Energy Expedition Summary: Nuclear Power and the Danube

Buda to Baja: Leg 1 of the  South & Central European Energy Expedition (#SCEEE). Post 1 of 2.

The Danube river proves to be an essential element to the energy system of Eastern Europe. The Danube integrated Eastern European Communist countries with the Soviet Union, facilitating economic cooperation through COMECON, the counterpoint to the Western OECD. To gain a unique and new perspective on energy technologies and relations I am biking down the Danube river from Budapest to the Black Sea and in a shale gas region in Poland. Here is a summary of the first Hungarian leg from Budapest to Baja.

I traveled by bike from Budapest to Baja, from May 21st to May 24th. On Friday May 22nd, I stopped at the Paks Nuclear Power Plant to meet with representatives of Paks and a local Paks politician. Honestly, after biking 140 km in the rain, over two days, their genuine hospitality and patience was outstanding. In another post, I’ll dive into the history of Paks and my visit, because first it is important to connect with the Danube river and its emerging meaning for me in the energy system of the whole Eastern European region.

Budapest to Baja: Basic route I took on bike - but there are some exceptions.
Budapest to Baja: Basic route I took on bike – but there are some exceptions.

Biking down the Danube began as a separate personal goal. It merged with my idea for a book and a research project when I realized nuclear power plants were located along the Danube. I wanted a method to connect with the average citizen to understand their perspective on regional energy politics and technologies. What I learned by this four day bike trip is the Danube serves as an essential conduit for the region’s energy infrastructure and facilitates political economic aims for integration of the region. It is a silent player in regional integration, but one which I hope to highlight through my research.

Reflecting on my trip (in a dry room back in Budapest) the perspective, I gained by riding a bike along and through the countryside surrounding the Danube, connected me to the land and water. This connection is essential when we consider the energy resources and technologies.

The natural beauty and history along the channelized Danube is striking. Contrasting these with the most technologically advanced and dangerous energy technology humans have created is profound. It is also this nature that cools and enables the technology to function. The contrast with farms, vineyards, and Roman ruins provides the historical context to frame how humans existed without electricity to the means we now use to generate electricity.

The building of Paks also relied on the Danube to transport materials: creating a regional supply chain of nuclear power plant components. For example, the reactors were made in Czechoslovakia and transported on the Danube.In addition the turbines were made in Germany, while the steam generators are Hungarian made by Ganz. The use of the Danube and the sourcing of the parts underscores the effort the Soviet Union went to create a regional involvement of countries in building a nuclear power industry – they embedded nuclear power in the region through knowledge and commercial networks.

I made it to Paks
I made it to Paks

Importantly, the building of the nuclear industry was based around COMECON (Council for Mutual Economic Assistance). COMECON served an important role in integrating the national economies of Communist states with the Soviet Union. This offered an economic and political framework to build NPPs in Czechoslovakia, Romania and Bulgaria. Poland, after giving the go-ahead, later opted out. In all these countries similar physical integration of parts networks and sourcing was done. Rather than the technological components emanating from Russia (as we think today), the parts suppliers drew on COMECON countries. We can now view the Danube as facilitating this relationship and construction of NPPs.

Finally, it is important to reflect on the special view biking provides in connecting the Danube to energy infrastructure. Honestly, biking in the rain for over 160 km out of about 216 km wasn’t the most enjoyable (seriously, a little pity is earned). But I really gained a new perspective. From the bike I was able to reflect on and experience Hungary, which is dramatically different from what I (and most people) experience in Budapest. Hungary has four of the poorest regions out of 20 in the EU. Placing this poverty and the people within the broader energy debate enables a better contextualization of either justifying, or not, the pursuit of certain energy technologies and policies. I look forward over the next few months to provide this perspective more for Hungary and the region.

Some experimental videos made on the way