Present and Historical Benefits of Nuclear Power for Hungary and the Soviets

Buda to Baja: Leg 1 of the South & Central European Energy Expedition (#SCEEE), post 2 of 2. Post 1, can be found here.

“Energy is ideology,” stated a Bulgarian energy expert in relation to Russia’s use of energy as a projection of power. But, he continued, the age of energy as a weapon is over, the options are now plentiful. While there are more options today, it is important to frame Soviet and Russian technology as a form of influence corresponding with particular ideologies and forms of governance. This is an emerging theme from my interviews and conversations on the historical role of the energy system in former Communist countries.

Picture of a young Communist worker building the foundation of Hungary's future energy system
Picture of a young Communist worker building the foundation of Hungary’s future energy system. Displayed at the Paks NPP Visitor Center.

Ideology is often perceived to be a function of governments. That is, it is a top down process – similar to building up the idea of nation. But we can also see that ideology – like market ideology in the EU – also works in the form of governance. And here I change from the use of ‘government’ to the use of ‘governance’. Because in academic literature (including mine) we perceive governance as a technocratic rule making process. This is invoked for the regulatory systems propagated by the EU. But even within the EU (and discussed elsewhere in this blog and in this project) we have the propagation of neoliberal market ideology.

The connection I want to make to nuclear power in Hungary and in former Communist countries, is the Soviet Union was able to use ‘governance’ to instill and propagate its own ideology of societal goals through technology, including scientific expertise and processes. Nuclear power was one element of the energy system used to integrate and build grand projects that modernized the economies of COMECON countries (see my previous post).

Looking at the history of Paks (and nuclear power in the region) integration of the eastern satellites into the Soviet Union was facilitated by the energy infrastructure, such as gas pipelines and nuclear facilities. This integration lends itself to political integration and resource dependency through fulfilling social contracts for the built up expectation the state will provide low cost energy – and not payed from the salaries of citizens.

Continuity of Investments

Recent Russian efforts to foster integration by building new nuclear power plants and gas pipelines in the region represents building on past investments. Continuity of investments, is an areas I’ve examined in the past for companies like E.ON and RWE entering new EU Member States, but I (and others) have overlooked and failed to perceive the sunk costs of the Russians/Soviets into the Eastern Members states’ energy infrastructure and knowledge networks. Previous rounds of investments are represented in the Paks power plant itself, built in the 1980s. There is considerable knowledge capacity (including the extensive training given to each worker) built up since the early 1980s.

Brief video of the Soviet Memorial at Dunafoldvar where I spent one night on my bike trip to Paks.

Shifting of the governance system – and also the accepted ideology – away from a centrally planned economy to one emphasizing market forces, building and operating the energy infrastructure, undercuts and devalues the previous round of investments (under the previous regime). This observation is extremely important in my later examination of the current expansion of Paks NPP. Paks therefore is not just a component of Hungary’s and the region’s energy system, but an ingrained technological, political and social element of the previous and current economic system (including the guiding ideology). Renewable energy may make market sense, due to its smaller scale and shorter payback periods, but in political and social systems operating in a governance system of centralized energy systems, nuclear power fulfills multiple five-year plans.

Nuclear power works within this centralized governance system on multiple levels, in the respective order: 1) physical; 2) knowledge; 3) economic; 4) geopolitical; and 5) social.

Physical integration into the environment
The physical location of Paks Nuclear Power plant on the bank of the Danube is as much of a technical requirement as it was for assembling the structure. Cooling towers are not necessary, as river water is used for cooling and steam generation. In addition, production of the nuclear power plant components was a regional endeavor, enabling key components to be shipped on the Danube. For example, the reactors were made in Czechoslovakia at transported on the Danube. The use of the Danube and the sourcing of the parts underscores the regional dimension and participation in nuclear power.

In my future bike trips on the Danube I will be visiting the other nuclear power plant facilities, documenting the role of the Danube in tying together both the nuclear facilities and the economies of the region.

Knowledge integration
Operating the nuclear power station required students and employees to travel to Russia and the German Democratic Republic (DDR). This extensive education and travel results in the acculturation of experts into nuclear science and operational cultures. Education and training was also done at the Technical University of Budapest, this is where the Hungarian nuclear experts formed the basis of their careers.

