The Multinational Monitor



Hungary's Closing Circle

Janos Vargha is a founding member of the Danube Circle, which was formed in 1984 to coordinate opposition to the Danube Dam project, a massive dam which would have decimated a number of animal species and polluted the Danube river. The opposition movement stopped one part of the project and expects the remainder to be abandoned shortly. Vargha is now president of Ister, an environmental research institute. Ister is the ancient Greek name of the Danube and is used as an acronym for East European Environmental Research.

Multinational Monitor: What role does Ister play in the environmental movement?

Janos Vargha: Ister focuses on three main topics: the Danube, energy-related environmental issues and environmental policy. Ister is not an advocacy group. It is a research organization which is independent from pressure groups: business, the state and the opposition movement.

MM: What is Ister's perspective on Hungary's energy policy?

Vargha: Energy policy in Hungary has traditionally been very simple: produce more and more energy to fulfil any demands. This policy was the result of mutual efforts of political leaders and the strong energy lobby. Because of the artificial price system, energy costs were not reflected in the prices of goods and did not play a role in encouraging energy efficiency. The political and energy interests and the lack of any economic incentive for energy saving combined to defeat all initiatives for energy efficiency improvement in the last 10 years.

To solve this problem, which is not only an environmental problem, but also an economic and political problem, we have to change the kind of development which has gone together with an over-centralization of the energy sector--only nine power plants account for more than 90 percent of the domestic electricity production. We have to decentralize the energy system. Instead of low efficiency power plants, we have to build new small- scale, very efficient units. Decentralization is also important to decrease the transport demands. Losses from electricity transport exceed 12 percent. Additionally, we have to look for alternatives, efficient options for the end use of energy.

But now we have a serious problem, because in spite of democratic reforms, the [political and social] structure did not disappear from one day to the next, so the energy lobby even now is very strong....

They don't want to develop a new energy policy in the sense that I mentioned. They have only one debate: whether they will build a new nuclear power plant or a new, big lignite power plant-- lignite is a very low quality kind of ground coal with a very low carbon content. It also is about 2 percent sulphur, so it is a big source of acid rain. They discuss building a 2000 megawatt lignite power plant in one place or to adding two 1000 megawatt nuclear reactors to the existing nuclear power plant.

MM: Is there only one nuclear power plant in Hungary?

Vargha: One power plant with four blocks. Its capacity is 1760 megawatts. New investigations proved that the nuclear power plant was built close to two main earthquake lines of the Carpathian Basin.

The plant also uses a direct cooling system which uses the water of the Danube. In low stream, the increase of temperature is very close to a dangerous level. If there were an addition to capacity, it would overheat the water of the Danube, killing the fish and other organisms.

MM: What percentage of Hungary's energy is derived from nuclear power plants?

Vargha: Roughly 60 percent of the domestically consumed electricity is produced in Hungary. Hungary has enough capacity to fulfil peak demands, but it is cheaper to import from the Soviet Union. About one-third of domestic production comes from the nuclear power plant.

MM: Did Chernobyl spark a movement to shut down the plant?

Vargha: No, not at all. This can be explained by the almost complete lack of information about the risks of nuclear energy use. Information about the nuclear problem has been the most secret and confidential of information. After Chernobyl, a recent study concluded, there was a very clear effort by the centrally controlled press in Hungary to manipulate the people, especially about the "inconsequent" effects of radiation. There is a great deal of propaganda from the nuclear lobby to show the clean systems, the yellow, red and blue pipes and very complicated control rooms, to show that this is a clean technology and there are no problems with nuclear power.

We would like to start a project to inform the people about the hazards of nuclear power.

There has already been some first movement in relation to nuclear issues. There was a local movement against the construction of a low-level radioactive waste disposal site which was planned in an absolutely improper place. Probably in the Carpathian Basin, there are no proper places for the disposal of radioactive waste. This movement was very successful, so they were able to stop the construction.

MM: Is there a low level radioactive waste dump site in Hungary?

Vargha: There is only a small one for radioactive waste from research institutes and hospitals.

MM: The rest is just stored on site?

