Hungary Insight Poland

Going nuclear: Poland and Hungary on diverging energy paths

nuclear-power-plant

Warsaw, Poland – Debate over the current and future role of nuclear energy has waged for years in Central and Eastern Europe. But since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, this discussion has become a key concern in regional plans for energy independence and security.

Far from leading to a consensual outlook, the war itself has highlighted divided visions on nuclear energy, specifically regarding the role that Russia should play in future developments.

Breaking away from legacy

The shadow of the Soviet hegemony still looms large in the sphere of nuclear energy across the entire region. Beginning as early as the late 1950’s, the USSR facilitated the development of nuclear energy within the COMECON group.

Owing to this, many countries in the region today – including the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, and Lithuania among others – but with the notable exception of Poland, have inherited Soviet-built nuclear infrastructure. This legacy of Russian technology and design, now administered by the Russian state-corporation Rosatom, has resulted in a continued reliance on Russia for both the maintenance of reactors and the supply of nuclear fuel.

In the current crisis, this has been a difficult situation to address. 

Conspicuously, since the Russian invasion of February 2022, Rosatom has avoided the same sanctions applied to other Russia-based energy suppliers such as Gazprom and Lukoil. This is likely a testament to the acute dependency that European reactors still have on Rosatom and will continue to have in the near future if difficult changes are not made.

Ultimately, this approach has shifted responsibility to individual countries as to whether they continue to cooperate with Russia.   

Yet even with these inherent challenges of transition, several countries on the EU’s eastern flank have already demonstrated a willingness to break away from reliance on Russia. In May Finland scrapped plans to cooperate with Rosatom in building a new nuclear plant, Hanhikivi 1, citing the risks of renewed conflict in Ukraine.

Similarly, in June the Czech Republic, which had already banned Russian tender for future nuclear development, signed a deal with both Westinghouse and France’s Framatome to supply plant fuel, replacing Rosatom.

But the two opposing cases of Poland and Hungary provide the starkest contrast in terms of how countries in Central Europe can relate to Russian dominance in the field of nuclear energy, either maintaining the status quo or setting a precedent for change.

The Polish exception

In 1989 Poland discontinued the construction of what would have been their first nuclear power plant, located in Żarnowiec on the Baltic sea. At the time Soviet influence was rapidly waning, and there was little or no will to continue such a project, in view of both the Chernobyl disaster, only three years prior, and a new energy policy diverging from the interests of what would soon become the Russian Federation. 

While this decision did ultimately prevent Poland from inheriting a nuclear legacy tied to Russia, it also deprived Poland of experience in the industry. Any future pursuit of this power source would have to work from the ground up. However, this tabula rasa left many options open as the debate around nuclear energy reappeared in following decades.

In 2014, the Polish Council of Ministers finally approved the first iteration of a long-term “Polish Nuclear Power Program” (PNP), which consolidated many years of strategic thinking to develop the sector. Energy security, and particularly energy independence from Russia, was already a key policy concern in Poland.

The Polish government is currently entertaining proposals from several foreign energy companies. In October 2021, France’s EDF submitted an offer to build 4 to 6 nuclear reactors in Poland, followed in April 2022 by a similar offer from South Korea’s KHNP and in September by the US’s Westinghouse and Bechtel. Once the final selection is made this autumn, the first plant is set to be operational by 2033, located in the Choczewo municipality of Lubiatowo-Kopalino.

The plan in its current state still faces hurdles. One notable development this summer has been the dismissal of Poland’s longtime “energy czar” and government plenipotentiary for strategic energy infrastructure Piotr Naimski. This has been largely taken as a sign of PiS party/government infighting, and a potential reshuffle of the government’s long-term strategy.

The highly ambitious schedule presented in the Polish Nuclear Power Program has also been criticized for its proposed 2033 launch date, which some say is unrealistic. That notwithstanding, Poland has made great strides in developing nuclear energy without relying on the Russian backing, which has been standard in the region for decades.

Hungary: by design or fait accompli

In contrast to Poland, Hungary has had a long history of nuclear development going back all the way to the 1950’s with their first research reactor coming online in 1959. At the time further progress in this sector necessitated cooperation with the Soviet Union.

In the 1960’s Hungary entered into an agreement with the USSR to build a nuclear power plant in Paks, 100 km south of Budapest. As with other countries in the former Eastern bloc, Hungary’s nuclear capacity became based on Soviet design and technology which, in itself, makes energy independence a more difficult and costly task.  

This process resulted in the construction of four nuclear reactors at the Paks site with all four coming online between 1982 and 1987. Initially these reactors were designed with a 30-year operating lifetime, after which they would be due for replacement. This would have meant that they would all be replaced between 2012 and 2017.

However, in 2005, the Hungarian parliament voted to further extend the operating lifetime of the reactors by 20 years, an extended deadline for replacement Hungary is nevertheless rapidly approaching. And while due diligence has been taken with regard to safety, relying on 50-year-old Soviet infrastructure will undoubtedly raise concerns.

To address this issue the Hungarian government began an open tender after 2010 in which several companies from the US, France and South Korea expressed interest. Even then Rosatom was a strong contender, which was further highlighted by Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban’s growing relationship with Russia’s Vladimir Putin.

In 2014, this special relationship became all too apparent as the project (which would be Paks II) was suddenly awarded to Rosatom without competition. In a follow-up, Russia agreed to finance 80% of the roughly $ 12 billion construction cost, in a move that has been called an overt purchase of political influence. Highly controversial, this decision set the stage for future rapprochement between Hungary and Russia, the effects of which are all too clear today.

Hungary has recently rejected demands to sanction Russia and continued to work with Russia on Paks II, with the opening of construction being announced as recently as August 2022. For Hungary the die is cast.

For Hungary, the large political and financial investment that Orban’s regime has made into Russian-built nuclear energy, and the time constraints posed by aging nuclear infrastructure, may shed some light on why Hungary has gone to such lengths to preserve its relationship with Moscow in the face of broad condemnation.

For Poland, independence from Russian nuclear infrastructure has given the country a unique opportunity to direct its own capacities and develop agreements on freer terms. The next months will show which company wins the tender for the Polish nuclear infrastructure.  

As close as Hungary and Poland may have been in a number of areas, their approach to nuclear energy underlines a fundamental disagreement between the two. Embodying two distinct trajectories of nuclear development, they will likely serve as an indicator of changing times for nuclear energy.

By Nathan Alan-Lee

Nathan is a research assistant working with the Jagiellonian University in Krakow and a PhD student at the UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies. He completed his Masters degree in European studies at the Jagiellonian University, focusing on party politics in Central and Eastern Europe. Currently, he is pursuing a study of politicisation and partisan influence in society, emphasising memory and historical revisionism.