NT:Hungary was struck last October by a serious chemical disaster, when a reservoir containing red sludge from an alumina plant burst at Ajka in the midwest of the country. Are you any closer to finding what or who was responsible?
ZI: I have emphasized from the start that responsibility lies on the owners and operators of the company. This was not a natural catastrophe, not a thunderstorm or a flood caused by heavy rains, it was an industrial catastrophe. More than a thousand hectares were covered by red mud, ten people died, and more than a hundred and sixty were injured and needed hospital treatment. The clean-up process and decontamination of creeks and rivers all the way to the Danube river cost several billion Hungarian forints, between one hundred and two hundred million US dollars. That is why I believe responsibility lies with the owners and operators of that company. Of course no one was mad enough to actually want this industrial accident to happen. This disaster was not caused deliberately. But it happened. The investigation is being carried out by the police and other bodies, but there are no final results yet. From a nature protection and water management perspective, the affected area is now being restored.Contaminated soil was collected from one third of the territory and transported to containment reservoirs which were no longer in use. The cleanup process of the riverbed and embankments of the Marcal river is also continuing. There are also various plans to revitalize the whole area, the Kolontár and Devecser region. We would like to see alternative energy possibilities developed in that region. Fast-growing forests could be planted, willow trees could be planted for example, for conversion into biomass pellets, which could be burnt in the nearby electrical power station in Ajka. That would also provide an income for the landowners, who have lost the agricultural uses of their land. Such projects could be launched with state support, or with backing from abroad – there is already some interest expressed by German companies and the German state on a local level. So international financial sources already exist for such projects, and the Hungarian government is also ready to allocate some money for the revitalisation of the region.
NT:In the meantime, the Hungarian State has had to foot the bill?
ZI: Exactly. Within three days of the disaster we stopped the contamination and we reduced the pH value of the (strongly alkaline) plume of contamination in the river system, so we managed to decrease the damage in the Rába river, as well as in the Mosoni Danube and finally in the Danube, according to all the samples taken and made by international and Hungarian experts.Finally in the Danube itself there was no contamination. By keeping the pH level of the affected rivers above neutral, and not letting it become acidic, we also made sure that heavy metals in those rivers did not become water soluble. Bauxite always contains heavy metals. So that was a great and immediate success. Within four days after that, we built up a new embankment close to the damaged village of Kolontár, six hundred metres long, four metres high, and ten metres wide, made of more than fifty thousand tonnes of rocks and soil and clay elements to make it red mud-proof. This was also necessary to protect the village from any second wave of red mud.Fortunately the second spill never happened. A second embankment was built closer to the damaged number 10 containment reservoir. All those steps cost several hundred million forints, alongside the cleanup process, a serious amount of money. Now we are also calculating the fines which the company must face, according to EU regulations as well as to Hungarian laws and various other legislation. There are internationally accepted ways to calculate these sums, these fines which the company will face pretty soon.
NT:International concerns at the time of the disaster focussed very much on the River Danube. Could this disaster serve as a wake-up call for Hungary and other Danubian countries to prevent future disasters affecting the Danube?
ZI: I hope the disaster will have this outcome, but it is very difficult to foresee. Neighbouring countries and other countries beside the Danube have begun to re-examine their existing facilities. In Slovakia and Romania for example industrial sites have been revisited – including abandoned, obsolete, not utilised dikes and containment reservoirs. According to our information, in the catchment area of the Tisza river in Northeast-East Hungary there are more than sixty different former industrial sites left over from the past, where contamination of the soil, the water table, or underground water is really serious. At any time those “time bombs” could explode, similarly to this industrial catastrophe at Kolontár. There are also sites in Hungary along the Danube where possible contamination could take place. And which might also be ticking time bombs, both right on the bank, or set a little way back. Water courses, creeks and surface water could easily bring plumes of contamination to the Danube.For that reason, I proposed on behalf of the Hungarian government, and likeminded deputies in the European Parliament, that a new fund should be developed by the European Union for just such industrial catastrophes. I’m speaking about a new fund that could be used to eliminate the danger of such industrial catastrophes, with precautionary, preventive measures. I’m thinking mainly about structural funds which are available for EU member states, yet are not used to the full extent, not just for East Central Europe but for the whole of Europe. If a disaster actually occurs, the fund could be used to help minimize the impact, and clean up the affected area.
