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Bulgarian MEP Vladimir Urutchev asks why the EU has created an embarrassing situation in the Balkans but refuses to correct its own error

 PARLIAMENTMAGAZINE  28.04.2008

The introduction in 2003 of the emissions trading scheme (ETS) created a market mechanism which puts a cost on emitting carbon dioxide, but for energy intensive industries, this makes their operations more costly, and therefore less competitive in global markets. However, with the proposed adjustments to the EU-ETS, that disadvantage can be minimised – a good example of a problem created by the EU – with the best of intentions – and one that has since been corrected.
But the EU does not always act so decisively to correct its own problems – and it does not always have such good reasons for making mistakes in the first place. I am referring to the growing energy crisis in south east Europe caused in large part by the forced closure of four units of the Kozloduy nuclear power plant, one of the conditions of Bulgaria’s entry into the EU. This situation has a long and complicated history and I know it very well: before becoming an MEP in May last year, I was the chief engineer of those closed Kozloduy units. In fact, a large part of my reason for entering European politics was to try to explain and correct this most terrible of mistakes.
It is true that, in 1991, Kozloduy units one to four received a damning report about their condition and some aspects of their operation. At that time, Kozloduy supplied around 50 per cent of Bulgaria’s electricity. It was also the moment of the first democratically elected government - which faced being swiftly democratically unelected if they heeded the call to close these plants. Instead, with the support of the European commission and the world association of nuclear operators, a programme of safety improvement was undertaken. It took a long time, and cost around half a billion euros, mostly from Kozloduy’s own earnings. This led to countless independent expert missions concluding that the plant was at least as good as others in the EU. Even the European council’s atomic questions group of experts concluded, in 2003, that all safety issues for units three and four had been addressed and that no more monitoring was necessary.
However, in 1999, as a condition for the start of EU accession talks, the Bulgarian government and vice-president Günther Verheugen (then the commissioner for enlargement) signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) to close these units – two in 2002 and two by the end of 2006. Today, this MoU remains the evidence of the duress under which the then Bulgarian government signed away this national, regional and European asset. The claim at that time by the commission was that the units were “not economically upgradeable” – despite the fact that they had been economically upgraded to the satisfaction of all independent experts who visited, inspected, analysed and reported on the plant’s condition, operation and independent regulation.
So, Bulgaria took a decision under duress for which it will have to accept the consequences - but it is not as simple as that. In the five years up to the closure deadline of 2006, Bulgaria exported electricity to every one of its neighbours – around 7.5 Terrawatt hours per year, almost exactly the output from two of the closed units. As a consequence of the closure, Bulgaria cannot export electricity any more until a new plant comes on line in around six years. These units could very easily fill that energy gap. In the Balkan region, there is little alternative energy supply. What there is, is small, inefficient, based on environmentally damaging lignite and expensive. Some countries are hurriedly developing gas plants that will use Russian gas. So our electricity is becoming more environmentally damaging, more expensive and more externally dependent – isn’t that exactly the opposite of what the EU demands? For most people, it means power cuts and the consequent damage to their economies, livelihoods and civil stability. In Albania alone, there have been times when electricity has been supplied for less than one hour per day and, as always, the poorest people have been hit the hardest.
I am not calling for MoU to be overturned, but I do want it to be reviewed against all current criteria. This matter is in the hands of the council, and the Slovenian presidency has made Balkan concerns its priority – they alone can reverse this self-inflicted harm.