Paks II Atomeromu Zrt, the company responsible for the expansion of Hungary’s Paks NPP, has applied to the Hungarian Atomic Energy Authority (HAEA) for a production permit for the reactor pressure vessels (RPVs) of the planned two new units.
János Süli, the minister responsible for the construction of the new units, confirmed the submission following a hearing in the Parliamentary Committee on Sustainable Development. The applicatoin is another significant milestone in the development of the project, Paks II wrote on its website.
Süli said the VVER-1200 reactor vessels will be manufactured in Volgodonsk, Russia over some 36 months under the constant control of Russian and Hungarian specialists.
During the committee hearing, Süli reported that work is being carried out in parallel at several locations on the Paks II site, with 18 buildings or structures under construction at five complexes. A concrete plant, a complex of steel and rebar assembly plants, several administrative and service buildings, a complex of anti-corrosion works and a general contractor warehouse will be built. In the area where the units will be built, site preparation is already underway, the project has a valid building permit for the works of the gap wall and soil reinforcement tests, and for the excavation of the soil above minus five metres. In addition, the Power Plant Investment Centre was completed in the summer, for the Paks II Zrt employees, he noted.
Süli also HAEA was considering the application for a construction permit. They have reviewed the new tasks identified in the request for additional information, and based on these, they did not see any obstacle to the project obtaining the development permit by submitting the necessary additional documentation, he said. He noted that both the authority and the licencee are staffed by excellent, internationally recognised professionals and it will be a very well-founded document at the end of the procedure.
Earlier there had been some speculation that the construction licence may be delayed for some time, due to changes at HAEA. The Hungarian Parliament on 9 November had adopted an amendment to the Atomic Energy Act, by 133 votes to 55, which will enter into force in several stages after its promulgation. It will be fully enacted by January 2022.
As a result of the legislation, HAEA said it “will be more independent financially and organisationally, while it keeps its regulatory independence, which will provide the framework for efficient work even with the expanding tasks”. The President of the HAEA will report directly to the Parliament and its regulatory responsibility will increased.
In effect, HAEA will be given financial and organisational independence and will become an independent regulatory body, headed by a president appointed by the parliament for a nine-year term. Under the change, the office will become a central budgetary body with a separate title within the chapter of the National Assembly.
The HAEA had been without a Director General since April when Gyula Fichtinger resigned in the wake of a corruption scandal. On 30 September Prime Minister Viktor Orbán appointed Andrea Kádár to the post. In her first exclusive interview with Portfolio, published on 13 October, she had said she would set up a more efficient nuclear safety authority with a larger staff on salaries aligned to the private sector and with a change in its legal status. “There are many areas of regulation, such as those related to professional practice, where it is absolutely justified and improves efficiency if the agency can use its own regulatory tool, can regulate in its own regulations,” she noted.
Hungarian press reports link the changes to recent delays to the Paks II NPP project. Paks II was launched in 2014 by an inter-governmental agreement between Hungary and Russia for two VVER-1200 reactors to be supplied by Rosatom. The contract was supported by a Russian state loan to finance the majority of the project.
HAEA issued a site licence for Paks II in March 2017 and approval also came from the European Commission that the new plant's effects on competition would be acceptable, subject to certain commitments by the Hungarian government. Preparatory groundwork began this year, following receipt of a specific licence. The existing Paks NPP operates four ageing VVER-440 reactors and parliament in 2009 approved the construction of two new replacement units.
On 30 September, a day after Kádár’s appointment, HAEA said it needed more time before it could issue the Paks II construction licence. It was applied for in June 2020 and HAEA had 12 months to carry out the permit procedure, which was then extended by three months. HAEA said the submitted documentation “is extremely thorough in several respects, however, in order for the authority to be able to fully verify all requirements, further assessment and analysis is needed in some areas, taking into account the recommendations of the International Atomic Energy Agency's mission. To this end, the National Atomic Energy Authority shall order further rectification of deficiencies in the licensing procedure.”
In her interview, Kádár insisted that this was not a postponement. “I would rather point out that in some places in the press, the news appeared as if the agency had rejected the application, but I would like to dispel misunderstandings that this was not the case. The gaps are being filled,” she said.
On 13 October, Foreign Affairs Minister Péter Szijjártó visited Moscow for talks with Rosatom director general, Alexey Likhachev, to discuss the detailed schedule for the upcoming works at Paks II.
“Good progress has been made in preparations to expand Paks nuclear power station, with the main constructor to submit 10 new plans and permission requests to the authorities in the upcoming period,” he said. He noted that preparatory work was going well, because the contractor has already obtained 519 permits, including environmental and site permits. The application for a construction permit comprising more than 300,000 pages had been completed, but HAEA was requiring some additional information and had extended the review deadline. This was not a delay, he insisted. He noted that a permit had been approved for the construction of 26 buildings, five of which were already under construction.
Alexander Merten, vice president of the main contractor company for Paks II, ASE (part of Rosatom) said in an interview on 3 November with World Economy that the contract setting out the general conditions for the implementation of the project, as amended in 2019, “has not changed since then”. The first unit is scheduled to be commissioned in 2029 and the second in 2030. Commenting on HAEA’s request for more information, he said: “The project is proceeding according to the plan agreed with the Hungarian party. Rosatom works closely with its Hungarian partner, Paks II Zrt, to which the HAEA sent its requests in October.” He said ASE would provide the requested information and answers as soon as possible.
Overall, it would seem that the changes to HAEA are intended to support Paks II, despite the delays to the construction licence. Sources close to the matter told NEI that the government of Victor Orban is fully behind the project but is facing political opposition from some quarters. With general elections due in 2022, making the HAEA independent of the government is intended to ensure that the project will be protected to some extent in the event of a change of government, the sources noted.
Photo: How the Paks II expansion project will look