NT:The Danube Strategy is a central policy tool of the Hungarian EU presidency. Within that strategy there is a certain tension between the engineering and transport lobbies which want more dams and a deeper, wider navigation channel, and an environmental lobby which wants the river to be restored where possible, and for ships to be adapted to the river, rather than the river to be adapted to the ships. Where does Hungary stand in that debate?
ZI: I would like to emphasize that the Hungarian government has a very strict and exact standpoint on this. We are for a green Danube strategy, and we share fully the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) strategy for the Danube, in which our experts were also involved, and I personally have fought all along for a green Danube Strategy. At this moment the Danube is classified in the European transportation scheme as a category four river. This means that we believe and strongly emphasize, that no further excavation, deepening or widening of the navigation course is needed at all. There are two additional categories, five and six, which would envisage a wider and deeper Danube. We believe ships should be adapted to the river, and not the river adapted to satisfy the needs of transportation. The Danube is ready and able to satisfy all the transportation needs on the territory of Hungary. We strongly stress that we do not want to build any dam, any hydroelectric power stations or dams, because they are detrimental to nature, potentially dangerous for the underground water table, and they are not cost-effective for electrical energy production. Of course the Danube has different sections. In Austria the Danube is in the category of mountainous rivers, the slope of the river is bigger, and the production of electricity in that section of the river is justified.The first section of the Danube which is on the plain is at Hainburg in Austria. At Hainburg the people voted in a referendum against building a hydroelectric station. The speed of the water is slower there, which is why the production of hydroelectric power is not cost-effective, and is damaging to the river. Likewise, in Hungary, we don’t have any plan to build dams.Thirdly, I would like to emphasize that it is a pity that the EU does not want to give a penny for the Danube strategy. In the 2013–2020 budget all national governments will be able to spend whatever they want on the Danube strategy, as well as the money which they receive from the EU budget, but there is no further additional fund for a special Danube strategy. The Hungarian government is not ready to spend any EU money on the Danube strategy, and we’re not ready to spend our own resources.So it is a great strategy, but if there is no money from the EU, it is likely that like other good and nice ideas it will just stay on the shelf and not be put in place, because there is no money behind it. I emphasize once again that national governments could make decisions to spend their own money, but the EU is not willing to finance plans related to the Danube with additional resources.
NT:Nineteen years ago Slovakia unilaterally diverted the river from its original bed on a stretch of the Danube, which forms the common border, to the Gabcikovo power station and canal. Are the two countries any closer to agreement on what should happen to that sensitive stretch?
ZI: To give a direct answer, no. The International Court of Justice (ICJ) in the Hague made a very clear and exact decision on this. The unilateral diversion of the Danube was not accepted by the international court and the Slovak government won no praise for their action. On the other hand, the unilateral action of the Hungarian government not to fulfil its contractual obligation (from 1977) was also not praised. So the court recognised the mistake that the Hungarian side made, the non-fulfilment of the agreement. On the other hand the unilateral diversion of the Danube was also not acceptable for the international court. The ICJ also decided that both parties should keep in mind that the priority is nature protection and environmental protection. Then both sides have to agree on electricity production, navigation and flood control, keeping in mind that the priority is nature protection. I think the outcome of such a decision is very obvious. 50 per cent of the water according to all international agreements belongs to Hungary, 50 per cent of the average water amount belongs to Slovakia. At this moment, Slovakia keeps 84–85 per cent of the water and utilizes it for electricity production, while 50 per cent would be good enough to keep the international water course in the artificial channel. The rest is not needed for navigation purposes, but rather to produce electricity. Because they use at least 50 per cent of the water, we can argue that 50 per cent of the energy they have produced since 23 October, 1992 belongs to Hungary. Slovakia cannot force Hungary to build the dam (downstream at Nagymaros, included in the original Gabcikovo-Nagymaros project) that Hungary does not want. Hungary is not able to force Slovakia to demolish those elements of the hydroelectric power station which they operate now. So a decision is easy and obvious. 50 per cent of the water belongs to Hungary, so that must go to the old bed of the river, 50 per cent is good enough for navigation purposes in the artificial, alternative channel, and with that 50 per cent they can produce whatever energy they are able to produce. So I think there could be a very easy agreement between the two sides.
NT:The effects of the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan continue to be felt. Hungary has one nuclear power plant at Paks on the Danube, and had been planning this autumn to announce a tender to extend the working life of those four reactors. What does the nuclear future of Hungary look like in the wake of this disaster?
