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 billion euros).

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 Russian project.

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 revenue.

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-