Hungarians Debate their Nuclear Future

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On the weekend of February 1-2, thousands of Hungarians took to the streets to oppose the government’s plans to double the capacity of the country’s only nuclear power plant, with construction and financing by Vladimir Putin’s Russia. The plant, at Paks, some 70 miles south of the capital Budapest on the Danube river, has four reactors which came online in the 1980s, under Communist rule, and already produces over 40% of Hungary’s electricity. Although the reactors’ original 30-year lifespan is soon coming to an end, in 2005 a 20-year extension was approved, giving the system a new lease on life. With the approximately $17 billion investment—though independent observers see the likely final cost as much as twice that—for the two new blocks, this will cement the nation’s dependence on an expensive and dangerous technology for decades to come.

What particularly outrages and shocks many Hungarians—after four decades of domination by the Soviet Union, ending only in 1989—is the renewed dependence on Russia, which will finance 75% of the cost and carry out over half of the construction, through the state-owned company Rosatom. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán made his name as a young activist at that time, with his fiery calls for the immediate withdrawal of Soviet military forces. In the words of the current opposition and the liberal press, “25 years ago he sent them away, now he’s inviting them back.” Many see in the agreement, negotiated on a personal visit of Orbán to Moscow in mid-January, not the generosity of the Russian leader—nor the savviness of their Prime Minister in accessing it—but another facet of Putin’s hard-headed plan to extend Russian influence and control over areas once under Soviet domination.

Opponents are further incensed by the lack of information about the agreement, and the lack of democratic discussion. Most of the key details, such as the interest rate to be paid on the Russian loans, has been kept secret even from members of Parliament. The Parliament, with the ruling coalition controlling over 75% of the seats, and Orbán controlling his party with an iron hand, voted the deal through after less than one day’s debate, just days after the demonstrations. This type of process is typical of a government that, since coming to power in 2010, has rammed through constitutional changes, changes to the voting system, restrictions on the media, and total control over education, the courts, arts institutions and several parts of the economy, all of which has brought on a steady stream of warnings and criticism from European Union officials.

But the opposition political parties have their own vulnerabilities on the issue. The opposition is dominated by current or former members of the Hungarian Socialist Party, the heir to the reform wing of the old Communist Party, who organized the larger of the two demonstrations at the beginning of February. In 2008, during their last stint in government, they themselves attempted to negotiate a deal to expand the plant with the same Russian leaders, albeit without the secrecy and rush to bulldoze a deal through. Although liberal on social issues, they are solidly neoliberal on economic and structural ones, and have been the architects of the key steps that have taken Hungary from an authoritarian but also paternalistic economy under Communism to one in which multinational, especially West European, corporations have free rein, and the middle and lower classes struggle with incomes a fraction of their Western counterparts and few protections from the vagaries of the market. With national elections set for April 6, the opposition is transparently searching for advantage on any symbolic issue it can, lacking real answers to the country’s continuing economic crisis. While much of the population has been alienated by the current rulers’ arrogance, corruption and failure to improve its prospects, their astute management of the political field and lack of enthusiasm for the alternative seem to be holding sway. Most observers see another four years for Orbán’s coalition as all but guaranteed, albeit with a lesser majority than it currently holds.

On the nuclear issue itself, there is little tradition of or basis for a critical stance. The socialist tradition was strongly pro-nuke, seeing the technology as a sign of development; and the current “socialists” (in name only) tend to welcome the most powerful sectors of the western economy. While agitation on other environmental issues, most prominently a large dam project on the Danube, played an important role in the opposition movement in the late 1980s that hastened the fall of Communism, questioning of the Paks reactors was not a major part of it. Consequently, polls have consistently showed majority support for nuclear power—despite the significant radiation and concern caused by the Chernobyl accident in 1986. Then-Soviet Republic Ukraine, where Chernobyl is located, shared a border with Hungary, and 150,000 ethnic Hungarians live over that border.

The government’s most popular and most widely trumpeted policy is a significant reduction in home heating and electricity costs for consumers, forced through last year. While economists and environmentalists question the sustainability of the measure—lower energy prices do not foster conservation; and neither does expansion of nuclear power, the most expensive form of energy, support such a price reduction—it has eased the burdens of a struggling population in a visible way. But it is not pushing anyone in the direction of a hard look at changing the way society produces and uses energy.

This brings us back to the fortified alliance with Europe’s ‘Old Energy’ powerhouse, Russia—already dominating Hungary’s oil and gas market. And recent events in Ukraine, which escalated after the demonstrations and Parliamentary vote on the nuclear issue in Hungary, only sharpen the concerns of critics of the deal. The Hungarian government’s early statements on the crisis, clearly in the shadow of the nuclear deal, took the Russian side. This has since been moderated, with the official position calling for withdrawal of Russian forces from the Crimean peninsula, though also warning against any rash Western action. Other former Soviet satellites (the Baltics, Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia) have taking a stronger position, defending Ukrainian sovereignty and criticizing the EU response for being weak. Hungarians’ gut western and anti-Russian orientation would rather support the latter stance, though the population is not in a mood or position to express themselves strongly.

The February 2 demonstration, by the opposition parties, drawing a crowd estimated at up to 5,000—predominantly older, and passive, not typical for an anti-nuclear protest—came down on both sides of the general issue of nuclear power; its key demand was a popular referendum on the Russian deal. But the demo the day before—organized by the very active Hungarian section of Greenpeace, the small alternative political party Politics Can Be Otherwise, and other groups, with the theme “Don’t ‘Pact’ [a play on Paks, the name of the reactor site] Away our Future”—was explicit about the legacies of Chernobyl and, more recently, Fukushima, and much more forthright in calling for a new, radical and sustainable, approach to energy policy, as well as being much younger and more colorful. Though reported as only a tenth the size of the other gathering (it looked larger than that to me), it is much more credible as a way forward for the future. Greenpeace has continued with actions putting its message into public spaces, including a dramatic light projection onto the side of the Parliamentary office building on the banks of the Danube. Politics Can Be Otherwise members of Parliament disrupted the Parliamentary vote with air horns and signs proclaiming “We will not become a Russian nuclear colony!” But much deeper and more widespread action is needed to push Hungarians to take their energy destiny into their own hands.

About Richard Esbenshade

12-year resident of Urbana, taught history for several years at UIUC, specializing in Eastern Europe; contract not renewed due to budget cuts, currently self-employed; longtime activist in peace/green/social justice/solidarity movements; father of two, including Public i alumna Shara.

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