May 24th, 2014.
Under the summer sun, by the Danube River, lies a city that has been the victim of political failures and plain lies: Belene. This place used to be known for an island where a former concentration-camp was established to keep the “enemies of the nation” far from the communist party’s eyes. Now it is recognized for a controversial project started by the same political party: a nuclear power plant.
In the town, the everydayness couldn’t feel more distant from its ominous fame. There are gardens where tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers grow, kids play in the streets and many pensioners go about their routines without much care. The only conspicuous absence is that of older students and middle aged workers who have left the town in search of a better life, like many others before them.
Gergana Ivanova (not her real name) is one of those who unwillingly left her home town due to a lack of opportunities. She graduated with an electrical engineering degree on the conviction that she could go back to her town to work at the Nuclear Power Plant; that was not going to happen. The construction of the Belene NPP started in 1987 and was stopped and restarted on several occasions, depending on the political weather and the mood of the government of the day. This has meant that, after more than 25 years of work, there is nothing really working on the site.
“That used to be a creamery” said a man who, while I was looking at one of the several abandoned buildings, passed by on a horse-drawn cart. “The communists destroyed it. They made good cheese” were the last words I could hear from him as he pulled away too far to hear more of his pro-democracy speech. In the past the town was divided by religious denominations: the eastern-orthodox and the roman-catholic lived in separate boroughs along the river. Today they’re closer and even tighter in relationship thanks to their dislike for “the reds”. That’s the situation until the socialist party comes around to give free beer and music the day before the European Parliament elections. But the truce doesn’t last long enough to help the former rulers as they are defeated at the polls. Not even the promise to restart, once again, the construction of the Nuclear Power Plant helped their plea.
Walking through the city, passing by old iconographies, old advertisements, old people and old promises, a feeling of despair starts to grow in the presence of innumerable mechanical eyes that guard the city. Lots of surveillance cameras sprout from walls, columns, beams, anywhere that can bear their weight. It is a rather odd find for a city where almost nothing happens. Maybe it is just the custom, though it is not easy to forget that in this city a high-security prison and a Nuclear Power Plant in the making share both mayor and name.
As night falls, hordes of mosquitoes invade the town, attacking from the river, exchanging blood for the imperative need of scratching. These animals give the decision of installing a prison on an island in the middle of the river a sadist touch. But while Belene’s inhabitants have to live with this micro-violence all the time, anyone with a choice leaves, looking for higher land. That is the story of the ghost town by the prison, a residential complex built by Atomstroyexport to house employees working on the project, the same people who after the suspension of tasks have left the town. Nevertheless, not everyone is as pessimistic. The NEK (National Electricity Company) still has advertising on the project at the entrance of its building located in the town centre, and in the same area the WorleyParsons office is working. Both companies are still waiting for a new government to review the project. Both companies are waiting for a bit of populism to go their way and so, to continue scratching their bitten skin as they build the slowest progressing NPP in the world.