Austria fumes at Hungary’s Kremlin-backed nuclear plant

EU authorities on Monday approved a controversial nuclear expansion project in Hungary that is heavily backed by Russia.

Austria fumes at Hungary's Kremlin-backed nuclear plant
Greenpeace activists protest on Gellert Hill in Budapest against plans to expand the Paks plant, February 3rd 2014. Photo: AFP

The approval removes the last roadblock to the €12.5 billion ($13.2 billion) expansion of Hungary's only nuclear facility, which Russia is financing by 80 percent even as tensions between Europe and the Kremlin run high.

The European Commission “has approved this support under EU state aid rules on the basis of commitments made by Hungary to limit distortions of competition,” said a statement.

Construction of the two 1,200 megawatt reactors at the Paks plant outside Budapest is considered a strategic project by Prime Minister Viktor Orban, a close ally of Russia's.

EU authorities were under pressure to take a close look at the deal amid fears the Kremlin was using it to meddle further with the bloc's sensitive energy sector.

Fiercely anti-nuclear Austria denounced the decision and threatened to take the case to the European Court of Justice in Strasbourg.

“Austria can't accept that the European Commission considers that subsidising the construction of nuclear power plants is harmless,” said Vice Chancellor Reinhold Mitterlehner, who also serves as economy minister.

“That's why we will examine legal options and contact the European Court (of Justice) if necessary,” he told Austrian media.

In 2015 Austria filed a complaint against EU-approved state aid for the Hinkley Point C nuclear plant in Britain, arguing that atomic energy was non-sustainable and high-risk.

On a visit to Hungary last month, Russian President Vladimir Putin lauded the project and said Russia was “ready to finance the expansion 100 percent”. Moscow's state-owned Rosatom will build the facilities.

The Commission did not mention Russia in its statement, saying its powers were limited to competition concerns and that Hungary's financing committed no violations.

The deal made headlines in November when Germany's representative on the Commission, Guenther Oettinger, flew in a private jet belonging to a Kremlin lobbyist closely associated with the project.

Environmental group Greenpeace said the Commission was “spectacularly irresponsible” in giving its approval.

“It's allowing massive subsidies for a project backed by a government that openly challenges the importance of independent oversight for nuclear safety,” Greenpeace said.

The Commission already drew criticism in November when it dropped an infringement case after Hungary awarded the contract to Rosatom without holding an open tender.

Tensions have been high since Russia's annexation of Crimea and the start of the conflict in Ukraine in 2014, for which the 28-nation EU bloc has imposed wide-ranging economic sanctions against Moscow.


Austria slams Russia over cancelled Vienna-Moscow flight

Austria criticised Russia on Thursday after it refused to allow an Austrian Airlines flight to be rerouted to avoid Belarusian airspace, resulting in the Vienna-Moscow service being cancelled.

Austria slams Russia over cancelled Vienna-Moscow flight
(Photo by JOE KLAMAR / AFP)

Austria’s foreign ministry said Russia’s refusal to allow the route change was “absolutely incomprehensible”, urging it “not to artificially impede free air traffic between Russia and Europe”.

“It is in the interests of both Austria and Russia that all flights to and via Russia can continue to be carried out without any problems,” the ministry said in a statement to AFP.

Russian authorities had ‘not approved’ route change

Austrian Airlines cancelled the Vienna-Moscow flight on Thursday, saying Russian authorities had not approved a route change allowing the plane to avoid Belarusian airspace. The airline said it had suspended flights over Belarusian airspace in line with a recommendation by the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), making a route change for the Vienna-Moscow flight necessary.

“A change in flight routes must be approved by the authorities.

“The Russian authorities did not give us this permission,” the airline said in a statement to AFP.

It added it was not yet clear if the next flight would be able to take place. A Moscow-Vienna flight is scheduled for Friday.

Passengers on the cancelled flight were rebooked, the airline said.

Russia’s transport ministry told AFP that it had “no comment for now”.

Global fury

Belarus sparked global fury by diverting an Athens-to-Vilnius Ryanair plane on Sunday and arresting an exiled dissident in Minsk.

In response, EU leaders on Monday decided to ban Belarusian carriers from European airspace and airports as well as recommending that EU carriers should also avoid Belarusian airspace.

Austrian Airlines is part of Germany’s Lufthansa group. Lufthansa confirmed to AFP that all its airlines were “currently avoiding Belarusian airspace”. Scheduled flights to Moscow and Saint Petersburg continued, it said.