Kozloduy nuclear power plant

  
  - darkometer rating:  6 -
 
Kozloduy 1 - the ominous plant from afarA large nuclear power station in Bulgaria – and until a few years ago one of the potentially most dangerous nuclear installations in the world. Now that only the more modern reactor blocks 5 and 6 are in operation, the previously enormous risk has been significantly reduced. But still, it's a Soviet-era plant that oozes a creepy atmosphere all round. And you can visit it on a guided tour! Very cool. 

>More background info

>What there is to see

>Location

>Access and costs

>Time required

>Combinations with other dark destinations

>Combinations with non-dark destinations

>photos

 
More background info: Kozloduy is Bulgaria's (currently) only nuclear power station and the largest such plant in the whole region – infamously it used to be regarded as one of the world's most dangerous such sites (see also Metsamor in Armenia).
 
That reputation concerned the older four reactor blocks, in particular Nos. 1 and 2. These were built with Soviet assistance from 1970 and to an old Soviet design which didn't even include any form of containment vessel. That means if there had been a major accident, such as a Fukushima- or Chernobyl-like explosion, then there would have been no safety precautions to limit the catastrophe that would inevitably have resulted, with radioactive material being released unhindered into the air and the environment.
 
Since the fall of communism and the collapse of the Eastern Bloc, the plant came under increased scrutiny, especially in the West, and attracted worldwide concern. As Bulgaria aspired to EU membership, it became inevitable that the older units had to be shut down.
 
Initially this only concerned the notorious blocks 1 and 2, which finally went off-line in 2004. Reactors 3 and 4 followed suit at the end of 2006, immediately before Bulgaria joined the EU. The latter were originally scheduled to remain operational longer, but for "diplomatic" reasons they too were no longer tenable, being of the same outdated design, even though some upgrades had made them less dramatically dangerous than blocks 1 and 2.
 
Currently, only reactor blocks 5 and 6 are operational. These pressurized water reactors of a more recent Soviet design were built in 1987 and 1991, respectively. Together they are still the major electricity generators in Bulgaria, accounting for some 34% of the country's total output, down from 44% before the older reactors were shut down. This also means Bulgaria can no longer export as much electricity as it used to. But it's still a major operation, of course. The company running the plant is a private concern these days (officially called Kozloduy NPP Plc, but still a subsidiary of Bulgarian Energy Holding EAD).
 
A whole town, also called Kozloduy, was built a few miles to the west, to house the plant's workforce and their families (just like Pripyat near Chernobyl). Currently the company has over 4000 employees on site, making it one of the largest employers in the country.
 
It is thus hardly surprising that the Bulgarian state desperately wants to hold on to the plant, even in the light of post-Fukushima global concerns about nuclear energy in general.
 
Bulgaria had already begun, again with Russian assistance, to construct a new atomic power plant further downstream the Danube at Belene. But the fate of the project has never been certain, with construction work halted, restarted, and halted again, plus haggling over the price, and anti-nuke protests on top. It now looks like the Belene project's been halted for good. Instead there is talk of expanding Kozloduy once more (to make use of the already constructed reactors originally intended for Belene). It remains to be seen what will eventually come of all this.
 
Belene, by the way, is a place that is also interesting from another dark historical perspective, namely because Belene island in the Danube, opposite the construction site, used to be the home of the principal forced labour camp for political prisoners during the early communist era in the 1950s. But there is no commemoration of this at the site.
 
Back to Kozloduy. The official PR that visitors get on tours of the plant predictably runs the full gamut of how safe the plant is, how important (no, vital!) it is to the nation's economy, what a valuable contribution it makes to curbing global warming, and how cheap its nuclear energy is to generate. All familiar arguments – but so are the counter-arguments, which you won't hear on these tours … e.g. regarding the alleged "cheapness" of nuclear power. That particular argument only works as long as you do not factor in the usually astronomical post-operation costs for decommissioning, clear-up and waste management/storage (cf. Dounreay!). But for diplomatic reasons  it's better not to mention any of this while on the tour …
 
In any case, and whatever your position on the use of nuclear power may be, it is a very cool opportunity to visit such a controversial plant. It is no longer as dangerous as it used to be, but historically it remains one the most infamous such installations –  hence its inclusion in these pages.
 
