Bulgarians seen challenging government in nuclear plant vote

Sun Jan 27, 2013 8:54am EST
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By Tsvetelia Tsolova

SOFIA (Reuters) - Bulgarians are expected to vote in favor of building a new nuclear power plant in their first referendum in the post-communist era on Sunday, challenging the government's decision to abandon the multi-billion-dollar project.

The plebiscite will be seen as a test of public support for the policies of rightist Prime Minister Boiko Borisov ahead of a July election, even though high turnout requirements mean the result of the nuclear referendum is not likely to be binding.

Only 9.34 percent of the voters in the Balkan country had cast a ballot by 1 p.m. (6.00 a.m. ET), six hours before the polling stations were to close, official data showed. Analysts said the apparent voter apathy was mainly due to lack of expert information on the cost, benefits and need for a new plant.

Borisov, already struggling to revive a lackluster economy, canceled the construction of the 2,000-megawatt plant at Belene in March, saying the Balkan country could not afford to foot the bill, estimated at more than 10 billion euros ($13.5 billion).

Bulgaria's allies in Brussels and Washington also opposed the project, fearing it would deepen the country's economic and political dependence on Russia. Moscow offered to finance the plant, which would have been built by its Atomstroyexport.

But opinion polls suggested two thirds of people who said they intended to vote would choose to press on with the plant, many of them hoping it would rein in electricity prices, create jobs and help make Bulgaria an energy hub for southeast Europe.

"Bulgaria needs a new nuclear power plant. I do not want my kids to pay high electricity bills and that's what will happen if we give up the construction of the Belene plant," engineer Georgi Avramov, 49, told Reuters ahead of the vote.


Cranes are seen in the background at the construction site of Bulgaria's second nuclear power plant in Belene, some 230 km (143 miles) north of Sofia, January 24, 2013. REUTERS/Stoyan Nenov