Tag Archives: nuclear power plant

Hungary, as a partner of Iran, is now in the nuclear business

As is customary in Viktor Orbán’s Hungary, the Hungarian public learned that Iran and Hungary are on the verge of signing an agreement to expand nuclear cooperation from The Tehran Times, the English-language voice of the Islamic Revolution. The short notice announcing the arrival of Deputy Foreign Minister Zsolt Semjén said that “following the lifting of international sanctions on Iran, Tehran has strived to fully utilize economic and scientific opportunities, including the pursuit of peaceful nuclear activities.” The paper, quoting the English-language Russian publication Sputnik, noted that last week President Hassan Rouhani and Vladimir Putin “decided to sign a memorandum on the development of peaceful nuclear cooperation.” Amerikai Magyar Népszava believes that Putin “blackmailed” Orbán into participating in a nuclear deal with Iran. I’m not sure that Viktor Orbán needed too much prodding. I suspect that the prospect of partnering with Iran in a project to build small nuclear reactors to sell in Africa and Asia boosted the ego of Hungary’s prime minister.

Since having closer economic relations with Iran fits in with Orbán’s “Eastern Opening,” his state visit to Tehran in late November 2015, where the two partners signed a number of bilateral agreements, wasn’t considered extraordinary. What was more telling was a Reuters report from Budapest on February 18, 2016 that Ali Akbar Salehi, head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, had proposed a project to design and develop a small, 25 megawatt nuclear reactor. It would be followed a second project to develop a reactor perhaps as large as 100 megawatts. This proposal was well received by the Hungarian government. As Népszabadság put it, the reactor was offered on a “Persian rug.” It may have been a coincidence, but Salehi’s offer coincided with Viktor Orbán’s visit to Moscow. In any case, Russia is extremely active in the development of Iranian nuclear energy. In the coming years eight power plants will be built with Russian help.

In the months following the Iranian proposal there were frequent visits back and forth between Budapest and Tehran. László Kövér, president of the Hungarian parliament, spent almost a whole week in Tehran in November 2016, where he was warmly received. President Hassan Rouhani, after meeting with Kövér, said that Iran’s “expansive capabilities in the area of technical and engineering services and the implementation of infrastructure projects as well as Hungary’s competence in the field of industry and agriculture have created proper bases for the expansion of Tehran-Budapest ties.” Kövér assured the Iranians that “Budapest was prepared to cooperate with Tehran in the fight against terrorism.”

On February 8 the English-language section of the Hungarian government’s website announced that “several agreements had already been concluded at the first session of the Hungarian-Iranian Joint Economic Committee,” one of which was that “Eximbank has established an 85 million euro credit line to facilitate cooperation between Hungarian and Iranian businesses, and to finance export-import transactions and the founding of joint ventures.” The Hungarian media didn’t pick up this news item, but the Iranian press, including the Iranian Financial Tribune, reported it.

These were the preliminaries to the news on April 5, 2017, which stunned a lot of people in Hungary, that Iran and Hungary plan to sign an agreement on April 8 to expand nuclear cooperation between the two countries. As is clear from the diplomatic traffic between Hungary and Iran, at least since November 2015, this news shouldn’t have surprised anyone–and most likely didn’t outside of Hungary. But in Hungary there were no follow-up reports about this nuclear deal after February 18, 2016, when Ali Akbar Salehi made his initial offer. In fact, the Hungarian media was completely unaware of Deputy Prime Minister Zsolt Semjén’s presence in Tehran until two days after Iran’s Financial Tribune reported it. According to the Iranian paper, Semjén arrived with a delegation of five ministers and about 100 businessmen. Semjén apparently assured the Iranians of Hungary’s “profound respect for President Rouhani’s policies” and stressed that Hungary has “always been against sanctions, as [it] tried to hold talks with Iran even before JCPOA’s conclusion.” Semjén is referring here to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action negotiated by China, France, Germany, the European Union, Iran, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

Deputy Prime Minister Zsolt Semjén and Vice President Hossein Ali Amiri

Once it sank in that Hungary and Iran are indeed in the “nuclear business,” the independent media was up in arms. Népszava found the idea “absurd.” After all, it was only in 2016 that sanctions against Iran because of its alleged development of nuclear weapons were lifted. It is also an absurdity that the Orbán government, which is so keen on Christian virtues, decided to do business with Iran, number six on the list of Muslim countries with anti-Christian legislation on the books. 24.hu found the timing most unfortunate: “Quite a week for Hungary’s turning away from the West. On Tuesday Parliament votes on amendments that make the functioning of the largest and best American university in Central Europe impossible. On Saturday Deputy Prime Minister Zsolt Semjén will sign an agreement on cooperation in the field of nuclear energy.” Zsolt Kerner of 24.hu predicted that this agreement with Iran will further tarnish Hungary’s not so “shiny relations” with the United States.

