How Cernavodă Made Romania a Key Geopolitical Battleground in Europe

Andreea Brinza | 28 October 2020

In 2013, after the then-16+1 summit in Bucharest, Romania was bombarded with gushing headlines about a dozen Chinese investments and projects that would soon supercharge the Romanian economy, with the Cernavodă Nuclear Power Plant as the flagship project. Eight years later and nine governments apart, none of these projects were implemented, while disillusion with China accumulated.

Now, after a visit of a Romanian governmental delegation to the US, Romanian media are once again awash with the same gushing headlines. The only difference is that this time it is the “Americans” bringing billions, instead of the “Chinese”.

Everything started when the current US ambassador to Romania, Adrian Zuckerman, announced that Bucharest and Washington will sign an agreement for refurbishing a reactor and building two new reactors at Cenavodă as well as a memorandum of understanding with the US EXIM Bank “for the financing of the Cernavodă nuclear project and other projects in Romania”. Zuckerman later brought up another American project: a highway and a railway connecting the Black Sea to the Baltic Sea, from Romania to Poland.

Soon after, Romanian media published an avalanche of articles announcing a “historic agreement” for “huge infrastructure projects” and “revolutionary investments”, as the “Americans have huge plans for Romania and Poland” and the “US will invest billions of dollars in Cernavodă”. The real picture is less rosy for Romania but remains informative as to how US-China competition is unfolding in third countries.

The Odyssey of the Cernavodă Nuclear Power Plant

Like other mammoth projects in the country, the five-unit Cernavodă Nuclear Power Plant was envisioned during the communist era. But because the construction of the first two reactors took more time than planned, becoming operational only in 1996 and 2007 respectively, Romania reconsidered the project. It was revived in 2009 with only four reactors, as units 3 and 4 were already partially built. This was the moment when reactors 3 and 4 began their incredible journey of finding financing, contractors and approvals.

First came the Europeans. In 2009 Nuclearlectrica, the state-owned company that operates Cernavodă, formed a joint venture with RWE (Germany), GDF Suez (Belgium), ENEL (Italy), CEZ (the Czech Republic), ArcelorMittal (Romania), and Iberdrola (Spain), but in less than three years all these companies withdrew from the project.

Then came the Chinese. After two years of discussions, in 2013 Romania signed a memorandum of understanding with China General Nuclear Power (CGN) at the then-16+1 summit in Bucharest. One year later, CGN won the tender as the sole bidder, leading to six years of negotiations complicated by political instability in Romania, ultimately leading to termination in early 2020.

Now come the Americans. In October 2020, Romanian and American officials signed an Intergovernmental Agreement that “will lay the foundation for Romania to utilize US expertise and technology with a multinational team building reactor Units 3 and 4 of the Cernavodă Nuclear Power Plant and refurbishing reactor Unit 1.” But what does this mean?

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This article has been published by Andreea Brînză, Vice President of RISAP, on the website of China Observers in Central and Eastern Europe (CHOICE). You can read the full article on the CHOICE website.

Photo Credits: Units 1 and 2 of the Cernavodă Nuclear Power Plant in Romania (Wikimedia Commons/RizeaLavinia)

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Andreea Brinza

Andreea Brinza is a researcher and the Vice President of RISAP. Her interests are related to the geopolitics, geostrategy and geoeconomics of the Asia-Pacific region and especially China. Her research focuses on the Belt and Road Initiative.

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