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Ovcharov calls on EU to join Bulgaria in use of nuclear energy

Bulgarian Energy Minister Roumen Ovcharov urged fellow members of the European Union to join his country in turning to nuclear power to reduce the region's dependence on oil.

„There is no other solution than nuclear power,” Ovcharov said in an interview in New York yesterday. „Bulgaria has already 30 years of good experience in running a nuclear power plant. It is safe. It provides very cheap energy.” Concern over European dependence on crude oil heightened after disruptions to supplies from Russia, the world's second-biggest oil exporter after Saudi Arabia. Russia disrupted shipments to EU members in January 2006 and again this past January amid price disputes with Ukraine and Belarus, the main corridors for exports to Europe. Russia also supplies a quarter of Europe's gas, 80% of which is shipped over Ukrainian territory. Russia's state-owned OAO Gazprom is the world's largest producer of the fuel.

Bulgaria is seeking to reopen two units at its Kozloduy nuclear power plant that were shut down in December to meet EU safety demands before joining the bloc on Jan. 1 along with Romania. The country also wants to invest more than $5 billion by 2014 to build new reactors, Ovcharov said. „Bulgaria used to be the fourth-biggest power exporter in Europe after France, Czech Republic and Poland” before the plant was closed, Ovcharov said. „Bulgaria used to cover most of the power deficit in the region including Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, Kosovo, Montenegro. Now these countries are suffering shortages of electricity.”

Opposition to the use of nuclear energy in Europe grew after a reactor at Ukraine's Chernobyl nuclear power plant exploded on April 26, 1996, spewing radiation across Ukraine, Belarus, Russia and northern Europe and killing as many as 30,000 people over the decade after the blast. Ukraine closed the remaining reactors at the plant in December 2000. OAO Atomstroyexport, Russia's nuclear-technology exporter, signed contract with Bulgaria to build two 1,000-megawatt, pressurized-water nuclear reactors at Belene on the Danube River.

France's Areva SA, the world's biggest maker of nuclear reactors, and Germany's Siemens AG, will supply the safety-control systems for the plant. The Bulgarian government is in talks with Euroatom, the EU nuclear agency, for a €300 million ($393 million) loan to help finance the project, Ovcharov said. While the talks are progressing „slowly,” the government expects the loan to be approved by year's end, he said.

Ovcharov said his country also is seeking to build more pipelines through its territory to Europe to help diversify supplies of oil and gas. Plans to build a $1.2 billion, 895-kilometer (556-mile), pipeline from the Bulgarian Black Sea port of Bourgas to Albania's port of Vlore has been delayed by a lack of financing, Ovcharov said. The pipeline is expected to carry about 35 million tons of Caspian crude a year. Greece and Bulgaria have overcame all major disagreements over another pipeline that would transport Russian crude oil from the Black Sea to the Aegean, Ovcharov said. That should clear the way for Russian President Vladimir Putin to sign a final agreement on the project next week, he said.

The €700 million, 285-kilometer pipeline would extend from the Bulgarian Black Sea port of Bourgas to the Greek port of Alexandroupolis, bypassing Turkey's clogged Bosporus and Dardanelles straits. Its initial annual capacity will be about 35 million tons of crude oil, rising later to 50 million tons. Russia ships oil from ports on the Black Sea through the Bosporus to the Mediterranean. To alleviate congestion in the straits, Turkish authorities barred tankers longer than 200 meters from sailing through the straits at night. Fewer daylight hours in winter limit the number of ships that can use the waterway, and bad weather can clog the straits further. (Bloomberg)