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We can’t reach our climate goals without nuclear energy – interview with János Süli

János Süli will be one of the speakers of the Budapest Climate Summit, to be held on 9 October, 2020.

At the end of last month, project company Paks II submitted a full package of documents to the Hungarian Atomic Energy Authority (HAEA) for obtaining a license for the construction of the two new blocks at the Paks nuclear power plant, which accounts for about half of Hungary’s electricity generation.

CEENERGYNEWS spoke with János Süli, the Minister responsible for the design, construction and commissioning of two new reactors at Paks about the status of the major investment project and the future of nuclear energy in light of increased global efforts to tackle climate change.

Paks power plant, located 100 kilometres south of Budapest is Hungary’s largest power generator, providing for one-third of domestic electricity consumption. The plant comprises four VVER-440 pressurised water reactors which were granted license-extension until the 2030s. After deciding to double the capacity of the 2-gigawatt Paks power plant, in 2014 the Hungarian government signed an agreement with Russian state company Rosatom to build two additional reactors of up to 1,200 MWe each.

“At the end of June, in line with the schedule, the project company submitted the application for obtaining the implementation licence to the Hungarian Atomic Energy Authority (HAEA), as a result of years of complex work,” starts János Süli.

“Indeed we reached a significant milestone by submitting this documentation, which certifies that the planned new blocks at the Paks power plant meet all relevant Hungarian and European Union rules and safety requirements.”

The Hungarian Atomic Energy Authority has now more than a year to evaluate the 283,000 pages application documentation and to grant the overall construction licence.

“It is important to note that HAEA will also involve international experts in the review process through the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA),” Mr Süli points out, adding that during the evaluation period they will closely cooperate with HAEA as additional data and information from the project company might be requested.

“However, groundworks at the reactor site might commence as early as 2021, pending on the HAEA’s approval,” said Mr Süli.

The European Commission did not raise legal objections to the amendment of the Hungarian legislation relating to groundwork preparation and, according to the Minister, this demonstrated that it is in line with international practice.

The pandemic situation highlighted the strategic importance of guaranteeing the secure operation of the core infrastructure, as well as the availability of vital electricity. According to Mr Süli, the four operating units of Paks proved once again to be an important contributor to supply security.

“It must be recognised that besides weather-dependent renewables, in the long run, we also need power plants in our electricity system that has no such constraints and can run without disruption regardless of the weather.”

Hungary is highly dependent on electricity imports and the European power park is constantly ageing. Net imports of electricity in Hungary accounts for around 32 per cent of total consumption, which is one of the highest in the EU.

“To preserve the long-term competitiveness of the Hungarian economy, Hungarian people and enterprises must have access to cheap electricity from predictable domestic sources,” underlines Minister Süli.

Electricity prices for household consumers in Hungary are the second-lowest in the EU according to Eurostat, at 3.3 euros per 100 kWh.

The Hungarian government plans to increase the rate of carbon-free electricity production from the current 60 per cent to 90 per cent by 2030 and pins its hopes on nuclear energy complemented with increased solar capacity.

According to János Süli, the government acted responsibly when it decided to build on nuclear energy, as nuclear power plants are free of emissions, making them an important element in the fight against climate change.

“The production of a unit of Hungarian electricity emits 40 per cent less carbon dioxide than in Germany, which is considered to be at the forefront of climate protection efforts,” explains Mr Süli.

According to the project company’s estimations, conventional power plants would emit 17 million tonnes of carbon dioxide annually to produce the same amount of electricity as the two new units at Paks.

“This is more than the emission generated by the entire transport sector in Hungary, which emits twelve million tonnes of CO2 per year, while the absorption capacity of the forests is only six million tonnes per year,” adds Minister Süli.

“I am convinced that without nuclear energy, climate protection goals cannot be achieved neither in Hungary nor globally.”

So should nuclear power be considered green because it is a low-carbon source of energy? The EU also seems to be hesitant. The provisional agreement on the EU taxonomy, aimed at guiding private investors looking to buy clean technology stocks, was followed by a huge debate whether nuclear (and/or gas projects) should be excluded from the ‘do not harm’ category. At the beginning of July, the Commission has decided to call upon a special expert group to draft a technical report on the ‘do no significant harm’ aspects of nuclear energy by 2021.

“Households, changing transportation, modern cities and industry need increased amounts of clean electricity,” says János Süli. “The Hungarian government, as a committed supporter of the common European fight against climate change, is convinced that the principle of technological neutrality should be reflected in the EU policy and support system.”

He notes that the same opinion and suggestions have been formulated as a result of in-depth analysis conducted by respected international organisations such as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), or the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA).

“We have also voiced this view in Brussels, not least because most of the clean, carbon-free electricity generated in the European Union is coming from nuclear,” adds Minister Süli. Nuclear energy is a critical component in the energy mix of 13 Member States out of the 27, accounting for almost 26 per cent of the electricity produced in the EU.

“I believe everyone in the industry is aware that the strategic product of the world for the coming decades will be affordable, continuously available, clean electricity. In Hungary, the Paks II. project is one of the guarantees of this.”

However, public opinion is usually divided on the issue of large-scale nuclear projects. The Paks II project is also surrounded by heated debates.

Speaking about technical preparedness, Minister Süli tells that Hungary has accumulated waste experience in nuclear technology in recent decades, as the country came to the forefront of the industry very early on. According to Minister Süli, Hungary can still draw on this know-how that served as the basis for the construction of the Paks Nuclear Power Plant.

“Today, the specialists working on Paks II are in a similarly exceptional situation: they will know the nuclear power plant until the last screw,” Mr Süli points out, adding that the blocks will be constructed in line with the highest safety standards by installing active and passive safety systems as well.

Such a major investment could also translate into jobs and business opportunities to many Hungarians. According to the project company’s estimations, the construction of the nuclear power plant units will employ around 10,000 people at its peak and will create additional 10-15,000 jobs across the country due to the related construction projects.

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