A government-backed proposal to build a nuclear power plant in Albania has made Iran envious, the Italians interested, and the Greeks worried. But for many Albanians, the initiative is just the latest piece of rhetoric from a political class that seems unable to solve the puzzle of a deep energy crisis.
The proposal envisions the generation of enough electricity to not only meet Albania's own energy demands, but also to turn the country into a regional powerhouse by selling electricity to neighboring Balkan countries and, across the Adriatic Sea, to Italy.
"Our main goal is to make Albania an energy superpower in the region," said Prime Minister Sali Berisha, adding that he had called on lawyers to prepare a legal framework for the introduction of nuclear energy in Albania. "I am convinced that nuclear energy is the most stable and the cleanest sort of energy," Berisha said at an investment conference on 11 November.
However, few are taking the prime minister seriously even as blackouts have become endemic and a prolonged energy crisis puts the country's fragile economic recovery at risk. The International Monetary Fund estimated that last summer's brutal heat and prolonged drought in southeast Europe would cause a 30 percent drop in Albania's electricity production this year, which is heavily reliant on hydropower.
High petroleum prices are sparking significant new investment in nuclear energy, which accounts for almost 11 percent of the electricity generated worldwide. Advocates tout it as cheaper and more reliable than petroleum and environmental friendly because nuclear stations do not emit greenhouse gases. Nuclear power already accounts for the bulk of energy supplies in France, Lithuania, Ukraine, Slovakia, and Armenia.
IN THE DARK
Albania -- once an energy exporter -- now relies on hydroelectric to fill 53 percent of its demand, with imports supplying the rest. But since the late 1990s the country has been suffering a massive power crisis caused by poor planning in the energy sector, lack of investments in new power sources, an obsolete distribution network, and growing demand from an increasingly prosperous population. A further blow came a year ago, when Bulgaria began the shutdown of the Kozloduy nuclear station to comply with European Union demands.
Several governments have failed to tackle the growing crisis. A drought this year compounded the problem. According to the Ministry of Finance, power shortages in 2006 trimmed one percentage point off GDP growth, which has exceeded 5 percent the past four years.
Albania was one of the most vocal opponents to the closure of units 3 and 4 of the Kozloduy station at the end of 2006. The EU feared the two units, built with outdated Soviet technology, posed the threat of another Chernobyl-like meltdown. The closure cost Albania a significant source of electricity.
Widely dependent on energy imports, Tirana even appealed to the European Commission to have the reactors reopened.
The Albanian prime minister's nuclear plan, while meeting opposition from nearby Greece, has reportedly drawn interest from Italy, which is also widely dependent on electricity imports.
After a 1987 referendum in Italy put a five-year moratorium on construction of new nuclear plants, the development of such technology has been taboo for politicians there.
Prompted by Berisha's recent announcements, Iran has also reacted, calling on Europe to not hold double standards on the rights of nations to develop nuclear energy. The EU and United States are leading the push to sanction Iran for its nuclear ambitions, arguing that Tehran wants to build an atomic weapons arsenal. Iranian authorities dismiss these charges, saying they want only to develop energy.
"European countries, such as France, England, Romania, the Czech Republic, and Bulgaria have nuclear power stations. It is not right for some to say, for instance, that Iran can use nuclear energy for electricity, while Albania or some other country cannot," Iranian Ambassador Alibeman Eghbali Zarch said in a press release.
However, with all the international interest that the proposal has received, few in Tirana believe that it will actually come to fruition. Albania has never had a comprehensive study about the use of nuclear energy and it lacks the legal framework.
"Berisha in a certain sense is putting the cart in front of the horse. He first makes statements about his government plans and then remembers to ask experts to back him," said Xhemal Mato, the executive director of the Eco Movement, a coalition of environmental groups.
"Nuclear power plants have reached a level of technological advancement to earn our trust," Mato said. "However, Berisha is pushed by the energy crisis to advance proposals that are not part of the national environmental and energy strategies approved by his own government."
And Berisha's plan for Albania to become a nuclear power producer will do little to solve existing electricity shortages. Experts from the Albanian National Institute of Health have estimated that it may take up to 15 years to complete the necessary studies required by international standards for the construction of a nuclear power plant.
Meanwhile, Gjergj Bojaxhi, the head of the Albanian Power Corp. (KESH), does not see nuclear energy as part of his company's plans.
"Our company lacks the human capital necessary for the management of such a venture," he said. "For such a project to be considered feasible, a foreign company would have to step in."
The opposition also remains unconvinced by the prime minister's proposal.
"Our government has had troubles protecting its own police stations from small, angry mobs. In that point of view it would be difficult to convince international agencies and partner states to approve the construction of a nuclear power plant," said Ilir Meta, leader of the opposition Socialist Movement of Integration.
Socialist MP and former head of KESH Andis Harasani also sees the proposal as unrealistic.
"How can Albania run a nuclear power station when the only nuclear physics institute in the country is on the verge of closing down?" he said. "Even a small plant would need at least a large number of qualified technicians and expert staff, something Albania doesn't have."
Berisha dismisses such complaints by proponents of obsolete ideologies and says he will call a referendum on the construction of the plant if necessary.
"To object to it a priori is an expression of sheer anti-globalism. It is to be regretted that the Albanian opposition allows itself to be identified with the current variant of Marxist-Leninism -- anti- globalism," Berisha said.