26th Oct 2021

Hungary's nuclear power plant expansion unnerves Austria

  • The existing Paks nuclear plant provides around 50 percent of Hungary's electricity production. The two new reactors will be Russian-made (Photo: MVM - Paks Nuclear Power Plant)

Austria's Federal Environmental Agency has raised concerns over Hungary's planned Russian-built Paks II nuclear power station, saying it lies on an active seismological fault line.

The report adds to existing concerns over safety issues surrounding the expansion of the Paks nuclear plant, a project pushed by the government of prime minister Viktor Orbán.

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  • Hungary wants to expand the Paks plant - which has four blocks built in the 1970s - with two Russian-made reactors, each with a capacity of 1.2 gigawatts (Photo: Akos Bodajki / Paks Nuclear Power Plant Co. Ltd.)

"The potential occurrence of a permanent surface displacement on the site cannot be reliably excluded by scientific evidences. The Paks II site should therefore be deemed unsuitable," the report, published last month, said.

The report also raises concerns over the authorisation-process for the site, saying the study compiled by the company behind the project, Paks II Ltd., which underpins the site-licensing, "omits relevant data".

The report also notes that Hungarian legislation requires that "permanent surface replacement" needs to be "reliably excluded by scientific evidences" before a site can be deemed suitable.

The report stated that the Hungarian Atomic Energy Agency (HAEA) granted the site licence for the Paks nuclear plant II in 2017 in spite of the "potential conflict" with Hungarian regulations and the safety issues.

Hungary wants to expand the Paks nuclear plant which has four blocks built in the 70s with two Russian-made reactors, each with a capacity of 1.2 gigawatts.

A €10bn interstate loan from Russia finances most of the €12.5bn project, which is being led by Russian state corporation Rosatom.

Awarded in 2014, without a tender, to Rosatom, the project is often cited as a sign of the warm ties between Orbán and Russian president Vladimir Putin.

No-go zone

"When you compare the Hungarian decree, which sets out what has to be the basis for the site permit, and what are the results from the site survey studies, it is clear that the place is a no-go. The site permit therefore is not in line with the Hungarian regulation," Franz Meister from Austria's Federal Environment Agency, in charge of the project, told EUobserver.

"Paks II Ltd. summarised the study in a 'creative way' for its site application. The site survey studies show that the site is not acceptable. The Hungarian authorities should withdraw the permit and Paks II should search for another place," he added.

"At this place, the fault line crosses the construction site," Meister said.

Meister added that the existing four blocks of Paks I are also at risk, because of the proximity to the fault line, although safety upgrades have been made there to mitigate the risk.

For now, the Austrian environment ministry has asked for in-depth and expert-level discussions with the Hungarian authorities on the issue, under a bilateral agreement on nuclear safety.

"We have compiled convincing evidence that there is an important issue to be discussed further relating to the seismic safety of the Paks site," Andreas Molin, a ministry official in charge of nuclear affairs, told EUobserver, adding that it is too early to draw final conclusions.

"We think that there is a reason for concern," he said, adding that they have forwarded the study to the Hungarian Atomic Energy Authority (HAEA).

"Only when we have discussed this issue bilaterally, on expert level, will we draw conclusions regarding any risks caused by the selected site, but we do see the need to pay very close attention," Molin said.

He said that the ministry started a project some four years ago under which technical experts assessed all evidence and publications publicly-available regarding the site.

When asked to comment, the Hungarian regulator, HAEA, referred back to a press statement from 2017, when safety concerns were raised.

That said that assessments carried out during the licensing process "did not reveal any new risk factors compared to the previous knowledge, no aspect excluding the suitability of the site was identified", and that technical solutions were presented, suitable for the management of risk.

"Overall, the information presented during the site-permit procedure and its multi-level assessment confirmed the fulfilment of the legal requirements" - and the HAEA, along with the mining department of the local authority, issued the site permit.

It also said that in the 1990s Hungarian and foreign experts concluded that there was no evidence of an active fault line under Paks I, adding that earthquake safety reinforcements were carried out.

It also added that the EU stress tests following by the Fukushima accident in 2011 also found that requirements have been met.

Paks II Ltd. itself did not respond to a request for comment.

MEPs concerns

The safety issue was also raised recently by a group of six Green MEPs, in a question to the EU Commission.

They say that "significant discrepancy has emerged from the location approval process for the Paks II nuclear plant between the results obtained by baseline studies on the earthquake risk of the site and the official application submitted by the MVM II company for site approval by the Hungarian nuclear supervisory authority".

(MVM Paks II Ltd. in 2014 separated from the energy company MVM Group, and came under a new owner, the Hungarian National Asset Management Inc. This is a "supporting organisation" of the National Development ministry, exercising ownership rights over state assets representing almost 50 percent of the annual GDP of Hungary, according to its website.)

The MEPs want to know if the commission will "arrange for an independent evaluation of the Hungarian location-approval process to take place".

Austrian Green MEP Thomas Waitz, one of the signatories, told EUobserver that "Orbán's nuclear power plant expansion plans are as shaky as the seismic rifts Paks is standing on".

"This nuclear power plant should never have been approved for many reasons. There is proof now that the site of Paks is at high risk of earthquakes. This applies not only to the new expansion, but also to the four existing power units. Any further expansion must be stopped immediately. The EU Commission must not be blinded by Orbán's charade and must act immediately," he said.

The planned project's financial aspect underwent commission's scrutiny, focusing on state aid, and was cleared in 2017.

In 2018, Austria sued the EU Commission for allowing the expansion of the Paks nuclear power plant to go ahead, and the case is still pending.

An EU official said the commission is contacting the Hungarian authorities to get "their views on the reported findings and its conclusions".

Licensing of nuclear installations, including their siting, are the national responsibility of member states, and the commission has no competence to intervene in the licensing decisions on individual projects, the official added.

"The prime responsibility for the nuclear safety of a nuclear installation rests with the licence holder under the regulatory control of the competent regulatory authority, in this case the Hungarian Atomic Energy Authority," the EU official said.

"The question is whether Hungary can live with this entity at the wrong place for the next 60 years," Austria's Meister told EUobserver.

Orbán to appoint atomic energy chief?

Paks II Ltd. submitted a construction licence application for the project to the HAEA on 30 June last year. The regulator has 12 months to decide, which can be extended by three months.

Hungaian media reported last month that the government proposed legislative amendments to take the supervision of Hungary's atomic energy production out of the public's control, giving the HAEA more independence from any future government.

The proposed amendments would also give Orbán the possibility to appoint the HAEA chief for a term of at least nine years, without a tender. This proposal came after HAEA's previous president unexpectedly resigned in April - without official explanation.

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