Romania’s only nuclear power station has been operating here, close to the Black Sea, since 1996. Now the construction of a nearby facility to store radioactive waste has added to the concerns of local people, who are worried about the consequences of a possible nuclear disaster.

With its dusty roads, and without a water distribution system or public lighting worthy of the name, Saligny is in many ways typical of rural Romania. But this is set to change now that the limestone bedrock at a site near the village, which is located not far from the Black Sea in the southeast of the country, has been earmarked to house a storage facility for radioactive waste from the nearby Cernavoda nuclear power station.

On 2 August, the local government granted a green light to the project presented by the Agency for Nuclear and Radioactive Waste (AN&DR), however, the local farming community is still shaken by the memory of the accident that struck the Fukushima power station in Japan. "We have a fully fledged bomb just near the village,” remarks Florin Gheorge, who lives in Saligny. “If anything happens to the two reactors in Cernavoda, it will be worse than it was in Japan."

The local mayor, Gabriel Tatulescu, does not share the villager’s point of view. "We stand to benefit from a lot of advantages: roads, running water, sewage and lighting systems. We are not going to give in easily. We are going to negotiate to obtain as much infrastructure as we can. In any case, I am planning to organise a referendum in the village."

Although it is poor, the village is proud of its name and history. The son of a French man who came to Alsace to work as a teacher, Anghel Saligny pioneered the construction of roads and bridges in late 19th century Romania, and is remembered for the spendid bridge over the Danube, which he built at Cernavoda. He later became Minister for Public Works in 1910, at a time when Romania was undergoing a boom in economic development which was only halted by the arrival of the communist regime in the wake of the Second World War.

Saligny fulfilled all of the conditions

Four decades later in the 1980s, Cernavoda was also chosen by dictator Nicolae Ceausescu as the site for the country’s sole nuclear power station. Unlike leaders in other Eastern Bloc countries who were also adopting nuclear energy, he refused to involve Moscow in the project, opting instead to collaborate with Canada to build two CANDU reactors, which make use of natural uranium and pressurised heavy water.

In the long term, this technology was supposed to provide Romania with nuclear weapons. However, in 1989, these plans were shelved in the wake of the fall of the communist regime, and the execution of Nicolae Ceausescu.

Following the revolution, work at the Cernavoda site, which was planned to house five reactors was suspended, while Romania entered into a difficult period economic and political transition, which was aggravated by shortages. Finally, a full seven years later in 1996, the first of Cernavoda’s reactors was commissioned. A second followed in 2007. Today, the these two 750MW reactors, fulfill 20% of Romania’s energy needs.

While high-level radioactive waste is stored within the power station complex, volumes of other low-level waste products have been accumulating and their storage has become a problem. Having conducted extensive surveys of 37 villages in the region around Cernavoda, experts from NARD concluded that the village of Saligny fulfilled all of the conditions for an appropriate site for the storage of waste from the power station. A 40-hectare site has now been chosen to house the repository, which will be composed of 64 concrete cells on three levels. The facility, which is expected to be commissioned in 2019, will have sufficient capacity to continue taking in nuclear waste until 2110.

Bucharest has opened the door to non-EU investors

The first stage of the project will be financed by 180 million euros of funding from the overall budget of 340 millions, which the state has earmarked for the construction of the underground repository. "We need to have agreement from the population, and we are planning to organise debates,” insists NARD director Ion Nastasescu. “People have to understand that this will be a properly built and reliable facility. We are not going to pass on a dangerous site to future generations."

But the project organisers have yet to secure the unanimous support of local people. "I don’t agree,” says villager Mircea Ion. “We already have enough problems with the power station. Our trees don’t grow any fruit, our gardens have been ruined and our children are affected. They can go to hell with their radioactive repository!"

In spite of the Fukushima catastrophe, Romanian authorities do not intend to review the country’s vast nuclear programme which has been planned for future decades. It includes the construction of two further reactors at Cernavoda at a cost of 4 billion euros, to be financed by a public private partnership.

However, in January of this year, three of the five companies associated with the project — France’s GDF-Suez, Germany’s RWE and Spain’s Iberdrola — decided to withdraw their participation. Since then, Bucharest has opened the door to non-EU investors, and the Chinese company Guangdong and the Korean International Nuclear Consortium (KEPCO) have already expressed interest.

In the long term, Romania plans to build a second nuclear power station in the centre of the country, and the waste from this future facility will also be stored in Saligny. All the indications are that local opposition to the repository will not be sufficient to make the government back down.

Translated from the French by Mark McGovern