Hungary and nuclear energy

Hungarian scientists

„Basically everything was invented by the Hungarians” – this quote belongs to Alvin Martin Weinberg, a renowed nuclear scientist, who did not exaggerate this statement when he spoke of the time of the birth of nuclear power plants.

The American scientist was the co-author of „The Physical Theory of Neutron Chain Reactors”. The other co-author was Eugene Wigner. In the middle of the 20th century many Hungarian scientists contributed to the success of various research programs around the world. One of the most prominent among the programs is the research on the utilization of nuclear energy in the United States, where one can recognize, besides Eugene Wigner, the names of Leo Szilárd, Edward Teller or John von Neumann, to mention only the most famous ones. They were the ones who spoke in a strange language, Hungarian, which was incomprehensible to the Americans, and who mastered the basics of their physics knowledge in Budapest, and were only referred to as "The Martians" by their colleagues.

Although the names of our Hungarian scientists are often mentioned in speeches in connection with the creation of the atomic or hydrogen bombs, they have also pioneered the peaceful use of nuclear energy overseas.

Of course, looking at the scientific achievements of the last century, there are quite a number of achievements made in Hungary. András Lévai was the one who launched the Hungarian nuclear program, he prepared the construction of the Paks Nuclear Power Plant. The program that had laid the foundation for the maintenance of the performance of the Paks NPP was named after him. 

It can be seen, that besides arts and sport, science is such a field where – compared to their number – Hungarians have outperformed other nations and achieved important results. 

Who we can be the most proud of:

  • Eugene Wigner, Nobel Prize laurate physicist
  • Leo Szilárd, physicist
  • Edward Teller, physicist
  • John von Neumann, mathematician
  • András Lévai, professor and energetics scientist
  • George de Hevesy, Nobel Prize in Chemistry laurate
  • John G. Kemeny, mathematician, computer scientist
  • Valentine Telegdi, Wolf Prize in Physics laurate, experimental particle physicist


Nuclear energy in Hungary

How could the professionals of Paks gain 120 reactor years of experience in 30 years? Yes, in this field of work the years are counted so in the case of nuclear power plants, the years of operation are multiplied by the number of operating reactors. In our case that means, in Hungary’s one and only nuclear power plant, the three decades of experience, thanks to the four NPP units, resulted in 120 reactor years of knowledge. It is calculated so everywhere in the world, but let’s see how much innovation was made in the Paks NPP by the Hungarian nuclear profession. 

The four, originally 440 MW units of the Paks Nuclear Power Plant started their operation between 1982 and 1987. Thanks to upgrades and improvements of the last few years, the performance reached 500 MW each. Thus the total capacity of the Paks NPP is 2000 MW, which means it covers 50% of the Hungarian electricity production. 

For how long can the currently operating Paks NPP units produce cheap electricity in a safe and climate friendly manner? In 2000, the NPP conducted a feasibility study on a 20 year extension of service life following international trends. The investigation made during the lifetime extension project showed there is no technical obstacle, safety margin, which would prevent the extension of service life to 50 years. In the last few years the Hungarian Atomic Energy Authority (HAEA) issued the license for the operation until the 2030’s to all four NPP units, and a decision was made in 2022 to check the possibility of a further lifetime extension. 

Once the performance of the units has been increased, their lifetime has been extended, the internationally recognized Paks professionals wanted to get an answer on how to operate the units more efficiently, with a greater utilization, and of course while maintaining a high level of security. 

Photo: MVM Paksi Atomerőmű Zrt.

The nuclear fuel depletes after a while, its fission content decreases, therefore the spent fuel has to be removed from time to time and the reactors have to be refueled with fresh fuel. By modifying the fuel, using higher enriched fuel, the operation cycle can be longer. By using international experiences, the Paks Nuclear Power Plant, with the help from the Russian supplier, Hungarian and Russian research institutes, decided to develop its own fuel. Thanks to this new-generation fuel assembly, fuel must be changed every 15 months, instead of every 12 months, thus the capacity utilization of the nuclear power plant continued to increase.

From these developments we can reasonably conclude that the Paks Nuclear Power Plant, which covers one third of our country's electricity demand, is constantly innovating to increase safety and efficiency, and the "offspring" of famous Hungarian nuclear scientists can be found here as well. This is one of the reasons why the safety performance of the nuclear power plant is excellent every year.


World-class research in Hungary

If someone says there is an operating nuclear, designed and made by Hungarian professionals, in the heart of Budapest, many would be sceptical, even though every part of this statement is true. 

The training reactor of Budapest University of Technology and Economics (BME) operates since 1971. This is the first Hungarian designed and manufactured nuclear reactor, whose equipment – besides fuel – is Hungarian-made. 

Here operates the Institute of Nuclear Techniques of BME, the center of the Hungarian nuclear education. 

The lectures and exercises held by the institute's instructors cover the full range of knowledge related to nuclear power plants, radiation, fusion and medical equipment, but there are also very serious R&D programs at the facility as well.

The reactor’s performance located here is 100 kilowatt (kw), in comparison, a Paks NPP unit has a power output of 500.000 kW, which is about five thousand times higher, but in the center of Budapest the aim is not to generate electricity, but to have an internationally renowned educational and research activity.

Anyone, who thinks they need to travel to Paks to see another nuclear reactor after that, is mistaken. It is enough to visit only the neighboring Buda district, where the MTA Centre for Energy Research is located, which is well-known to foreign researchers.

The 10,000 kilowatt Budapest Research Reactor is operated at this Csillebérc site, which has hosted European professionals in basic and applied neutron physics researches for a long time. The reactor also supplies Hungary with radioactive isotopes used primarily in the medical field.

The employees here take part in – among other things – in international cooperation on increasing efficiency and safety of nuclear power plants, extending their lifetime and developing fourth-generation nuclear power plants.

It is important to note that other cities also take part in Hungarian scientific-level research on nuclear energy and nuclei. The Institute of Nuclear Research in Debrecen is part of the research network of Hungarian Academy of Sciences, its activities lay in the field of microphysics, which contribute to the results of scientific research in the world and to the strengthening the domestic scientific culture.

Strength we can build upon

Today's urgent question is what kind of energy sources should humanity turn to in order to meet the growing demand for electricity in the most environmentally friendly and economical way possible – despite the spread of energy efficiency.

According to the 2015 Paris Agreement, the governments agreed that the global average annual temperature increase should be well below 2 °C compared to pre-industrial levels. This will also require significant efforts to decarbonise electricity generation, giving priority to low or zero carbon technologies, in particular nuclear and renewable energy sources.

Every country chooses its own energy mix, how it generates the required electricity. This is necessary, since the capabilities are different everywhere. Let’s check some examples! In the Norwegian electricity system, almost 100% of the consumed electricity is generated by zero carbon hydro power plants. This is natural, as this mountainous country has countless rivers, which is the basis for hydroelectric power generation. Sweden also has a great potential to develop wind and hydro power, but Finland on the other hand cannot rely on these renewables, therefore it decided to use nuclear energy in the long run. One of the most climate friendly electricity system is in France, where almost 80% of electricity is produced in nuclear power plants. The neighboring Austria relies on hydro energy by 60%, but this isn’t a valid option for us, given our geographical features. Hungary however has a strength, which we can safely build upon, and that is the serious nuclear expertise and experience. It is worth continuing to rely on this strength.