Vargha: Yes. The power plants were built without any consideration for the disposal of the waste. Used fuel rods are transported back to the U.S.S.R., probably for the production of plutonium.

I should add that the existing power plant has no containment around the reactors ... So a Three Mile Island-style accident would cause very serious problems, much more serious than the one at Three Mile Island, where there was containment.

There was an agreement between the Soviet Union and Hungary to add two 1000 megawatt blocs to the existing power plant. But this agreement was cancelled in the last year, probably because of safety considerations and the low technical level of the Russian reactors. The Hungarian power plant was partially redesigned by Hungary to use some Western [technology]; they didn't trust the Soviet technology. I think it is a misinterpretation that Western technology is safe, however. The problem is smaller leakages were not publicized. But we know about Three Mile Island, and about problems with British and German power plants.

MM: Do you think you will able to convince the new government to abandon nuclear power?

Vargha: I don't know. After cancelling the arrangement with the U.S.S.R., the nuclear lobby started to cooperate with Western companies, such as Westinghouse, Siemens and others to look into the possibility of building a Western-style nuclear power plant. France is very keen in this field. They have pressured Hungary, offering financial assistance if Hungary accepts a nuclear power plant.

I hope very much that we will at least be able to prevent any construction where there are geological problems. Also we have this biological study about thermal pollution, which was written by the water management authority; it is an official study, so they cannot say that it represents only a "stupid" green opinion. If we are able to prevent the construction in this place, we have to demand an environmental impact assessment study for any other potential site, and also that there be a safety plan for waste disposal. So I think we can buy some time. We would like to use this time to collect options for energy saving and more efficient electricity generation technologies involving many small-scale generator units.

MM: Was Westinghouse pressuring the government?

Vargha: I don't know many details about the discussions or negotiations. More information was publicized about the French connection. But Hungarian electricity experts visited the Philadelphia Electric Company to discuss cooperation in this field. I am not sure about this, but I have heard that Philadelphia Electric uses Westinghouse reactors.

MM: It seems like you have ali of the lobbyists from the big institutions that the West has, without the West's countervailing forces.

Vargha: And as I said, the problem is that now there is a strong linkage between the government, nuclear lobby and financial circles. We have to disconnect these groups. It is a very hard job.

MM: Are there examples of countries, especially Austria, using Hungary to dump hazardous wastes and products?

Vargha: We have a few examples which became publicly known, but very few. One of them involved the disposal of residues from a hazardous waste incinerating plant from Austria in 1987. The local movement created trouble for the government, so they had to stop.

Another issue involved PCB-polluted oil transported from West Germany to Hungary for burning in a cement factory. A lobby has developed in Hungary to burn hazardous waste in cement factories. They claim this is safe. I am a biologist, not a chemist, but I have very serious doubts. Two problems result: the ash from the incineration and the cement, both of which are toxic.

Another example of dumping in Hungary involved our importing from Austria highly polluted soil from the underground [subway] in Vienna, which was from the former site of a chemical factory. They transported it to Hungary and disposed of it in a river.

MM: Are there any laws that the government is considering about companies that might bring in hazardous wastes or technologies?

Vargha: There is only one restriction; it is prohibited to bring hazardous waste for disposal, but not for recycling.

MM: Are you looking at regulations in other countries as models for protecting the environment in Hungary?

Vargha: The problem is that Hungary has a very huge national debt, more than $20 billion. The government's policy is that we will pay back the credit and interest. There is therefore a very high demand for hard currency; any effort to control the flow of money is resisted.

This is not only an environmental problem, unfortunately. It is also a political problem. Most of the Hungarian newspapers were bought by groups such as those of Murdoch and Maxwell. These are the most conservative of media [owners]. You can say that now there are no real independent newspapers in Hungary....

The core of this debt was formed in the mid 1970s from oil dollars. The OPEC [price hike] created a large amount of money without a corresponding increase in production. And this money was partially allocated as credit to the East European countries, to Poland and Hungary. I think we need a political solution for this. Hungary needs and gets new credit and new loans, more than $2 billion a year, only to pay back the interest.

