporters after the referendum petition was submitted. "There is no strategic investor, there is no funding.
"If [nearly] 800,000 people support the Belene [plant], do they also agree to pay up to 30,000 leva (about 15,000 euros) each for the plant to be built?" Dobrev asked.
He also viewed the referendum bid as an attempt to measure the voter support the party could muster at the next parliamentary elections, due to be held in summer 2013.
According to Yuliy Pavlov, head of the Sofia-based Centre for Analyses and Marketing, questions requiring expert knowledge should not be put to a referendum, but left for experts to decide.
"Generally, referendums are a rather populist exercise, because of similar attempts to extrapolate the figures, which is not always well-founded," Pavlov told SETimes.
It will be a difficult task to ensure that Bulgarians will get all the information they need to be able to make an informed choice, Antoaneta Tzoneva, chairman of the Institute for Public Environment Development in Sofia, said.
"This is a critical issue in any referendum, because people need to know the price of their choice," she told SETimes, noting that in the case of Belene that was "where and how the needed funding for the project would be secured."
"It is important to see, first, how the question will be formulated, and second, how the information campaign will be conducted," Tzoneva said.
If all the legal requirements are met, that would be the first nationwide referendum to be held in Bulgaria since 1946, when nearly 96 percent of voters rejected the monarchy in favour of a people's republic, and the one in May 1971 on the country's then-new constitution.