|THE RUSSIAN PEACEFUL ATOM STAGES A
COMEBACK IN EUROPE
MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti commentator Tatiana Sinitsyna)
Russia has scored a prestigious victory, winning a tender for the
construction of a nuclear power plant at Belene, a small Bulgarian town on
the Danube. “This is a big day for Russia,” said Sergei Kiriyenko,
head of the Federal Agency for Nuclear Power. “Russia is returning to
the European nuclear-power construction market. This is a great event
because we have not built anything in Europe since the Soviet era, and now
we’re back.” Given that Bulgaria will join the European Union on
January 1, 2007, the building of a power plant at Belene will be
Russia’s first construction project on the Union’s territory.
The Russian company, Atomstroyexport, had to compete with powerful western
corporations: the Czech Republic’s Skoda, Japan’s Toshiba and the
Anglo-American Westinghouse consortium. The tender was very complex; the
Bulgarian side invited more than 200 experts from eight countries to vet
the projects, including such well-known consultancies as Parsons and
Deloitte Central Limited. However, it became clear from the start that
Russia was offering the best proposal – technologically effective, safe,
durable (60 years of operation) and attractively priced.
What did Russia propose? The best it has to offer: the AES-92 project,
which complies with the most stringent international standards. It is
based on two new-generation VVER-1000 reactors (water-cooled and
water-moderated power reactors with a capacity of 1,000 MW), updated using
the latest technologies and ensuring the utmost level of safety,
reliability and efficiency.
The project is a unique combination of active and passive safety systems,
which guarantee maximum protection of the plant. Designers have
anticipated the worst possible emergency scenarios, such as a sudden
de-energizing of the plant, rupture of the reactor vessel, or even an
aircraft crashing into the plant’s building.
One important feature of the design is the reactor building’s double
protective envelope– steel inside and heavy reinforced concrete outside.
The centerpiece of the safety arrangement is the so-called trap for the
active zone melt – an original and purely Russian idea.
The world has not yet seen anything more advanced than the Belene project.
But why is it cheaper than the foreign bids? The main reason is that the
building site is not a green field, but an abandoned project that was
launched in 1984 and terminated in 1991 for geopolitical reasons in the
wake of the U.S.S.R.’s breakdown. By that time the scheme was 40%
complete, with 60% of equipment already delivered, including a reactor, a
steam generator and a turbine. It is this “starting capital” that
dictated a low price of 2.6 billion euros (the Czech project was three
Bulgaria’s opposition press had a field day with the low cost of the
Russian project, describing it as a “dangerous fact.” The newspaper
Bankir, for example, kept trying to scare its readers by saying that
Russia is “bribing the Bulgarians to pursue its political and
expansionist energy aims.” But what can Bulgaria fear when it is under
the European Union’s protection?
Speaking of the historical past, what “awful” things did Russia do to
Bulgaria except give it a taste for nuclear energy? It built the Kozlodui
nuclear plant on the Danube and trained Bulgarian nuclear specialists at
its colleges and universities. As a result, the country has not only
guaranteed its energy security, but has also turned into a peaceful atomic
nation, exporting, in addition to tomatoes and green peas, a
high-technology product – nuclear power — to many Balkan countries.
The first expert “screening” left two strong contenders: Russia’s
Atomstroyexport and the Czech Skoda-Allianz consortium. Next, the
tendering commission worked for 17 more months to compare the finer points
of both offers. According to Kiriyenko, “the organizers have gone
through the contractors’ proposals with a fine-tooth comb.” They made
1,580 written inquiries and got the participants to agree on 1,840 points.
The Russians provided a total of three tons of documents. But there was
still no progress. The Bulgarians wanted more.
In July of this year, Bulgarian Economy and Energy Minister Rumen Ovcharov
issued a virtual ultimatum to Atomstroyexport and Skoda-Allianz demanding
that they modify their bids once again. The Bulgarians were pressing for
the impossible goal of shortening construction time and reducing building
costs. Saying they wanted to see the Belene plant incorporate the best
technology in the world, the client was also making overtures to French
companies. But Europeans, for whom construction of a nuclear plant is
above all a business, were not prepared to meet the Bulgarians’ price.
The time when politics took precedence over everything else was gone, and
Russian nuclear firms did not want to build for prestige against their own
interests. There was even a moment of apathy after waiting so long for
Sofia’s decision. But in the end, the balance tipped in favor of the
The first Belene reactor will be completed in five and a half years. The
second reactor will be finished a year later. As a result, Bulgaria will
again recover a sense of energy security following the decommissioning of
the Kozlodui units, which occurred not for engineering reasons, but under
political pressure from the EU. The Belene plant will allow the Bulgarian
treasury to go back to nuclear power as a traditional source of export
The contract for the building of the Belene Nuclear Power Plant is an
important moment for Russia: It is returning to Europe. In Soviet times,
it built nuclear plants in Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Finland. But the
Chernobyl tragedy and the radiophobia it unleashed tarnished the image of
nuclear power and slowed the development of the nuclear industry. To
maintain its scientific and technological capital, Russia refocused its
efforts on nuclear construction in India, China and Iran. But today,
Russia’s hiatus on the European nuclear market is over. –0-