Hungary has been a proponent of nuclear energy for decades. But a radioactive leak at the country’s only nuclear power plant last year has provoked discussion about the technology’s safety.
Once Hungary's pride: the Paks nuclear power plant.
Half a dozen Hungarians were present when the world’s first nuclear power plant began its test run in Chicago in 1942. The country looks at its nuclear physicists with huge respect and there had never been a debate about the technology’s pros and cons.
Things changed after April 10, 2003, when fuel rods at Hungary’s only nuclear power plant ruptured during a routine cleaning and radioactive material was released into the atmosphere. Hungarians, thousands of whom had visited the plant every year since its opening in 1982, began worrying about their safety.
Shortly before Hungary will join the European Union, politicians and the nuclear lobby aren’t happy as the incident might endanger plans to keep the plant working for another 20 years.
Situated near the town Paks on the river Danube, about 130 kilometers (81 miles) downstream from Budapest, the plant generated 2,000 megawatts, 40 percent of Hungary’s power supply, making it one of the most high-performing in Europe.
The plant's interior
That’s no longer the case as one of the reactors was shut off after last year’s incident: As the Franco-German maintenance company Framatome ANP was cleaning 30 fuel rods, the cooling system failed, causing the rods to overheat and rupture. The leak caused levels of radioactivity to rise as far away as Budapest.
“Our instruments measured levels 10 percent higher than normal,” said Zoltan Szatmary, a professor at the research reactor at Budapest’s Technical University. “But then we analyzed it and realized that only one or two percent of the rise could be attributed to the incident. No one was hurt, no limits were exceeded.”
Environmentalists criticize official reaction
Some members of the environmental activist group Greenpeace got hurt, however, as they chained themselves to the plant’s gates in protest. The reactor’s management didn’t like that and got rough with the protesters: Contusions, bruises, a broken finger and a dislodged arm were the result.
“The police showed up quickly and arrested everyone,” said Roland Csaki, a Hungarian Greenpeace activist. “They were brutal, not at all like they should behave towards demonstrators in a democratic country.”
Csaki also criticized the plant management’s refusal to release information about the incident. “The population didn’t find out for seven days,” he said. “It’s like the old method, similar to how Hungarian and Russian authorities handled Chernobyl.”
Only later officials raised the incident to level three, a “serious incident” on the seven-level international nuclear event scale (INES). It’s caused some Hungarians to start thinking about their country’s reliance on nuclear energy.
Plant is safe, nuclear energy supporters say
But proponents of the technology said they still trust the system. “You don’t have to worry,” said Istvan Vidovsky, deputy director of the Hungarian center for nuclear research. “Our nuclear plants are as safe as those in Western Europe or North America. Since 1990, we have tried hard to improve safety at nuclear plants.”
That’s another reason why last year’s incident dealt such a blow to Hungary’s nuclear industry. Unlike reactors in Lithuania, for example, EU experts had given the Hungarian plant their seal of approval – prior to the rod rupture, that is.
Now, opponents of nuclear energy are having a field day. They consider the Paks plant to be a reactor full of risks with serious construction faults, since it neither has a protective coat to prevent radioactive material from escaping nor a reliable cooling system.
“The Paks plant is an only Russian power plant,” said Csaki of Greenpeace. “That’s why we’re worried whether it can keep working or not.”
Mixed feelings about EU position
Hungary’s energy club, which promotes the use of alternative energies, asked the EU Commission to comment on the incident. Months later, the group received a reply that didn’t say much: disappointing, but not surprising to group members, since Brussels has been pushing to include the use of nuclear energy in the EU’s proposed constitution.
Environmentalist Ada Amon still believes EU membership will improve nuclear safety in her country. “I hope that the EU will prioritize safety much more than the Hungarian government and that it will also pressure our government to place more emphasis on safety,” she said.
She added that she’s concerned about the plant’s workers and management as well. “Financial profits top or at least topped the list of priorities,” Amon said. It’s still unclear when the ruptured rods will be retrieved from the reactor, but it definitely will be long after Hungary joins the EU in May – an expensive power outage that costs €200,000 ($253,000) per day.