I think we have to take into consideration the moral aspect as well. The Hungarian people are not responsible for the wasting of the money. It was used for the consolidation of Communist power, which means that those groups which gave loans to Hungary are, in part, responsible for the last 10 years of the regime. Without the loans, it would have collapsed more quickly. In 1987, for example, when Karoly Grosz, a hard liner, became the prime minister, he announced a new economic program. Subsequently, he visited West Germany. West Germany gave one billion marks to Karoly Grosz without any control over how it was used. Several weeks later, the Hungarian police had more than 40 new Yamaha motorcyles, very expensive motorcycles. In the demonstrations in the last two years against the communists, the motorcycle troops drove the motorcycles into crowds of people. So it was not just an indirect buttressing of state power, but a direct one. To give the government physical power-- it is very dirty. Now we have to pay the loans back. Hungarian workers have to produce the interest on this one billion marks.

MM: The prospects for protecting the environment, let alone improving it, seem weak. Are you optimistic about the development of popular movements to offset all the forces you have been describing?

Vargha: The new political parties will be very similar to the other political structures. We don't have much hope. We are not optimistic about the emergence of a new army of angels who will clean up the country very quickly. Several months before the elections, the energy experts of the Hungarian Democratic Forum said that they would like to continue uranium mining in Hungary. This is just an example which illustrates the new relations between the old power groups and the new political parties.

MM: Is that true of the Free Democrats as well?

Vargha: I am a member of the Free Democrats, even a member of the council, but I have to say this party has the same features in a certain sense. In the last several years, in the Danube Circle, I opposed our becoming part of the political opposition. I said we can cooperate, working for the same political goals, such as freedom of the press, but we should not become too strongly allied, because we would pay a very high price. I think that my approach was correct. Now there is a clear divergence between the parties and the environmental movement....

MM: Is there a growing public concern with Hungary about environmental issues?

Vargha: It is increasing. At this moment it is not very high, but it is higher than it was yesterday.

MM: Who are the major polluters in Hungary?

Vargha: The energy sector, the big chemical factories, traffic and some raw material production, like cement production or aluminum. Agriculture uses lots of chemicals, so the chemical factories' pollution is related to agriculture.

MM: Is there any way to hold any of the polluting enterprises accountable; is there any way to make them pay for the environmental damage they cause?

Vargha: This concept did not work in the past. We had a system of punishments and standards, but they didn't work for many reasons. First, at the local level, all companies were allowed to meet an individual standard, which means that they were allowed to pollute at levels higher than the national standard, on the grounds that their activity was important to the national economy. Second, we didn't have a market economy in which prices reflected costs. Third, all courts were under the influence of the political circles, which were controlled by the industrial groups. The central committee of the communist party was called a group of firm directors.

MM: Given the small size of Eastern European countries, do you think it will be necessary to have a commonwealth of Eastern European countries to protect the environment?

Vargha: The idea makes sense from the viewpoint that the similar social and political systems relied on the same technologies to expand. It seems there is probably space for similar solutions in certain situations, which would make cooperation reasonable. Unfortunately, there are other problems which create new tensions between Eastern European nations. But we have to work against this. Ecological cooperation--regarding the Danube, for example--may prove that it is possible and necessary.

But if there would be such cooperation at a high political level without grassroots participation, there would not be real change. All top-down initiatives will be ineffective, as all top-down initiatives were in the past.

MM: How can Hungary overcome the environmental problem of not having modern technology?

Vargha: If you have limited resources, you must have priorities. I believe new investment in clean technologies are more important and more urgent than end-pipe investments. End-pipe investments maintain the same inefficient technology; as we use more and more resources, we would find that in the long term we wouldn't make any progress.

It is a big question, whether Eastern Europe can be a place of the proliferation of the environmentally best technologies or if it will repeat, if it is possible, Western technological development of the last two or three decades. [One problem is that] the cleanest, newest technologies are in high demand. So technologies for which there is little demand in the West, like nuclear technology, are sold in Eastern Europe. If the Eastern European countries compete in dealing with the Western countries, they will have less chance to resist these businesses than if they can form a common platform. But at this moment, I don't see too much possibility of cooperation.

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