LMP, Hungary’s green party, was naturally outraged. The co-chair of LMP, Bernadett Szél, has been battling against the expansion of the Paks Nuclear Power Plant ever since it was first proposed. The party published the following statement: “The Hungarian public learned today that Hungary will sign an agreement on nuclear cooperation with Iran. With Iran, a country about which we cannot exclude the possibility that it is developing nuclear weapons. In addition, it is a well-known fact that Iran is a major sponsor of terrorism.”

More than two months before this news broke, on February 1, 2017, George Lázár wrote an article which appeared in The Hungarian Free Press. Lázár spotted a photo taken at the Hungarian Embassy in Washington where Ambassador Réka Szemerkényi can be seen in the company of Republican Representative Marsha Blackburn and her husband. Marsha Blackburn is apparently quite close to Ivanka Trump, and Lázár suspects that Szemerkényi’s courting of Blackburn was an attempt to get closer to the White House in order to wangle an invitation for Viktor Orbán. However, says Lázár, Blackburn was known to be a strong critic of President Obama’s nuclear deal. She released a statement in 2015 which said in part: “Iranians were chanting ‘Down with America’ and ‘Death to Israel’ as they celebrated Al-Quds day. How can we possibly trust them to act in good faith?” Lázár pointed out that “Prime Minister Orbán is not only a casual friend of Iran but also supports nuclear cooperation with them.” His conclusion was that perhaps Szemerkényi didn’t do her homework before she picked Marsha Blackburn as an emissary between Orbán’s Hungary and the Trump White House.

We know by now that President Michael Ignatieff of Central European University did get to the White House by contacting Fiona Hill, who recently joined the National Security Council as deputy assistant to the president and senior director for European and Russian Affairs. In addition to being the author of an excellent book on Putin, she has written extensively on energy issues. We already know that Mr. Ignatieff has been assured that the U.S. State Department is sending people to Budapest next week. While they are at it, they might inquire about Hungary’s growing friendship with Iran as well.

April 7, 2017

An unusual debate on the new Hungarian nuclear plant: János Lázár and Benedek Jávor

The news from Russsia and Ukraine  is frightening. The major question now is whether Russia will be satisfied with the annexation of the Crimea or whether the Russian army will march in and occupy further territories at the “request” of the Russian-speaking inhabitants of Ukraine’s eastern provinces. I wonder what the Hungarian public will think if Russia manages to cut Ukraine in half and the Russian bear ends up quite a few kilometers closer to the Hungarian border. In addition, there are threatening Russian talks about Ukraine and its supply of natural gas, which naturally would affect the Hungarian energy supply. All this is happening in the wake of Viktor Orbán’s top-secret negotiations with Vladimir Putin about the expansion of Hungary’s only nuclear power plant in Paks, which will increase Hungary’s energy dependence on Russia.

Viktor Orbán was in a great hurry to close this deal, most likely because he wanted ensure that it was voted on while he has a guaranteed two-thirds parliamentary majority. But then came Vladimir Putin’s gambit, which casts the Paks deal in a different light. As it is, the majority of the population doesn’t want to build another power plant and a whopping 75% of them are against the Russians building it. The couple of months spent by the Orbán government trying to influence public opinion in favor of Putin’s Russia didn’t manage to erase the negative feelings Hungarians have when they think of the country’s almost fifty-year occupation by the Russians. With the events in Ukraine these fears have received a new impetus, which makes Viktor Orbán’s situation concerning Paks even more difficult. According to some observers whose opinions I trust, “Paks is dead in the water.” But for the time being the government is sticking to its guns and Viktor Orbán is acting as if nothing has changed. They even agreed to a debate on the expansion of Hungary’s nuclear capacity built by Rosatom on money lent to Hungary from the Russian state. It is about this debate that I would like to say a few words.