A tour of Kozoluy is also a component of the longer "Communism Tours of Bulgaria" offered by nvision travel Ltd. – see the sponsored page here.
 
 
What there is to see: The exact nature of the tour visitors are given will vary, but should include a look around a control room and a turbine hall at least. The reactors' interiors themselves cannot be seen – for obvious security reasons. (But cf. Zwentendorf!) When I visited, the tour took the following form:
 
First we had to check-in at the security gate and then wait at the plant's large bus and car park for an official to pick us up. We then drove to the reception centre to start the registration process. They were really meticulous and I had to write out parts of the form again in neater handwriting (admittedly, unless I really concentrate, my handwriting does indeed tend to be pretty illegible). So they do take the procedures seriously.
 
Finally, once all the paperwork was processed, a somewhat matronly lady gave us an introductory talk, through a specially summoned interpreter (who worked in admin at the plant but had good enough English to take over this job on the side, as it were). We were given special visitor's name tags and smart cards for the various security gates. Then we set off into the plant.
Our "entourage" also included another guide who now took over most of the talking, as well as a senior supervisor, accompanied by yet two more guys who all followed us around and made sure that everything was in order and all security restrictions were adhered to, I presume.
 
We were shown into reactor block 6 – where we climbed a few stairs and walked along yellow-painted concrete corridors, passing yet more security locks, until we suddenly emerged straight into the reactor's central control room.
  
Our general Bulgaria tour guide who accompanied us later said that it had been a special treat to be shown inside one of the working reactor blocks, as normally visitors are "only" led into the silent control rooms of one of the decommissioned blocks 1 to 4. From a dark history perspective, however, the latter may not be so bad either, since it was precisely those dodgy older blocks that used to pose such a scary danger to the area (and the world). On the other hand, it is of course more exciting to see such a control room in genuine "action".
 
Not that there is actually that much action going on. Mostly it's a bunch of plant engineers sitting at their desks doing not very much in particular, other than monitoring the controls and readings of measurement instruments. Still, it was my first time inside such a control room, and I must admit I found it thrilling – I could certainly feel my heart beat a little faster.
 
There was the usual wall of dials, meters and switches, totally in line with the familiar image one has in one's head from seeing documentaries and feature films on the subject of nuclear energy. These days, though, most of the functions of the dials etc. are also controlled from the computer workstations that the engineers sit at, complete with contemporary flat-screen computer monitors.
 
At one point an alarm bell went off in a corner of the giant main control panel, but the general relaxed atmosphere was hardly disturbed. One of the engineers just got up calmly, went over to a switch at the bottom of one corner of the panel, tilted a dial or something, the ringing noise stopped, and he sat down again by his computer.
 
I asked what that had been about, and the guide had the relevant engineer explain himself. Apparently this was a regular thing, a routine test alarm the purpose of which is simply to check the alertness of the engineers. I presume if they had all fallen asleep and ignored the test alarm, a louder, more real alarm would have sounded …
 
Some of the functions of the displays on the control panel were pointed out to us, including the iconic octagonal pattern of the control rods in (or rather above) the reactor core. The readings of the power output meter were also interesting – it read a little over 100 per cent! I was assured that that was perfectly normal, because since recent modernization measures, the reactors could in fact run at up to 108 % of the originally envisioned maximum capacity. So the electricity generation was at full tilt – yet everything was calm and quiet. Hardly a hum audible.
 
That changed – a lot – when we were next led to the turbine hall of Block 6. Here we had to wear earplugs and also hard hats. I tested it for a moment (as I saw one of our group not putting his earplugs in straight away) and the noise was really deafening. The turbines are just big metal hulks of roughly tubular shape and you can't see what's going on inside – but we were told that the turbines rotate at an incredible rate. Hence the noise. It was also hot in here. The turbines are housed in huge cathedral-high halls that are largely empty space above the turbine level so that there's plenty of air above, but the excess heat of the turbines still made it feel like in a sauna.
 
