Sinking ground on the Paks II nuclear power plant site could further delay the project

Hungarian Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade Péter Szijjártó has thrown himself into the Paks expansion issue with his typical confidence. Since he took over the supervision of Paks II. from János Süli in the new Orbán government formed after the April 2022 parliamentary elections, he has repeatedly indicated that he wants to revive the project, which is significantly behind schedule.

However, there is one development that Szijjártó is not talking about, which could possibly cause further delays. This has to do with the fact that Paks II. is currently planned to be built over a fault line that geological studies show to be active. According to Direkt36’s research, the fault line issue has recently become one of the most important issues in the nuclear licensing process. If this cannot be resolved sufficiently, Paks II. will have to be relocated.

The Hungarian Atomic Energy Authority (HAEA), which plays a key role in the licensing of Paks II., has been concerned for years that the Russian company Rosatom, which is in charge of the project, wants to build above the fault line. The authority is not worried about possible earthquakes, but that the ground on either side of the fault line might sink differently, and this could endanger the new nuclear power plant. János Süli, who previously oversaw the project as minister without portfolio, has dismissed such concerns. He thought the problems of ground subsidence could be dealt with, while it would harm the project’s credibility if a new location had to be found within the designated site.

However, the HAEA is an inevitable player in this matter. For instance, last fall it refused to issue a key permit that would have cleared the way for the construction of the new nuclear power plant, partly because of the fault line problem. Instead, the Authority requested additional documents from the Hungarian state-owned company responsible for the project Paks II. Ltd.

Although the Russian-Ukrainian war broke out in the meantime, the project went ahead and Paks II. Ltd. submitted documents to the Authority. It now has to assess them and decide whether there is a technical solution that can be used to build safely above the fault line. If there is not, the Russians will have to modify the plans and relocate the nuclear power plant planned to be situated over the fault line. As construction can begin once this dilemma has been resolved, this is the last opportunity to settle this long-drawn-out issue.

Following a Direkt36 inquiry, the HAEA stated that the licensing process was still ongoing, therefore they could not provide more details. In general, they wrote that the licensing process will examine the materials submitted by Paks II., including whether “the technologies and designs to be used during construction will adequately address the specific characteristics of the site.” In response to our questions, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade said that thanks to years of investigations, the Paks site has become “the most thoroughly assessed and researched site in our country”, and that nuclear safety requirements are the primary consideration in the licensing process.

The Russians would build just above the fault line

Controversies over earthquake safety have overshadowed Paks II. since the HAEA found the site, five kilometers from Paks, suitable for the construction of a new nuclear power plant. The so-called site license was issued by the authority in March 2017.

In an article published a few months after the license was issued, Hungarian investigative outlet Átlátszó presented the main findings of a geological study for the Paks expansion. According to the study, traces of an earthquake were found beneath the site that caused displacements that reached the surface. According to the outlet, this is a problem because a government decree prohibits building a nuclear power plant on a site where there is a tectonically active fault line.

However, government officials responsible for the project say that not only this government decree but all relevant legislation should be taken into account. According to one such legislation, it is not a problem if the fault line is active as long as it is not capable of causing a serious earthquake that would endanger the future nuclear power plant. However, such a risk does not exist according to geological studies cited by the government. In other words, construction can go ahead.

It soon became clear that the HAEA also had reservations regarding the fault line. These became louder after the Hungarian state-owned company responsible for the project Paks II. Ltd. submitted an important permit application for the project to the HAEA in the summer of 2020. This is the so-called construction license application which is required to demonstrate that the nuclear power plant can be built in compliance with the rules and can be operated safely. This document also includes the plans of the Russian contractor Rosatom for the construction of the plant, including where exactly on the site the new units would be built.

Direkt36 previously reported that the authority considered this document which runs to hundreds of thousands of pages to be of poor quality and found a number of serious problems. One of the HAEA’s concerns was that Russian engineers would build one of the two new nuclear power plant units directly above the active fault line. According to a source familiar with the Paks project, this was not intentional and the Russians started putting the plans together before they knew exactly where the fault line would run.

Sources familiar with the authority’s work told Direkt36 that the HAEA was not concerned about a potential earthquake. It was rather that the ground on either side of the fault line might react differently to the construction of the nuclear power plant, for instance, one side might sink more than the other, which could cause cracks in the concrete foundation. In addition, “it has a bad optics to build it here,” one source said, suggesting that the choice of the site raised not only geological but also communication issues.

As the HAEA had already issued the site license the authority viewed that the construction could take place on the designated site – less than a third of which would be occupied by the new nuclear power plant – but not necessarily at the point indicated in the Russian plans. According to a source familiar with the project, the authority has also given priority to this problem because a team within the HAEA much more critical of geological issues has since strengthened.

