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Hungarian expert: The construction of a nuclear power plant makes national economy more competitive

Belarus looks forward to having a nuclear energy industry of its own: the first power-generating unit of the nuclear power plant is supposed to go online in 2019. The development of nuclear energy is part of the global trend according to Zsolt Harfas, member of the board of the Hungarian Electrotechnical Association. His country is about to start building new power-generating units at the Paks 2 nuclear power plant using the same design that the Belarusian nuclear power plant uses. Whether Belarusian experience is useful for Hungarian energy companies, whether alternative sources can become a decent substitute for conventional sources of energy, and what the global community has learned from the Fukushima nuclear power plant accident are covered by Zsolt Harfas’s interview with BelTA.

Mr Harfas, why is nuclear energy still of great current interest for the world?

I believe there are no appropriate alternatives to nuclear energy these days. According to forecasts and analysis of international organizations, in order to honor climate preservation commitments it is necessary to develop not only renewable sources of energy but also nuclear energy. Despite the popular belief the two kinds are not mutually exclusive. Contrariwise, they complement each other and thus make energy supply of this or that country stable.

Let me quote some concrete examples. As far as commitments to reduce CO2 emissions into the atmosphere are concerned, the level of carbon dioxide emissions in France where the share of nuclear energy stands at 70-75% is one of the lowest — 117g per kilowatt-hour. In Germany despite the available alternative energy sources (wind farms and solar farms) and the policy in favor of phasing out nuclear power plants CO2 emissions per kilowatt-hour are virtually four times as much as those in France — 412g [The examples are quoted from using figures, which were up-to-date as of the date of the interview].

In what countries can nuclear energy become the optimal choice over carbon fuel? In particular, why is it of interest for Belarus and Hungary?

Not only those two but all the countries, which need stable energy supply, stronger security and independence in the area of power engineering. A nuclear power plant allows generating cheaper energy in comparison with other sources. It means nuclear energy helps bolster the competitive ability of the national economy. It is just what Hungary and Belarus need.

Geographical peculiarities play their own part in addition to economic ones. For instance, Hungary imports a lot of energy, satisfying 30-33% of the country’s demand for electricity. The construction of a nuclear power plant of our own will help substitute this import. As for renewable sources, Hungary does not have sufficient natural resources for deploying them. This is why focusing on nuclear energy as the basic source of energy is the obvious solution.

What can you say about the Belarusian nuclear power plant design?

I am rather well familiar with the design and think highly of it taking into account the fact that the same design will be used to build the Paks 2 nuclear power plant in Hungary soon. Just like the Belarusian nuclear power plant the Hungarian one will have two VVER-1200 units with the output capacity of 1,200MW each. They represent Generation III+ reactors and state-of-the-art technology. Their conformance with European and global standards has been confirmed by respected international organizations — the European Commission and the IAEA.

Have Hungary’s neighbors ever been concerned about the nuclear power plant construction project?

In line with European and international requirements Hungary has arranged consultations, awareness-raising campaigns, and hearings, in which various interested parties could participate such as governmental and environmental organizations. Hungarian specialists were ready to answer all the questions of foreign colleagues. Such hearings have been held within the framework of environmental licensing procedures in Ukraine, Slovakia, Romania, Serbia, Austria, and Germany. As for possible concerns, Austria has demonstrated certain opposition since the country argues against the use of nuclear energy in neighboring countries — not only in Hungary, but Czechia, too. You have to remember that Austria has totally different geographic conditions, with hydropower supplying over 70% of the energy the country needs. Hungary does not have the same opportunities while due to the reasons I’ve already mentioned it needs a nuclear power plant of its own. The existing facilities — four reactors of the Paks nuclear power plant, which generate over 50% of electricity in the country — need replacement. The Paks nuclear power plant will be shut down in 2032-2037, this is why building and commissioning the Paks 2 nuclear power plant is urgent today.

Do you think Belarus’ experience of building a nuclear power plant can be beneficial for other countries, in particular, Hungary?

When Hungary gets down to implementing its own nuclear power plant project, Belarus will have two reactors in operation already. This is why the experience your country has accumulated in the course of building and operating the reactors will no doubt be very useful for Hungary.

Hungary stays in touch with all the nuclear power plant operators, this is why, there is no doubt, it will cooperate with Belarus. For now our project is in the licensing phase, but Hungarian specialists have already visited the Belarusian nuclear power plant in order to study important nuances of organization of the future civil engineering project, in particular, the accommodation of construction workers. I am convinced that the sharing of the best practices with Belarusian colleagues will continue.

How has nuclear energy industry changed since the major accidents at the Chernobyl and Fukushima nuclear power plants? Are the technologies safer now?

As a nuclear energy engineer I can say that safety is the watchword in designing nuclear power plants. The experience acquired in the course of the accidents at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant and the Fukushima nuclear power plant has been used to improve the technologies in use, including their safety parameters. In particular, the design used to build the Belarusian nuclear power plant and similar installations complies with the strictest modern international safety requirements, the so-called post-Fukushima requirements. It has been confirmed by international organizations.

The solutions allow preventing all the theoretically possible consequences of major emergencies, first of all, the release of radioactive substances into the environment. As concrete examples of such solutions I can mention totally innovative passive safeguards, including passive heat dissipation and core catchers.

The fact that this type of reactors is safe has been stated not only by Russia, Hungary, or Belarus but also international organizations, which have performed the relevant research — the European Union and the IAEA.

What prospects does the nuclear energy industry have?

An increasingly large number of countries start using nuclear energy because they see it as a source of comparatively cheap and reliable energy, which can satisfy the growing demand for electricity. Technologies advance, cutting-edge R&D efforts are in progress, fourth-generation reactors are in development (with a closed fuel cycle), which will be able to ensure stable electricity generation in the truly long term. So it is obviously too early to discard nuclear energy.