As we know, there was no debate whatsoever on Paks prior to the signing of the agreement although there is a great deal of interest in the issue. So a student organization of law students at ELTE called Joghallgatók Önképző Szervezete (JÖSZ) organized a post-signing debate. The law students active in the association invited János Lázár, representing the government, and Benedek Jávor of Együtt2014/PM, who is a staunchly anti-nuclear Green, to have an open debate. How did the students manage to convince such an important man as Lázár to participate? Gáspár Orbán, the prime minister’s son, is one of the leaders of JÖSZ. He was among the students who were busily arranging the podium just before the actual debate.

atomvita

The interest was great. The large lecture hall was completely filled half an hour before the debate began. What was strange, and it says a lot about Hungarians’ attitude toward transparency, is that the debate was closed to the media as the result of a last-minute decision by the dean. Of course, reporters from several Internet news sites in addition to a journalist from Népszabadság managed to sneak in with fake IDs. Moreover, the whole debate, lasting longer than an hour, was recorded and is available online. But for those who don’t speak Hungarian here is a brief description of what transpired.

While Fidesz leaders might look very confident and can overwhelm their audience when delivering speeches, when they are supposed to engage in real debates they run out of steam. This is what happened to János Lázár.

Let’s start with the structure of the debate. There were three distinct parts. In the first part the topic was the circumstances of the agreement; in the second, questions concerning Russian-Hungarian relations were addressed to the participants; finally, in the third, the economic aspects of building a new power plant were discussed.

The debate began with Lázár, whose position was that nuclear capacity must be expanded because the old power plant will not be able to function beyond a certain date. This is true, but that date is far in the future. It would be quite enough to start to build the two new reactors in 2020. While he claimed that there will be no added capacity he did announce that in the government’s estimate in the next few years the need for electricity will grow by 1,000 megawatts. So, is there or isn’t there a need to produce more electricity? To give you an idea of the simplistic view Lázár and his friends entertain concerning this issue, for him the choice is “either a power plant or no Hungarian electricity.” No other options are available.

Jávor insisted that Paks II, the two new reactors, are additions to the present capacity. In addition, he listed the following objections: (1) the majority of Hungarians reject building the new reactors especially if it is done by the Russians; (2) the details of the agreement are not transparent; (3) the new investment will increase the price of electricity and will not add to the growth of the Hungarian GDP; (4) there will be too much energy when all four reactors are operational; (5) the building of Paks is too much of a geopolitical commitment to Russia; (6) the reactors will create fewer than the 10,000 jobs the government is talking about; (7) there are environmental concerns; (8) with interest the debt will be more than the government’s figure of 4.6 billion dollars. Jávor compared the deal to an especially deadly version of Russian roulette in which only one chamber in the revolver’s cylinder is not loaded.

When the moderator asked Lázár whether the government acted in such a way as to ensure the “democratic minimum,” he completely lost his cool. He interrupted the moderator and brought up a procedural question in order to avoid answering the question. He reduced the argument to: “either a power plant or no electricity.” From here on he talked about the fallacy of his opponent’s arguments but couldn’t come up with any arguments of his own. When he exceeded the allotted time he ignored the moderator and kept going. When the moderator inquired from him about the government’s refusal to make the details of the negotiations public, he told him and Jávor that they “should turn to the Russians with their requests.”

When it came to the price of electricity produced by Paks II, Lázár kept saying “atomic energy produces the cheapest electricity prices.” Yes, answered Jávor, the electricity Paks currently produces is inexpensive because the original initial investment has already been paid down. But the energy produced by Paks II will have to reflect the price of the new investment, which will be very costly. Lázár called this argument nonsense.

They moved on to national security issues. Jávor maintained that Hungarian dependence on Russian energy will increase after building Paks II while Lázár argued the opposite. In his opinion there is nothing to worry about because “the Russians have been here for sixty years and they are here today because they were the ones who built Paks.” So, nothing will really change. For Lázár nuclear energy means “independence.” Having only natural gas imposes energy dependence. To the question of why the Hungarian government asked for a Russian loan and why they didn’t turn, for example, to the IMF, Lázár’s answer was simple: “No one else would give a loan to Hungary except Russia.”

The debate naturally led nowhere. But there is also a good possibility that the grandiose Orbán plan for a Russian-built nuclear plant in an EU country will also lead nowhere. The Czech minister of defense already made it clear that Rosatom will never be in the running to build the Czech nuclear reactor. I can’t believe that the European Union could possibly let Putin’s Russia get close to an atomic power plant in Hungary.