"France, which took the lead in Europe after Germany became preoccupied with its unification, threw its weight behind the rival Romanian Cernavoda
project," says Veselin Avramov, an independent political analyst in Bulgaria. "This was a considerable blow to Belene and the Bulgarian nuclear program."
The first unit of Cernavoda opened in 1996, or roughly at the same time when Belene was originally scheduled to become operational.
The public debate over whether Belene should be completed resurfaced in the early 2000s when Bulgaria bowed to European and international pressure over
safety concerns and agreed to close down its oldest four nuclear reactors at the nearby Kozlodui plant. Many Bulgarians saw the closures as a blow to
national pride and to the country's energy independence.
Before the shutdown of the first two units in 2002, the combined output of the four reactors accounted for some 20 percent of Bulgaria's annual electricity
production, and made up the lion's share of Bulgarian energy exports to the region. Belene would compensate for this drop in output, supporters of the
proposed plant say.
Still, to many Bulgarians, Belene remains a problematic conduit for Russian influence. Pro-Western forces on the political right oppose the project on
grounds that it would increase Sofia's dependence on Russian technology. Bulgaria already imports more than 90 percent of its natural gas from Russia, and
Russian firms own the only Bulgarian oil refinery.
Meanwhile, the Bulgarian Socialist Party, a successor to the Communist Party and widely perceived as pro-Russian, has been Belene's main supporter.
In 2006, Bulgaria's Socialist party prime minister, Sergei Stanishev, signed a contract designating the Russian firm Atomexportstroy as the builder. The
current center-right government of Prime Minister Boiko Borisov attempted to scrap the deal in early 2012, resulting in the Russian firm filing a
€1-billion lawsuit against Bulgaria to pay for parts already ordered.
Over the summer of 2012, the Socialist party collected more than 500,000 signatures in support of the plant, forcing Sunday's referendum on the issue.
In recent years, U.S. companies including Chevron have pushed for developing other sources of energy to create an alternative to the Belene nuclear
project, mainly in the form of natural gas extracted by hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.
Still, the proposal has been highly controversial given fracking's potential for environmental damage and the location of underground deposits of natural
gas beneath prime agricultural land. A number of protests against fracking took place in 2010 and 2011, and in January 2012, parliament banned such
explorations, against the advice of the United States ambassador in Bulgaria.
In June, as a result of intensive lobbying, parts of the ban were lifted, and many Bulgarians believe that eventually it will be withdrawn.