With a parliamentary decision in March 2009 that virtually gave green light for new reactors, Hungary has stepped on the same road as other former communist countries. The plans for building two large nuclear units (Paks 5-6) is the same case as it is in Bulgaria (Belene 1-2), Slovakia (Mochovce 3-4) and Romania (Cernavoda 3-4)(*1). The idea of these plans is originated in strategies from the seventies-eighties, which aimed to supply the fast-growing energy needs of the wasting heavy industry at whatever cost. The plans have nothing to do with recent industrial, economical, environmental, energy market and energy consumption patterns. This fact seems as if it does not bother decision makers, who are even willing to break the law in favour of new reactors.
The March 2009 decision of the Parliament did not come out of the blue. The Parliament accepted the energy policy in April 2008 that ordered the Government to examine the possibility of building new nuclear units in the country. The order used a very general language (e.g. it did not define timelines) perhaps due to considering the sensitivity of the issue, but one should also take into account that the preparation of the energy policy was heavily influenced by the nuclear and natural gas lobbies, competing for the possibility of building large base-load capacity.
After the breakout of the economical crisis that affected Hungary deeply, no one believed that the plans of the nuclear lobby could come through soon. Nevertheless, it was only the underestimation of the irrationalism of politics. The prime minister Ferenc Gyurcsány, who had previously talked only once about new reactors in 2006 saying that a referendum must be held in the issue, hiding in its parliamentary speech on the management of the economical crisis in February 2009, announced that until 2020, two new nuclear capacity around 2000 MW will be built at the site of Paks.
The decision must have been a part of the entire Eastern European – Russian energy game. After the Russian-Ukrainian gas crisis of January 2009, the question between natural gas and nuclear was astonishingly rapidly decided in favour of nuclear. The prime minister, who had been described as a man with good connections in Moscow, did not make the decision against the Russian gas lobby for sure. It rather reflected to the change in the balance of forces. As the result of the gas crisis, Vladimir Putin and Yulia Tymoshenko agreed to exclude the Ukrainian Dmitry Firtas from the Eastern-European gas business. As allegedly Firtas owned the company in Hungary that planned to build large base-load capacity on gas, it become clear that the company has no gas anymore.
The decision proposal was sent to the Parliament in the middle of March. One week later the prime minister announced his resignation. The governmental crisis threatened with the breaking up of the Parliament and holding new elections. This did not mean to be a problem, and the Parliament made ‘perhaps it’s most important decision regarding economy’, as said by one of the members of the environmental committee. There were no obstructions: the economical and the environmental committees dealt with the issue around one hour each, while the plenary discussion took around 10 minutes, voting included. Finally, after only two weeks of parliamentary process, without any serious debate, 95% voted for new nuclear.
However, one could hardly believe that the members of the Parliament understood what they were voting for. The justification paper attached to the proposal was only one and a half page long, contained no specific information and referred only to one background paper, which clearly states that until 2025 there is no need for new nuclear capacity in Hungary. There was no information on basic questions: why 2000 MW? One or two units? What kind of reactors? How to insert modern, at least 1000-1200 MW reactors into the relatively small (with a peak load slightly over 6000 MW) Hungarian electricity system that already has 2000 MW of inflexible nuclear capacity, and has no storage capacities, no sufficient border-crossing grid capacities? Where the uranium will come from, who will build and operate the power plant? And the ultimate question: who will pay the bill?
The official answer to these questions was that the permission by the Parliament is only a principal contribution that is required by the Atomic Law, and it is not a building permission. The permission is given based only on a not well-defined requirement of the Law, saying ‘preliminary, principal contribution of the Parliament needed for the start of preparation activities concerning the establishment of a new nuclear facility’. Hence – they argued – the proposal does not have to contain detailed information, and even cannot contain them, as without this permission, the Government had not been allowed to make any steps.
This argumentation is false, of course. First of all, the Law, talking about extension of an existing nuclear power plant (such as Paks) with new units, clearly states, that the principal contribution is needed for the extension itself, not for some ‘preparation activities’. Small, but important difference – the Government used the phrase established for a different situation, when an entire new nuclear power plant is to be built. Secondly, the state-owned Hungarian power distributor MVM (the owner of Paks) had been working on the issue for two years; hence much information had been prepared and made available for the Government, without the permission they referred. It can be clearly seen, that for an unknown reason, the Government in its decision proposal perverted the decrees of the Atomic Law, for the sake of new reactors. That is why the Energia Klub appealed to the Court of Constitution to annul the decision.
However, the Court of Constitution has no timeline to make its decision on the issue. It is an unfortunate situation, as according to the news, the project has got a quick launch. Not only Paks and the MVM, but everyone else in the industry and other sectors, interested somehow in the project (companies, research institutions, universities, the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, consulting institutions etc.), has made formal or informal statements, backing the decision.
The already launched project is lacking transparency; even experts have stressed their fears about it. It is not a miracle: the decisions presumably will be made on political and not expert level, with the exclusion of the public opinion. The lack of transparency serves the interests of the politics and the MVM, who has had good connections so far. The two main parliamentary parties, who virtually never agree in any question, moved arm in arm not just when they voted for the new reactors, but also in 2007, forming the rules of the liberalised electricity market in favour of the MVM. Among other preferences, this includes hidden possibility by which the MVM can put the financial burden of its investments on the electricity consumers before implementation. One can easily imagine a link between the MVM and the parties, considering the corruption scandal of the company this year, in which at least 55 million euros disappeared from the state-owned MVM through off-shore companies.
The situation could easily lead to the implementation of the original plans from the eighties, which contained two 1000 MW Russian VVER reactors on the Paks site, but never materialised. This would not only hinder, but make the implementation of sustainable solutions (energy efficiency and conservation, renewables) technically and financially unfeasible, which are fundamental for the already 75% energy dependent Hungary.
*1- See in details: Nuclear Energy: Transferring Problems to Eastern European Countries, April 2008, available at: http://www.energiaklub.hu/dl/kiadvanyok/PPno4.pdf