Slightly more than 20 percent of Bulgarian voters participated in Sunday's national referendum on building a new nuclear power plant in the country.
By Svetla Dimitrova for Southeast European Times in Sofia -- 29/01/13
About 22 percent of eligible Bulgarians voted in the referendum. [AFP]
The majority of participants in Bulgaria's first national referendum in its post-communist history voted in favour of the construction of a new nuclear power plant in the country. But with turnout in Sunday's (January 27th) standing at below the legal requirement for their decision to be binding, the issue goes back to parliament.
Preliminary exit poll results showed that close to 22 percent of registered voters, or about 1.5 million Bulgarian citizens, participated in the referendum. Of them, 61 percent approved the question: "Should nuclear energy be developed further in Bulgaria by building a new nuclear power plant?"
Under law, the number of participants needs to be equal to or higher than that recorded at the Balkan nation's last parliamentary elections, and at least 50 percent must vote in favour for the result of the plebiscite to be valid.
The point of reference in this case is the July 5th 2009 election, when 4.3 million, or 60 percent, of registered voters, went to the polls.
The law also provides that if the turnout is lower than that required minimum, but is above 20 percent of the registered voters, the question must go back to parliament to decide.
The plebiscite was initiated by the main opposition Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) after the government abandoned the country's long-running plans to build a 2,000 MW nuclear facility at Belene on the Danube River, 100 kilometres east of the existing Kozloduy nuclear power plant.
Prime Minister Boyko Borisov's ruling centre-right GERB party decided to quit the project in March 2012, citing the lack of serious strategic foreign investors drawn to the costly venture.
The controversial project was proposed in the early 1980s, and was frozen about a decade later. The plan was then revived by former Prime Minister Simeon Saxe Coburg's government (2001-2005). In late 2006, Bulgaria's previous BSP-led coalition government contracted Russian company Rosatom's subsidiary Atomstroyexport to build the Belene plant. But Sofia and Rosatom failed to reach a final accord on the project after disagreeing on cost.
Meanwhile, more than 1 billion euros has been spent on the project.
According to financial consultants, more than 10 billion euros will be needed to build the Belene plant, which Bulgaria cannot afford at a time of crisis, the government said.
BSP leader Sergey Stanishev, whose party maintains that the project would cost less than 6 billion euros, reiterated on Sunday that Russia is ready to provide the needed funding. The outcome of the referendum, he said, represented "an unconditional personal defeat and a personal no-confidence vote in [Prime Minister Boyko] Borisov," who urged GERB's supporters earlier this month to reject the referendum.
Borisov said that the plebiscite, which cost taxpayers about 7 million euros, proved pointless, noting that the money could have been put to a better use.
President Rosen Plevneliev, however, said that what mattered was that 23 years after the end of communism in the country, Bulgarians were finally given an opportunity to participate directly in the decision-making process.
"Irrespective of how many people will go out to vote and what the outcome will be, the referendum is a big success for democracy in Bulgaria," he said.
The Belene project stirred passions in neighboring Romania too, especially among environmentalists who warned that the plant would be located at the crossroads of three seismically active centres.
"As a nuclear energy producing country, Romania believes each country has the right to decide on the use of this resource, by observing at the same time both European and international nuclear safety and security standards and the environment protection requirements, according to the applicable international laws," the Romanian foreign ministry said in a statement released to SETimes.
Romania will closely watch the project in terms of ensuring its territory is not affected and international norms concerning the evaluation of the trans-border environmental impact of the project are observed, it added.
SETimes correspondent Paul Ciocoiu in Bucharest contributed to this report.