By Milena Hristova April 26, 2014
When Chernobyl melted down in 1986 I was a thousand kilometres away, in Bulgaria. I was spending some of my happiest childhood moments at my grandparents' house.
In step with the Communist and pro-USSR policy of the time, my mum, dad and sister were away on a trip to Kiev. Like all "ordinary" Bulgarians, we had no idea what was going on.
When my dad, a healthy and moderate man in every respect, suddenly got sick and died of cancer in 2007, Chernobyl was one of the demons we silently blamed for the nightmare.
Meanwhile my mother was diagnosed with cancer too and after battling the disease for three years with the utmost courage and patience, she gave up the fight in 2012.
I admit blaming Chernobyl was the easiest thing to do – vengeance is part of human nature. Yet besides our anger, we had our arguments – the unofficial figures. And also the words of my mother, a chemist by profession, who said she felt the malignant effect on her body during her stay near Kiev. She even remembered the exact moment she sensed something was wrong – while traveling on a train between Chernobyl and Kiev, a distance of some 70 miles, on April 26, 1986.
The full effect of Chernobyl on Bulgaria remains unclear, largely because of the information blackout the authorities imposed following Soviet orders. Yet the rise in cancer rates and genetic defects speaks for itself. The blackout hid thousands of deaths, while safety concerns turned the nuclear energy issue into a political one – in Bulgaria and across Europe.
Twenty-eight years after the Chernobyl disaster, Bulgaria is an EU member state – and one of Europe's few vocal proponents of atomic energy. Despite Chernobyl disaster, Japan's crisis, EU's warnings, record-low electricity consumption in crisis-hit Bulgaria and amid what is no doubt the most perilous crisis in East-West relations since the end of the Cold War, the Socialist government is ready to bow to Moscow's nuclear demands.
The country, which satisfies a third of its power needs with nuclear energy, is drumming up support for re-opening of the two decommissioned reactors at the Kozloduy Nuclear Power Plant.
It also plans to resurrect the construction of 2000-MW nuclear plant in Belene, on the Danube.
The Kozloduy saga could be an article unto itself. In brief, as early as November 1999 it was clear that not only the ageing Reactors Nos. 1 and 2, but also 3 and 4 needed to be decommissioned. However, the sob stories of thousands of nuclear professionals from Kozloduy turned the once despised Soviet-built plant into a national cause.
To no effect – Brussels does not believe in tears, to paraphrase the title of a Soviet film popular in Bulgaria in the 1980s. The EU firmly stood its ground, reiterating its commitment to pay for the decommissioning of the oldest units and the upgrade of Reactors Nos. 5 and 6, as well as the facilities envisaged in the 2007-2013 financial plan.
The flimsy arguments behind key aspects of the Belene project have raised doubts about the real reasons behind Bulgaria's enthusiastic pursuit of a nuclear future. Besides, now that South Stream has been pronounced dead, the Russian bear servants in Bulgaria are afraid they may end up hungry. That's why the huge appetite for backhanders they may get from Belene.
Bulgaria's renewed pursuit of atomic energy places it once again in Europe's backyard and brands it as Russia's Trojan horse in the united bloc.
To all those nuclear energy proponents in Bulgaria, I would recommend a day trip to Pripyat, the ghost city of Chernobyl.
The site is now touted as an exciting attraction for dark tourism fans. It's not only fashionable, but also may have a more profound effect on them than they expect.
A trip to Chernobyl changes everything.