26 April 1986, the Chernobyl disaster, is the origin and the starting point for many green and anti-nuclear activists of my generation in Hungary. Our environmental consciousness, the motivation to act is – among other things heavily rooted in the tragic events in and the shocking news and pictures coming out of the USSR in our early teenage years. Interestingly, in spite of all that, the Chernobyl accident didn’t result in the birth of a strong and active anti-nuclear movement in Hungary. Like the Gabčikovo-Nagymaros Dam on the Danube river, other environmental issues played a much more substantial role in the formation and emergence of the green movement in the late 80s and during the transition years. But where are we 35 years later, when the country is facing its second nuclear project in addition to the existing Paks 1 nuclear power plant, constructed by the Soviets around the years of the nuclear disaster in the Soviet Union? What are the dilemmas and how does the public see nuclear energy in Hungary on the 35th anniversary of Chernobyl and the 10th of the Fukushima disaster? Is it part of the public discourse, which greens can benefit from?
This commentary is part of our dossier "Nuclear Power in Europe: 35 Years After the Chernobyl Disaster".
Nuclear accidents cast a shadow over Hungary’s nuclear development projects. The country’s first and only nuclear power plant was constructed by the Soviet Union in the 80s with four blocks of VVER-440 technology and started operations between 1982 and 1987, around the years of the Chernobyl disaster. Their original life span was planned to be 30 years, but they received a life span extension of 20 years between 2012 and 2017, right after the nuclear catastrophe in the Fukushima Daiichi NPP in March 2011. The political backing of nuclear energy was almost beyond question for a long time, scheduling the construction of additional blocks at the site of the existing Paks 1 NPP to replace them once they are finally shut down in the mid-2030s. This political consensus was first broken by LMP, Hungary’s first successful green party entering the Parliament in 2010. Their criticism gained wider support when the populistic Fidesz government led by PM Viktor Orbán dropped the original idea of launching an international public tender for the project and awarded the project, in a questionable agreement in 2014, to Russia’s Rosatom. Fears of political interference and increasing Russian energy dependency, as well as cost considerations and falling prices of alternative, renewable energy sources contributed to the fast spread of the project's green criticism. As long ago as 2014, opinion polls showed that over 60% of the population rejected the idea of a Russian-built nuclear power plant in the country and supported much greater investments into renewables and energy efficiency.
Geopolitical considerations undoubtedly play a major role in the negative attitude of the public. According to polls, while 50% of the people oppose the construction of a new NPP in general (and preferred investing in renewables and energy efficiency), opposition rises to 66% when it comes to Russian construction of the project. This is consistent with professional views. Nuclear projects are never pure business deals for Russia. They are always political manoeuvres as well, and Russian influence and dependency are not particularly welcome among the citizens, even in the Fidesz camp.
The high costs of the project come in second place as an argument against the Paks 2 project. In spite of the governmental communication of “cheap energy” provided by the new NPP, there is a broad conviction that the project is tremendously expensive, and renewables and energy efficiency investments can ensure Hungary’s long-term energy supply for a significantly lower cost. This is coupled with anti-Moscow sentiments, as 80% of the project costs are covered by a Russian loan on remarkably unfavourable terms.
But there are highly vocal critics of the environmental and security risks as well. Is not only the planned final disposal facility of high level radioactive waste a few kilometres away from the city of Pécs in the south of Hungary that has given rise to lively public discourse and a local opposition campaign. Concerns regarding the potential heat pollution of the Danube by the cooling water of the NPP readmitted to the river also received intensive public attention. Most recently, anxiety has emerged because of the unacceptable, superficial analysis of the seismic risks linked to the NPP site which, to our certain knowledge, is being taken rather seriously by the Austrian government.
Despite all that, the Hungarian government seems to maintain its full backing for the project, which, in practice, faces numerous difficulties. The construction should have started as long ago as early 2018, but the plant still lacks a number of permits and forecasting the first construction works for early 2022, with a delay of four years, is a fairly optimistic prediction. The delay, mostly due to the Russian plans' non-compliance with the EU standards, raises additional concerns that the costs could spiral out of control.
Regardless of how controversial the project is , it is a matter of primary importance for Russia, as it allows it to place the Hungarian government under an obligation to it. Nuclear technology is one of Russia’s very few high-tech export goods, which means that it is of fundamental importance to a country threatened by falling demand for and price of its no. 1 export products, oil and gas, to have access to the EU’s nuclear market. Ironically, this escape route from their dependency on fossil fuel export leads them to another declining market. This generates a difficult dilemma for the Hungarian government: while politically, they are bound to Russia and to the contracted project, there are more and more obstacles to fitting the project into the future of the European – and Hungarian – energy markets. As a consequence, the Hungarian government is desperately trying to transform the EU’s energy, competition and internal market policy to become more supportive of (Russian) nuclear energy and to secure EU financing for nuclear projects by having them accepted as green investments in the EU taxonomy. And as much as it is essential to Hungary as damage control of a brutal deal signed in 2014, it is equally important to Russia as a model of how to push through their nuclear technology in an EU member state.
While there is a lot at stake on the international level, Hungary's nuclear discourse is still somewhat limited. It is part of the political debates and an issue in most election campaigns since 2014, but it was never a conclusive issue. There is still a remarkable discrepancy between the government's position and that of the majority of the public. This makes the Paks 2 project a critical issue for green politics in Hungary, where greens are not simply the most vigorous and vocal opponents of the project, but they have also been credibly following the same political line on this matter for many years, while other opposition parties’ approach to nuclear energy is controversial.
On the 35th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster, Hungary is still digesting nuclear energy's heavy meal. But the public, much more than the political elite and, in particular, the government of the country, continues to follow and understand developments on the global energy market and support renewables and sustainable solutions far more than they do nuclear. This keeps the battlefield open for the two green parties in the national parliament, Dialogue and LMP, to gain public support by leading the fight against the monstrous Paks 2 project.