Nuclear manufacturer Westinghouse Electric Co. claims that its new nuclear reactor is the safest in the world. The AP-1000 boasts a design that’s virtually human error-proof, one of the biggest selling points for its construction in the town of Kozlodui, Bulgaria. But now this futuristic technology faces conditions it wasn’t designed to withstand: tremors along geopolitical fault lines between Russia and the West.
Nuclear energy is always a political issue, especially so in this Eastern European country of 7 million with a long history of straddling uncomfortably between powers. Westinghouse is an American corporate giant, and things have been particularly ugly lately between the U.S. and Russia: in March, Vladimir Putin annexed parts of Ukraine. In December, falling oil prices and western sanctions decimated the Russian ruble. It is, depending on whose calculations, a smart time or a horrible time for Bulgaria to be asserting a degree of energy independence. The linchpin to that discussion is, arguably, the safety claims of the AP-1000.
“As far as I am aware, the American technology AP-1000 is the safest in the world,” says Alexander Nikolov, the deputy director of the aging Soviet-designed Kozlodui nuclear power plant which Bulgaria hopes to revive with this project. Nuclear safety is a controversial issue in Europe, and the E.U. forced Bulgaria to close down Kozlodui’s oldest and most vulnerable four reactors prior to admitting it as a member in 2007. The pressure has risen after the 2011 Fukushima disaster in Japan. The original operating terms of Bulgaria’s remaining two reactors are set to expire in the next decade, and supporters of the plant, who see it as a source of both national pride and cheap electricity, are concerned about its future. Many also point to the fact that popular protests over the price of electricity toppled the government in 2013, triggering a long period of political instability.
Some observers question the economic logic of this argument. “I haven’t seen yet a forecast for the growth of electricity consumption in Bulgaria which would justify building an additional [electricity-generating] capacity,” says Ruslan Stefanov, a senior economic analyst at the Sofia-based thinktank Center for the Study of Democracy. He believes that it would make more sense for Bulgaria to focus instead on improving its existing energy infrastructure and the relatively low energy efficiency of its industries.
The move toward an American plant has been a long time coming. When it first opened in 1974, Kozlodui was the first nuclear power plant in Soviet-dominated Southeast Europe, a testament to the country’s status as the USSR’s most loyal satellite. Now Bulgaria is a member of both the E.U. and NATO, but Russia isn’t prepared to give up its influence here–an influence still so strong that Western leaders still sometimes worry Bulgaria might end up as a pro-Russian “trojan horse.”
Western analysts charge that the Kremlin is using a complex subversive strategy to infiltrate Eastern Europe, essentially a mix of economic soft power, media spin and aggressive courting of diverse political groups–some as far apart as the far left and the far right. Energy politics is a large part in it: Bulgaria, like most of its neighbors, imports most of its oil and gas from Russia.
But Russia’s alleged plans are only half of the story. The U.S. and the E.U. have also helped turn energy in this part of the world into a “geopolitical football” by aggressively interfering into the plans of different countries to build large energy infrastructure projects–not just nukes but gas and oil pipelines, too.
The most recent example of this was the South Stream gas pipeline, which was projected to carry 63 billion cubic meters of Russian gas a year to Bulgaria, Serbia, Hungary, Austria and Italy. Alarmed by events in Ukraine and seeking to curb Russian influence, the U.S. and the E.U. pushed back against the project and forced Bulgaria to suspend work on it in June, citing anti-monopoly regulations. Many Bulgarians saw this decision as unfairly victimizing them. Then on December 1 Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that he was terminating the project, essentially blaming Bulgaria for his decision. This shook the fragile grip on power of the recently elected pro-Western government in Sofia.
Caught up in a tug-of-war between rival foreign powers, as well as in the split sympathies of their citizens, successive Bulgarian governments have sought creative ways to hedge their foreign policy commitments. “There is a fairly crude logic at play here, aiming to create a balance in [Bulgaria’s] foreign policy,” says Dimitar Bechev, an Eastern Europe expert at the London School of Economics. “The goal is to give the Russians some [big energy projects] and at the same time to buy American support by giving them something as well.”
Western Europe wants to be assured about safety. During normal operations, the AP-1000 works much like any other pressurized water reactor, by boiling water and spinning turbines. In times of crisis, however, blind natural forces such as gravity, convection and gas pressure take over: valves open and close on their own; water from overhead tanks floods critical areas and gases that might explode are let out. According to Westinghouse, zero operator assistance or external power is needed for the first 72 hours following a breakdown of normal operations, during which time the reactor essentially shuts itself down.
Nikolov says that big international banks such as Citibank are eager to take part in the financing. He doesn’t say, however, on what terms. And the new Bulgarian government, though it is seen as pro-Western, is very short of funds: the ratings agency Standard & Poor’s just cut the country’s credit rating to junk. Prime Minister Boiko Borisov, ironically the same man who resigned in electricity protests in 2013, has said that he is looking for investors in order to proceed. A new chance at energy independence is always a chance at redemption.