Hungary has begun talks with France over an increased role in its nuclear programme, which may eventually lead to replacing Russia at its only atomic power plant.
The shift, if completed, would mark a significant change of tack in Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s pro-Moscow stance, amid ongoing pressure from other EU states to target Russia’s nuclear exports with sanctions over its war in Ukraine, something Orbán has resisted.
It would also underscore Orbán’s continued openness for pragmatic co-operation with his EU and Nato allies on key strategic issues, despite his virulent Eurosceptic rhetoric, criticism of Brussels and ongoing antagonism with other EU powers over his rightwing, nationalist regime.
Budapest has begun to re-evaluate the flagship project in its controversial ongoing economic co-operation with Russia, a €12bn expansion of its Paks nuclear power plant, a project led by Moscow’s state-owned Rosatom and financed mostly from a Russian state loan, senior government officials said.
Framatome, France’s state-owned nuclear reactor maker, is now a subcontractor to Rosatom in Hungary, tasked to deliver the control systems to the plant, together with Germany’s Siemens.
“We will further increase the role of Framatome at the Paks investments,” Hungarian foreign minister Péter Szijjártó said last week after a visit to Flamanville, the French town where Framatome is building a nuclear power plant.
Budapest has defied western pressure to loosen its close ties with Moscow and tried to add two new Russian reactors to its existing Paks nuclear power plant, adding 2GW to its capacity.
Orban agreed to the expansion in a deal struck with Russian president Vladimir Putin in 2014, shortly before the invasion of Crimea. He has so far stuck to the plan despite severe delays and insisted it must be completed by 2030.
But the war, which Orbán last year expected to be over in short course, shows no signs of ending, raising questions over the Paks timeline and the feasibility of long-term co-operation with Moscow, forcing Hungary to look for potential alternatives.
While Hungary and France have blocked efforts by other EU member states to directly sanction Rosatom, there is increased pressure on the bloc to find ways to restrict the company’s future business and to find alternatives for countries that rely on the company to service their power plants.
“There is a discussion [over rethinking Paks] because we are worrying,” said Balázs Orbán, the premier’s political director, who is not related to him. But Orbán said that experts have suggested that changing the design would set the project back years: “So if we start something new, it’s just it’s a waste of years and then really we will be in trouble in 2030.”
The German government has been reluctant to give its necessary permits for Siemens to deliver its part in the project, however, leading Hungary to consider whether Framatome could play more of a role.
Orbán and French president Emmanuel Macron discussed the Paks project and co-operation on nuclear at a dinner meeting in Paris last week.
The German government and Siemens both declined to comment. Framatome did not respond to a request for comment.
Hungary is not yet ready to abandon the project altogether or replace the main Russian reactor design with other ones. It is intent on saving as much as possible from the originally approved plans to avoid having to reapprove them with local regulators, as well as those of the EU and the International Atomic Energy Agency — a process which could take years.
But sources told the FT that the longer the war drags on and the sanctions regime lasts, the more likely it becomes that Russian participation in the project may have to be phased out altogether. Whether that means replacing Rosatom with another main partner or building an entirely new power plant is not clear.
Hungary is under a time constraint as it has banked on nuclear energy to complete its green transition, alongside renewable and other sources.
Paks is Hungary’s only operating nuclear power plant, whose four Soviet-era reactors have been upgraded and equipped with western control systems, extending their lifespan into the 2030s. Budapest wants to rely on nuclear power for most of the rest of the century, according to the government’s energy strategy.
“In order to have a western control system in the Paks nuclear power plant we further enhance the Hungarian-French co-operation,” Szijjártó said.
A French official said both sides were open to work closer on nuclear power, but it was not clear whether it was going to be the Paks expansion project or another one.
“We don’t know at this stage if there is a way for France to get a bigger share of the work on Paks,” the person added.
The loss of the Paks project would be a serious blow to Rosatom, which has lost its foothold in all other EU countries in recent years, said Maxim Samorukov, a Russia expert at the Carnegie Foundation.
“Rosatom has been very keen to maintain a western, European presence,” Samorukov said. “It lobbied very hard for Czech and Bulgarian projects, but lost those as well as a Finnish project already, leaving Hungary the only EU country where Rosatom was still doing business. The only western country in fact.”
Additional reporting by Laura Pitel in Berlin and Sarah White in Paris