Hungary to set up VVER-1200 reactors, making it a first time in European Union

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Hungarian Foreign Affairs and Trade Minister Péter Szijjártó met with the Russian state atomic energy corporation Rosatom Director General (DG) Alexey Likhachev last month to discuss the construction of the proposed Paks II nuclear power plant (NPP) in Hungary, as well as other aspects of Russo-Hungarian cooperation in the nuclear sector, according to a Rosatom statement.  

In August last year, the regulator, Hungarian Atomic Energy Authority, issued the license for the construction of the Paks II NPP consisting of two power units with the Russian-designed state-of-the art Generation 3+ VVER-1200 reactors. 

A Rosatom statement said that work has started on the site of the proposed Paks II NPP for the construction of auxiliary buildings and facilities such as offices, warehouses, workshops and a concrete plant, among others, Besides, the process has been initiated to get the licenses for certain types of work and equipment manufacturing.  

Hungary is a member of the European Union (EU), while this is the first time that a VVER-1200 reactor has been issued a construction license in the EU, confirming that the planned twin units of the Paks II NPP comply with both Hungarian and European safety standards.  

Rosatom has said that it intends to implement the Paks II project with automated active and passive safety systems, including a reinforced concrete containment with a double wall structure. Moreover, the facility will have a core catcher to prevent the release of radioactive substances from the active zone in the extremely unlikely event of an accident.  

“The construction license confirms that the project complies with the international and Hungarian safety requirements. It is entirely feasible that Hungary will have two new power units by 2030, thus ensuring the stability of energy supply”, Hungarian Foreign Minister, Péter Szijjártó, had said in a statement earlier.   

The Paks II NPP power units of 1,200 MW capacity each are expected to have a guaranteed lifetime of 60 years. 

“The construction license for the new power units of the Hungarian NPP demonstrates firm belief in the Russian VVER-1200 technology, which has successfully passed the test of time and proved its safety and reliability. We are confident that the Paks II NPP will guarantee Hungary’s energy sovereignty for almost a century and bring European countries closer to achieving climate goals”, Rosatom Director General Alexey Likhachev has said. 

The Paks II nuclear plant project is an expansion of the existing Paks NPP, located five kilometres from the small town of Paks in central Hungary. 

In 2014, the Hungarian government and Rosatom signed an agreement to construct two new power units with an aggregate power capacity of 2,400 MW. Russia will provide a loan of 10 billion euros to cover 80 percent of the project costs, with the remainder to be paid from the Hungarian budget. The loan will be repaid with proceeds from the sales of electricity produced. 

The European Commission conducted a comprehensive audit of Paks II to approve the project in 2017. In June 2020, the Hungarian project owner, Paks II Ltd, applied for a construction license and by August 2020, the Hungarian Atomic Energy Authority had issued the necessary license after reviewing the project documents comprising hundreds of thousands of pages.  

The new plant will be constructed on the banks of the Danube river, which means that the most crucial task for the builders and engineers will be to stabilise the soil under the reactors. They will have to build the “impervious blanket”, that is, an underground wall to prevent groundwater from penetrating into the reactor hall. This structure will also ensure the stability of the soil under the operating reactors of Paks I located next to the power units to be constructed. Almost one million cubic meters of earth have been excavated by now. According to Rosatom, work currently underway at the site includes soil reinforcement, preparation for the construction of anti-filtration curtains, and construction of temporary facilities in the work area .  

Before pouring the first concrete for the foundation, the ground must be excavated up to 30 meters deep and all the associated infrastructure needs to be prepared for this operation.  

The first concrete for the first unit is expected to be poured in 2024, Rosatom DG Likhachev told reporters in February this year. He also said that the project was progressing in line with the contract timeline. “If the customer wants us to speed up, we will speed up. If not, we will follow the project schedule provided for in the contract,” he said.  

The first unit of the Paks NPP turned forty last year. The facility accounts for 45 percent of electric power generated in Hungary. The first and only nuclear power plant in Hungary was built and put into operation during 1982–1987 pursuant to the Paks NPP Construction Agreement signed in 1966.  

Located 100 kilometres south of the capital Budapest, the Paks NPP has four VVER-440 reactor units with a total capacity of 1,900 MW. Since their service life was extended for 20 years, the plant will remain in operation until 2037. The Hungarian government is considering the possibility of extending its life to 60 years. Paks accounts for over 45 percent of Hungary’s annual power production and covers a third of its total electricity consumption, which includes power imports, making its role critical. 

Paks is the world’s only nuclear power plant with VVER-440 reactors converted to an extended 15-month fuel cycle. Each of its four reactors continues to use nuclear fuel produced by Elemash, a subsidiary of Rosatom’s fuel arm TVEL. In 2020, a new fuel modification was developed and introduced in cooperation between the Paks NPP and TVEL. The new fuel has an optimised ratio of water to uranium, which makes the reactor operation more cost-effective.  

Hungary is re-industrialising and has set up many energy-intensive industries such as automotive plants and battery giga-factories, all of which need large amounts of electricity. Hungary’s national energy strategy envisages the continued development of its nuclear sector. In the 1970s and 1980s, the first power reactors at Paks were designed and built by nuclear engineers from the former Soviet Union.