Speculation of Rosatom Participation in the Belene Nuclear Power Plant Persists, as Bid Deadline Delayed Due to Coronavirus

In January 2020, Russia’s Atomenergoprom (a subsidiary of Rosatom) and China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC) were among a group of multinational companies shortlisted as potential strategic investors of the $10 billion Belene Nuclear Power Plant (NPP) in Bulgaria.  Other companies include Korea Hydro and Nuclear Power, France’s Framatome and U.S.-based General Electric.  Initially, binding bids for the project were due by May 31, 2020, however, this submission deadline has been postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Although many speculate that Russian participation in the project is likely, Bulgarian officials have pushed back on this assumption in part based on the concerns that are implied about Russian influence and related strategic dependencies.

Last year Prime Minister Boyko Borisov rejected the “’dogma’ that NPP Belene is a ‘Russian project,’” arguing that Bulgaria has paid for both reactors and that they are Bulgarian property.  Borisov said that the project could become “very beautiful” with American turbines and Franco-German equipment, adding that competition will have the last word.

A previous iteration of the project, which was scrapped in 2012 was awarded to Rosatom unit, Atomstroyexport.  When the project was cancelled, Bulgaria was forced to pay approximately $664.8 million in compensation to the Russian entity for work and equipment that had already been commissioned.  The Belene project was ultimately revived by Sofia to make use of the reactors the country had already purchased. 

The Belene NPP is expected to supplement Bulgaria’s Soviet-era Kozloduy NPP, the country’s only nuclear plant that supplies approximately 30% of the country’s energy needs.  Whereas, Bulgaria derives most of its energy from domestic coal production, the country is likely to be increasingly dependent on nuclear and gas, as pressure mounts for Bulgaria to comply with EU climate policy standards.Nuclear power plants also carry inherent strategic importance due to their long lifespan, the large costs involved, the presence of large state-owned foreign contractors, their influence over large-scale subcontracts overseen within the host country as well as the dependencies created on imported nuclear fuel.  Accordingly, a country’s choice of contractor in this sector has significant strategic implications.