Interestingly, during the early years of operation at Paks, the shift of workers were duplicated. There was a Hungarian team and a Russian team of operators performing the same functions. This enabled training and assisted in double checking that everything was done according to procedures.

Economic and competitiveness
The focus here is on the role of nuclear power in laying the groundwork for lower energy prices. But let’s not lose sight that the slogan ‘too cheap to meter’ is also an American expression to demonstrate the projected prowess of nuclear power. Currently, over 50% of Hungarian electricity consumption is supplied by Paks NPP. The working assumption (by some experts) is the full cost of nuclear power is reflected in the market price. I’m currently researching the construction costs and how these were paid. But the working assumption by some Hungarian experts and politicians is the full cost of nuclear is reflected in the current electricity price. From their perspective future nuclear power is perceived to offer this price advantage over renewable or coal power. The dominant paradigm in Hungary, Bulgaria and Russia is nuclear is cost competitive, resulting in a competitive economy.

The extensive physical and knowledge integration into the Communist economic system enables a legacy of Russia to remain embedded into the nuclear power industry. This extends the technical hand of Russia and keeps the former satellites close. Thus the current raging debate over expanding Paks and how this ties Hungary to Russia for another two generations. The debate is not only technological (nuclear or not) but an issue of sovereignty and political alignment. Does Hungary want to cut off a highly symbolic and historical tie that offers Hungary economic and social strength, and go with a more short-term neoliberal market based energy system? Under the current Orban government this is simply not an option – the centralized energy system remains reflecting the political governing style.

In a region that placed science in the highest regard, and energy infrastructure development as an expression of ideology along with a symbol of economic might, moving away from large scale energy projects goes against the grain. More deeply, the embedded physical assets, the developed knowledge and supply networks contribute to a legacy system that locks-in technology, engineering choices and geopolitical influence. Shutting down the nuclear power industry in these countries is akin to shutting down German solar or closing the coal mines. In a region and country with high support for nuclear power, it is unlikely that Hungary or Bulgaria will give up nuclear power. It is essential to consider these aspects and the embeddedness of energy technology into broader political-economic and social networks.

Social integration
Politically the choice to remain with nuclear is a continued expression of national might and scientific prowess. Solar and wind energy represent – not just a decentralized system, but technology owned and developed by Western firms that also control and profit from selling this. Giving up on ‘Russian’ nuclear technology undercuts CEE politicians own political and social standings. The fond recollection by workers of how Paks was built and the role of KISZ (the young Communist party), holds a strong legacy throughout the country. The 1980s were a time of prosperity for Hungarians, Goulash Communism worked. So much so, that by the time reactors 3 and 4 were being built new Hungarian companies were supplying the technologies for these, rather than Russian ones. Entrepreneurship was alive in Hungary in the 1980s. (I’m concentrating on the nuclear up-sides of Communism, not the significant downsides of the political-social regime)

In the present day, the town of Paks thrives off the largess bestowed upon it by the power plant. The cultural life is said to be equal with cities much larger, sport and cultural clubs are prominent. It is probably the only ‘factory’ town from the 1980s still surviving in Hungary today (although maybe Gyor could be considered as well). The country as a whole is viewed benefiting from Paks. MVM (the state owned company and owner of Paks) holds significant sponsorship throughout the country of cultural events. Tangible benefits are perceived from nuclear power in Hungary. In a sense, in a political-economic climate dominated by corruption, the only law that still works is the law of physics, and the role of science (maybe things were not perceived so differently under Communism). Corrupting or swaying this scientific knowledge can only result in a disaster. At least some social faith can be placed in physics of the atom.

The term ‘governance’ has a much more modern connotation to it. Often this is expressed in reference to EU expansion and technical rule making. In relation to Soviet nuclear technology, the spread of technical knowledge and exchange of ideas among experts can also be viewed as a form of governance. Hungary’s decision to remain nuclear is set within these historical and broader networked elements that hold centralized systems essential for the political system. Socially, it is still expected government will assist in price support. Providing continuity to past investments – of a centralized system – attempts to fulfill political and social expectations. Whether this is financially sound, considering broader technological trajectories, remains to be examined.