We only briefly peeked down into the lower levels of the turbine hall – which basically contains a maze of pipes and tubes – then exited and re-emerged where it was blissfully un-noisy and ccoler. Before we moved on, I couldn't help but probing on the delicate subject of nuclear waste. I knew that Bulgaria didn't store any such stuff in the country long term, so presumed that it all gets shipped back to Russia, where the fuel had come from (just like the plant's design). I asked if I was right in that assumption. The interpreter struggled a bit with the question, but the supervisor jumped in and simply said "in principle, yes" – I leave it to you to decode this.
 
Interestingly, it was also pointed out that in addition to the plant's already three-fold back-up cooling system they had – in the light of what was happening at Fukushima – called in extra mobile diesel generators to provide a fourth back-up system. So was this just another PR move or was there really extra scope in the security provisions? I didn't ask that on the spot, though.
 
After the reactor tour as such we were shown into the medical station of the plant, where a very Dr-Strangelove-like doctor was busy examining a female member of staff using some sort of radiation measuring machine. He then turned to us and gave us a little talk about that side of the operations. We were even shown the very measurements that had just been taken on that women, and were given explanations as to what it all meant. It did get a little technical at that point, though, and I fear my medical knowledge, or lack thereof, let me down more than my wife (who is a bit of an amateur medical "expert"). Still, it was quite an insight.
 
Finally, we parted from the staff at the visitor centre except for the interpreter and then were driven to a laboratory outside the actual perimeter of the nuclear plant. This is where independent scientists monitor the radiation levels in the soil, water and air in the area and all over Bulgaria. The lab representative who gave us the tour there was quite a character and managed to make even such a technical subject matter pretty entertaining.
 
It was also interesting to observe that he didn't have to do the whole PR routine but could clearly speak openly. He did confirm that Kozloduy had a pretty sound safety record (over many decades that meant: they were pretty darn lucky). But he also talked freely about Fukushima – and the measurements they were able to pick up right there and then. He quipped – seriously – "I wouldn't step out into that rain without an umbrella if I were you!" … it was indeed raining outside at that moment. Gulp! Just minutes before I had not bothered getting my umbrella out as we walked from the car park to the lab …  
 
Also unlike at the power plant, I was allowed to take photos freely at the lab, an offer which I gratefully accepted. I wish I could also have taken my own pictures inside the reactor control room – but of course that was absolutely not negotiable. However, there was a specially appointed photographer at the reception centre who took a few pics of us posing outside, and also inside the medical centre.
 
Myself, I was only able to take pictures from far away, such as from the main road going past the compound. They try to grow the roadside trees so high you can't see all that much – but there were a few gaps. I also sneaked in a couple shots from the car park just before we entered the photography-forbidden inner zone. You can see the somewhat limited results below … sorry I can't offer anything more exciting.
 
All in all: was it worth it? Oh but definitely! I found it extremely cool – possibly also because I was a novice at nuclear power plant tours. I was prepared enough for the PR factor, but was glad it wasn't too much of a persuasive lecture (certainly not at the lab). It was kind of a "dark" experience, if only because of the plant's dubious history with regard to (lack of) safety precautions. Of course they try to convince you that all is safe and sound at their plant these days and paint out in rosy colours what a wondrously fantastic thing nuclear power is. If you believe that, then you won't have any trouble on such a tour anyway. If you have your doubts (like I do), then it's probably best to keep mostly shtum about it. You don't want to poison the atmosphere, after all. (It's a bit like being a tourist in North Korea – you just have to accept the guides' propaganda as given and refrain from arguing.) And at the end of the day no one can ever stop you thinking to yourself whatever you chose to really think …
 
 
Location: in the north-western part of Bulgaria, right on the Danube river, which forms the border with Romania; ca. 80 miles (130 km) north of Sofia, as the crow flies – the actual road distance is significantly longer, due to the mountains north of Sofia.
 
