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Hungary committed to Paks plant despite concerns

The disaster in Japan has directed public attention toward Hungary’s sole nuclear power plant in Paks and gave new momentum to calls for parting with what is now once more widely considered a dangerous technology.

The Fukushima incident – where Japanese professionals are still trying to contain the situation as the BBJ goes to print – sparked widespread reactions throughout the world. Germany took the most drastic action, by immediately suspending the operation of eight dated facilities. In contrast, countries where nuclear comprises a major share of national energy demand – such France with around 70% or, for that matter, Hungary with 40% – were quick to point out that the plants are safe and that the Japanese situation has no pertinence to their particular cases.

Nonetheless, mostly to reassure the public, EU ministers have agreed to launch a campaign of voluntary “stress tests” to determine whether nuclear facilities are safe and able to withstand natural disasters. The inspection of active reactor blocks will greatly depend on experts’ analysis of the situation in Japan.

Revived green drive

The side most actively capitalizing on the public attention directed toward nuclear energy is the Greenpeace environmentalist group. The organization instantly called on governments everywhere to abandon plans of building additional nuclear plants, and also to begin phasing out ones already in operation and fill the gap in supply with renewable sources.

If the initial reactions are to be believed, Hungary’s government has also modified its stance on the matter in the wake of the accident. State secretary in charge of environmental affairs Zoltán Illés stated that Hungary should switch to sustainable alternatives instead of investing huge sums into expanding the Paks power plant. His preferred choices are wind power and garbage incineration. This comes just a few months after Prime Minister Viktor Orbán highlighted Hungary’s commitment to boosting its nuclear capacities and expanding the lifespan of the reactor blocks currently producing in Paks.

However, just a few days before the catastrophe, deputy sate secretary for energy affairs Pál Kovács held official talks with vice president of France’s Areva, Jean-Hugues Perreard on the impending expansion of Paks. The company is a specialist in the field, having already built power blocks in France, Finland and China and is one of the possible contractors for the Paks investment. At the time, the National Development Ministry reaffirmed that the related tender will be announced in early 2012. It is unclear whether Illés’s sentiments are an actual reflection of the government’s rapidly changed plans or if it is only meant to stifle nuclear concerns.

Pros and cons

The debate has brought to surface arguments on both sides, with some highlighting economic, others environmental, and yet others safety issues concerning nuclear power. Professor Klaus Reicherter, head of the institution of Rhine-Westphalia Technical University went on the record stating that despite the common perception, Europe is by no means an earthquake-safe area. In particular, the northern part of Germany has a history of strong quakes even though it is not a common phenomenon. This part of the country is home to several power plants, the German scientist noted.

Greenpeace also released a list of VVER-440 and CANDU reactors in Europe, which they claim lack adequate safeguards in their designs (the four reactors in Paks are of the VVER-440 make) and also highlighted that several EU member states operate plants that are outdated or were built in areas where tectonic movements occur.

However, one of the reasons nuclear energy is widely accepted is that despite the risks, it produces virtually no harmful emissions. According to a study by Thomson Reuters Point Carbon, the three-month moratorium imposed by the German government would in itself increase harmful emissions by 8 megatons, since the resulting power shortage would have to be compensated through burning additional fossil fuel capacities. “If [the eight suspended facilities] were to remain closed after the three-month period, the original phase out law were restored for the remaining German nuclear plants and fossil fuels, namely coal and gas-fired generation, were used to fill this generation gap, we estimate that emissions would increase by 64 megatons in the remainder of phase 2, and by 435 megatons between now and 2020,” according to Stefan Wächter, the market intelligence unit’s analyst.