The Guardian - 'If something happens here it will affect the whole of Europe'

Get rid of it, says the EU, or you can't join. But Bulgaria's only nuclear plant is still in action. Matthew Chapman goes inside the notorious Kolzoduy power station

Thursday December 2, 1999

The Guardian

The manager of the water turbines at Bulgaria's only nuclear power plant held his arms out as wide as they could go to give an idea of the sheer size of the monster fish that are caught in the "hot" channel, where warmed cooling water leaves the plant. "If we'd known you were coming we could have set up a barbecue," he said, looking every bit the disappointed host. Having just been arrested and then transported to the turbine rooms,we were as surprised to be the water manager's guests as he was to receive us.

Being hauled away by security officers while outside the Kozloduy nuclear power station is nothing new for environmental activist Polina Kirova. The 21-year-old geography student is something of a lone voice of protest in a country which regards the ageing station as a symbol of national pride. "This is a macho country and this power plant shows how virile we are," says Kirova with heavy irony. "Anyway, you don't want to mess with the only thing that is making any money in Bulgaria."

Spread across several kilometres on the banks of the Danube, within sight of Romania on the opposite side of the river, Kozloduy is a vast network of smoking chimney stacks, metal pipes and concrete buildings. Built 25 years ago by engineers from the Soviet Union, this power station has been labelled by the US energy department as one of the seven most dangerous nuclear plants in the world.

During the winter, its six reactors supply roughly half Bulgaria's power requirements, but in the summer, when other conventional power plants are closed down, Kozloduy keeps virtually all Bulgaria going.

The European Union is nervous about the creaking nuclear plant on its borders - so much so that it has barred Bulgaria from beginning talks on EU entry unless the government agrees to a timetable for shutting Kozloduy's first four reactors down. Bulgaria, on the other hand, makes desperately needed foreign currency from selling surplus electricity to Turkey, and is currently debating whether closure of the plant is too high a price to pay for entry to the EU. "Many people think we will go back to some sort of stone age if they close it," says Kirova.

Ten years after the fall of communism, environmental protests are something of a novelty in Bulgaria; Kirova wages a particularly unpopular battle. "We have men, and they are always men, phoning and threatening us. They say 'keep your nose out of this', and slam the phone down."

Her group, Za Zemiata, which means For the Earth, has imported international techniques of direct action and Kirova and her small band of student eco-warriors have made themselves a thorn in the side of the Kozloduy plant operators. Earlier this summer, when a no-fly zone was meant to be operating above the plant to protect it from accidental bombing by Nato jets, she filmed allied aircraft buzzing above it, heading back and forth from Kosovo. One of these bombing sorties hit the Bulgarian capital, destroying a block of flats and some houses, although nobody was killed.

"During the war they managed to bomb Sofia accidently, which is miles from Kosovo - even though we were supporting the allies," said Kirova. "It made us worried about Kozloduy because they obviously didn't respect the no-fly zone."

Later, Kirova returned to test the plant's security - and walked unchallenged the two-kilometre length of the hot channel right up to the nuclear plant itself. "No one bothered to ask what was going on, and this was when we were all being warned that Serbian terrorists might be planning to attack the plant.

"If something happens here this will affect the whole of Europe. We are on the border with Greece and just a short journey from Italy. Nuclear contamination doesn't respect these borders."

Clearly aware that it has to win the PR war in order to survive, the plant is keen to show that there are no longer any rusty, leaking pipes or workers smoking with their feet up on control desks, as western inspectors found several years ago.

Marin Stoev is in charge of safety at reactors one to four. How does he react to accusations that his plant is a nuclear disaster waiting to happen? "It saddens me that people say these things about this plant," he says, gazing around the control room. "The safety here is almost up to western standards - not quite, but almost."

One of the biggest criticisms of Kozloduy is that it has no secondary containment system. While western power plants usually have a distinctive mushroom dome to contain any leaks, in Bulgaria any such leak would let radioactive steam straight out into the atmosphere. "But it wouldn't leak for long," says Stoev. Even if the biggest pipeline were to rupture, radioactive steam would escape for only 150 seconds before the system shut down. "The levels of radioactivity in the surrounding area would still remain within western limits," he says.

The plant has another problem which has worried Bulgaria's nuclear regulator: radioactive waste, which has been building up at the site for a quarter of a century. While some is transported to Russia for reprocessing, much remains at Kozloduy - and experts are increasingly worried that in a country with a history of large earthquakes, no one thought to make the storage site quake-proof. Bulgaria's nuclear regulator took away Kozloduy's licence to run the storage facility two years ago, but the decision has not been enforced and the waste continues to build up.

The deadlines that are being negotiated by the EU with Bulgaria for closures of reactors one to four are constantly shifting. While former Bulgarian prime minister Lyuben Berov had promised they would be shut down in 1997, it now seems that the earliest date by which reactors one and two could be decommissioned is 2004.

Meanwhile, problems continue to dog the oldest reactors. This summer, reactor two had to be shut down for nearly a fortnight following a water leak; power cuts have forced other shutdowns, while worries continue that oil slicks in the Danube could clog the flow of cooling water.

The plant's operators point to a host of inspections, from the International Atomic Energy Authority to the nuclear industry body WENRA, which have given Kozloduy a clean bill of health. There is no doubt that safety levels have changed beyond all recognition since western experts first gained access in 1991.

They found a demoralised workforce who in some cases had not been paid for months and a plant teetering on the brink of disaster. To help retain the best staff, the operators have raised extra funds from the government to ensure the 6,500 workers are paid five times the amount of the average Bulgarian worker. Safety drills are commonplace.

A few days after our official tour we returned with Kirova, who wanted to show the route she had taken along the "hot" channel several months before. Security has obviously been stepped up, and this time we were stopped at the first check point. "You can't come in here, this is a security zone, it's totally restricted," said a Kalashnikov-wielding guard. "Unless, of course, you have a fishing permit."

A few moments later, having checked with headquarters, he arrested us. After an hour's lecture from the head of security, we were told that an escorted tour of the water turbines had been arranged. "We have nothing to hide," he said, giving Kirova a significant glance.

The manager there was pleased to see us, and told us of his fishing exploits. "See, that's where we catch the fish," he said, pointing to two huge barges loading up spent nuclear fuel. "Then it's a short walk to the barbecue over there. It's a pity you don't have time to stop, we would have plenty to eat. These are very big fish, the hot water means they really grow."

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