ZI: Recently in Brussels there was an inter-ministerial meeting of environment ministers, and our government backed a German-Austrian proposal for stress-tests to be carried out on all existing nuclear facilities in Europe – especially to examine their ability to withstand earthquakes. Generally speaking, nuclear power stations in the EU can withstand quakes of 6.5 magnitude. We know that at Fukushima the magnitude was 9. That’s why our government supported the German-Austrian proposal. There is, of course, a difference between the seismic situation of Japan and Europe, but after this accident some precautionary measures must definitely be introduced. Some nuclear power stations in Europe were built on territory that is endangered by earthquakes, so those should definitely be investigated and precautionary measures taken – like strengthening buildings, or shutting down those power stations.In Germany for example there are several old power stations, which the German government took the decision to close.I would like to compare the situation in Hungary with Spain. Spain is a bigger country with more nuclear power stations, but in the last ten to twelve years Spain has become a world-wide leader on renewables, mainly wind turbines. In conclusion, I would say that for energy independence reasons, as well as to satisfy the need for energy diversification between domestic and international sources, and to satisfy Hungary’s energy needs, the nuclear power station at Paks is important. But the need to rapidly increase the percentage of renewable energy production sources is even more vital and important. That is what Spain did – they have eight nuclear power stations, but they invested a vast amount of money and attention to increase their renewable energy capacities. I believe that should be a model for Hungary. We have the Great Plain where the winds are blowing continuously. Then we have agricultural and forestry biomass which could be utilised to a certain extent, what is currently just waste from both branches. Though I do not support the cutting of trees that would not otherwise be cut, because that is detrimental to nature and damages the water table. The third is geothermal energy. Hungary has, after Iceland, one of the biggest resources for this kind of power on the planet, and it is almost not utilised at all at the moment. Not to mention the solar energy possibilities – in Germany and Austria and even in cloudy Great Britain solar power is well-developed, but not in Hungary, where we have many sunny days.Hungarian renewable energy production is no more than 6.5 to 7 per cent at the moment – even lower in electricity production.
NT:Coming back to the nuclear question though, Hungary must in due course make strategic decisions – to extend the life of existing nuclear power reactors, or to build new ones. Do you think that the Japanese nuclear disaster will affect future Hungarian strategy regarding nuclear power or not?
ZI: It will definitely affect our plans here, as in other parts of the world. The question is not only the safety but also the financing. Not only Hungary but also other European countries are in a difficult financial situation, so I have doubts about whether this can be financed even using international financial resources. To extend the lifetime of the existing nuclear power station at Paks will cost an enormous amount of money, and to build a new power station too, even without the Japanese tragedy. I just don’t see where the financial resources will be available. Not to mention the technological problems. To extend the lifetime would mean extending the use of Russian technology, with serious political consequences. On the other hand building a new facility with new technology would be possible, but again with serious financial consequences. Then there is the question of nuclear fuel rods, and who would supply them. We know that South Africa, the United States, France and Russia can produce them, and dependence on the supplier is similar to dependence on gas. So diversification of internal and international sources is a must for Hungary, as a landlocked country. That is why I say that shutting down our Paks nuclear facility is not an alternative, but on the other hand not developing a much bigger percentage of renewables is also not an option. The extension is likely to happen although financial questions are at stake, while the development of renewable energy sources is a must.
NT:Finally, how “green” is your government? You are personally known for your green politics, but the prime minister and other cabinet members seem to speak less about the environment than some other European governments?
ZI: Thank you for the kind words about myself, but I don’t agree with your assessment of the cabinet. The Ministry of Rural Development – my ministry – has a strongly pro-environmental leadership. Other ministries and ministers are also dedicated, for example the Economy Minister György Matolcsy and the Head of the Office of the Prime Minister Mihály Varga, the former Finance Minister. They are open-minded, in mid-career, and they are dedicated to nature protection. This is also true of the Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán. Remember his actions during the red sludge disaster at Kolontár, his personal involvement. Without him I would have no room for manoeuvre in the Danube strategy. It was the Prime Minister who insisted that we should have a green Danube strategy, not bowing to the interests of various engineering or transport lobbies. And on renewable energy, he is very much against the burning of forests for energy production. I am very confident that environmental protection is very important for the whole government. Our philosophy is that actions speak louder than words, and that is certainly true in the case of enforcing existing laws and regulations in the field of environmental protection.