Google maps locator: [43.747,23.769]
 
 
Access and costs: highly regulated, naturally, but visitors are welcome; free.
 
Details: As you would guess, you can't simply turn up and expect to be let in just like that. Instead you need to apply in writing a minimum of two weeks in advance. Forms need to be filled in both as part of the application process and then again on arrival. Security is, naturally, very tight. But the plant administration/PR department prides itself on openness and in principle allows anyone to visit. If you want to go independently you need to send a letter of application to the executive Director of Kozloduy NPP Plc , fax: +359 973 /8 05 91, or +359 973/7 60 19.
 
Obviously, also given the transportation issue, it is much easier to do it as part of an organized tour, or at least through a tour operator used to dealing with foreign tourists. I went with "nvision travel" as part of a longer "Communism Tour of Bulgaria" – see the relevant sponsored page here.
 
Twice a year there are also Open Days, typically on Saturdays, for which only a valid ID but no special advance application is necessary (or at least so says the Kozloduy website). When these are held, however, may not be so easy to find out early enough from abroad. And whether foreigners, too, require no more than an ID card, sounds a little too unlikely to rely on it. So it's much better to organize a visit the regular way and just accept the bureaucracy it involves.
 
There is no charge for the visit/tour as such, since it is all part of the PR, but of course you need to get there, and that necessarily incurs costs. Cheap public transport is not an option, so you need to organize a car. Again, I recommend using a tour operator.  
 
Given the distances, it's hardly  feasible to drive all the way from Sofia and do the tour on the same day, so you'd need to have a stop-over in one of the towns in the (relative) vicinity where you can get accommodation – e.g. in Pleven, Montana or Vratsa, which are only about an hour and a half away.
 
 
Time required: the guided tours vary a bit in length, depending on the sort of visitor and their interests. When I went (in April 2011) the tour of the reactor, control room and turbine hall lasted ca. 45 minutes to an hour, the visit to the medical station another half an hour or so, and similarly the visit to the lab afterwards. Factoring in all the security and red tape, it all takes the better part of half a day, including transport, with a good two hours of "sightseeing".  
 
 
Combinations with other dark destinations: none in the immediate vicinity – but it's only 50 miles (80 km) to the town of Pleven, with its grand 1877 Panorama Museum/monument. This is a celebration of the decisively victorious battle against the Ottoman Turks in that year which helped pave the way for Bulgarian independence. From the outside the structure housing the "museum" doesn't look all that dissimilar to a nuclear power station itself. Inside, however, it's the grand 360 degree battle diorama-cum-painting that is the star attraction.
 
For more see under Bulgaria in general.
 
 
Combinations with non-dark destinations: none, really. This is one of Bulgaria's least touristy parts (hardly surprising – it is usually such locations that nuclear power plants are put), although the wide Danube forming the border with Romania to the north looks suitably majestic.
   
 

 

  • Kozloduy 1 - the ominous plant from afarKozloduy 1 - the ominous plant from afar
  • Kozloduy 2 - from the car parkKozloduy 2 - from the car park
  • Kozloduy 3 - zoomed inKozloduy 3 - zoomed in
  • Kozloduy 4 - from the road going eastKozloduy 4 - from the road going east
  • Kozloduy 5 - the infamous blocks 1-4 hidden behind the treesKozloduy 5 - the infamous blocks 1-4 hidden behind the trees
  • Kozloduy 6 - access heavily guardedKozloduy 6 - access heavily guarded
  • Kozloduy lab 1Kozloduy lab 1
  • Kozloduy lab 2Kozloduy lab 2
  • Kozloduy lab 3Kozloduy lab 3
  • Kozloduy townKozloduy town
  • KozloduyKozloduy
  • Pleven 1877 panorama museumPleven 1877 panorama museum
  • Pleven panorama - diorama-cum-paintingPleven panorama - diorama-cum-painting

 

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