Hungary and the nuclear option: going backward or looking ahead?

Photo's credits: Greenpeace
Photo’s credits: Greenpeace

Greenpeace activists staged a demonstration in front of Budapest’s landmark Liberty Statue 10 days ago, to protest against the expansion of the Paks nuclear power plant. Under the agreement that was settled by the Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, with Moscow a few weeks ago, the Hungarian government will receive a thirty-year loan of  10 billion euros to build two new reactors.

It seems though that the public opinion does not have a say anymore, and that protests are not going to change the position of the government. Whereas European countries are starting to abandon the nuclear option, Hungary is about to embrace it.

“This is a wrong decision,” comments a spokesman of the environmentalist group “we will not be able to benefit from the opportunities offered by the renewable resources if the government ties its own hands with such an important investment that will also have the effect of burdening the country with a debt that will be extremely difficult to repay.”

The agreement has also angered the opposition although they do not criticize the choice of Russia, but rather the fact that the government is not calling its citizens to express themselves on this matter through a referendum.

The headquarter of Paks was built in the 70s during the era of the Soviet Union. Orban defends the legitimacy of this new project on the basis of a resolution adopted by the Hungarian Parliament in 2009, under the socialist government. However, according to the opposition, this resolution would have been only preliminary and they are challenging the agreement with Moscow. Last week those same socialists accused Orbán of betraying the national interests and, according to them, selling those interests to Russia for 30 years.

Hungary, a member of the European Union, depends on Russia on oil for 80% and gas by 75%. According to Orbán’s vision, the expansion of the Paks nuclear power-plant (aside from being a convenient ploy in anticipation of the upcoming elections in April), will allow the country to take advantage of low-cost electricity, covering 80% of national consumption, and to even export energy to Germany- which will likely close its nuclear power plants.

But there’s more. According to the Prime Minister, his decision to establish a stronger bond with Russia should be seen as an example and followed by other countries of the European Union. “The EU needs to rebuild its relations with Moscow in a pragmatic way, because Brussels needs energy for its sustainable economic development. I am an old anti-communist, but if Europe does not do its best to benefit from Russian energy, I do not know where it could go to replenish its economy. ”

In the meantime, the Hungarian population continues its protests. “What’s going on with the Paks power-plant is important,” said a protester, “and it is important to know if we want nuclear energy or not. It affects everyone and everyone has to decide. ”

Amongst the people there is fear, probably due to the accident that took place at the Paks nuclear power plant on April 10, 2003; an incident that was classified as serious, according to the International Nuclear Event Scale (INES). The event resulted in the release of radioactive substances into the environment, leading to a series of damages in the area surrounding the power plant.

However, despite weeks of protests, and the mediation of the opposition, at the beginning of February the Parliament approved the project with Russia. It seems like, once again, economic affairs have prevailed and the public opinion has not been heard – or perhaps not even taken into consideration.

Could it be that Hungary is indeed moving towards the populist world supported by the Jobbik political party?

Erika Sciarra

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