The HAEA, which at the time was still headed by Gyula Fichtinger as Director-General, had also made its objections known to Paks II. Ltd., the company responsible for the project. However, the state-owned company and János Süli, who oversaw the company as minister without portfolio at the time, were not open to these suggestions, according to several sources who had seen the negotiations between the HAEA and Paks II. Ltd. Süli’s team believed that they could tackle the problem with a more stable foundation. In addition, they thought that it would question the whole project if a new location had to be found within the site, in other words a closed issue would have to be reopened.

Last September, the HAEA’s concerns about the application for the construction permit, including the fault line, were also brought to the attention of Minister of Technology László Palkovics, who at that time oversaw the authority’s operations. According to an earlier Direkt36 article, Palkovics did not support issuing the license for these reasons, among other issues. Contrary to Süli’s position, the government, accepting Palkovics’ arguments, decided that the project could not be granted a license in this form. To implement this decision, last September PM Viktor Orbán appointed one of Palkovics’s deputy state secretaries Andrea Kádár, who deals with energy issues, to head the HAEA. Fichtinger resigned last spring without giving any reason.

On the day after Kádár’s appointment, the HAEA decided not to issue the permit, saying it could not assess it on the basis of the information available. It said it needed more information and ordered the submission of additional documents. Within this process, the HAEA also wanted an answer on how the fault line problem could be resolved, Direkt36 learned.

Relocation would cause delays, while Foreign Minister Szijjártó would speed up the project

It soon became clear to Andrea Kádár that the issues related to the fault line required special attention. This was also due to the fact that Austria, a neighboring country that is constantly monitoring the Paks project, did not like the site. Last spring, geologists commissioned by the Austrian Environment Protection Agency carried out a study which concluded that the whole of the Paks II. site was not suitable for construction for seismic safety reasons. The Austrian government requested in person consultations with the Hungarian side due to the findings of this study.

The meeting took place on February 15 at the HAEA headquarters in Budapest and was attended by experts from the Austrian and Hungarian sides. The HAEA shared several details of the meeting on its website, including that it continues to believe that “based on the outcome of the event, it is the firm position of the Hungarian Atomic Energy Authority that the selected site is suitable for the construction of the new units.” According to sources familiar with the details of the meeting, the Austrian side was convinced. This was a major achievement because last fall Palkovics considered it risky to issue the key construction permit partly because of Austrian objections. (We have sent Austrian government officials several questions about the meeting but have not received any answers.)

Shortly afterwards, Russia launched a war against Ukraine. As the Russians are involved in the Paks expansion not only as the main contractor but also as a creditor, the question arose after the war broke out whether the new nuclear power plant would be built at all. In those weeks, there was a particular sense of cluelessness around Paks II., one source said, according to whom this was strange because Paks II. Ltd. which was in charge of the project should have possessed the most information. However, the Hungarian government has remained committed to the project at the communication level during the whole time. At the beginning of March, for example, PM Orbán said that Paks II. would be built anyway, “there is no reason to change our previous plan.” According to one source, those involved in the project continued to work “as if there were no war.”

For instance, according to sources familiar with the project, Paks II. Ltd. sent several documents to the HAEA as part of the authority’s request for additional information. The HAEA did not provide details on when the evaluation of these could be completed to our inquiry and Direkt36 received different information on the expected outcome. According to one source, Paks II. Ltd. expects that, while keeping the current site, they will soon be able to obtain the construction permit to start the construction. Another source told Direkt36 that a senior HAEA official had told him at the beginning of April that it was possible that the nuclear power plant would be “moved.”

The authority cannot prescribe where on the site the nuclear power plant should be built, it can only comment on the submitted materials. It can therefore reject solutions proposed by Paks II. Ltd. to address the risks posed by the fault line. If this happens, there is no alternative but to relocate the new nuclear power plant, which would require further planning, meaning it would cause further delays in the project which is already behind schedule. However, based on their statements government members do not expect this to happen.

Hungarian Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade Péter Szijjártó was given oversight of the project after the spring parliamentary elections. The politician explained this by saying that this would concentrate the power over energy security and the procurement of energy sources. In recent weeks, Szijjártó has repeatedly said that he wants to speed up work on Paks. “Our goal is to speed up the Paks project,” he told a parliamentary committee in mid-May.

Through his communication, Szijjártó also tries to emphasize that the project has already gained momentum under his leadership. For example, he announced on his Facebook page that the HAEA has given permission for two foundation-related works. A legal amendment adopted by the Hungarian government in May 2020 made it possible for these earthworks to be separately authorized and to start before the main construction permit was issued. As the amendment could put the Russians in a more advantageous position within the project, its adoption previously caused a number of conflicts, as Direkt36’s previous investigation revealed.

Cover picture: szarvas / Telex

  • András Szabó

    András worked eight years as a journalist at Origo, a then prestigious online news site, but also spent several years at Index and news outlets. At Direkt36 he covers Russian-Hungarian relations, activities of business circles close to Fidesz, and political decision making processes of the Orbán government. In 2011 he received the Gőbölyös Soma Award dedicated to investigative journalism in Hungary, and in 2010 he won the Quality Journalism Award, both for a series of articles that focused on a corruption case connected to the former Socialist-led government.