BUDAPEST, Hungary -- Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban plans to meet with President Vladimir Putin on Feb. 1 to discuss the progress of a Russian-backed project to expand a Hungarian nuclear power plant, Hungary’s foreign minister said Thursday.
Speaking on the sidelines of a United Nations Security Council meeting in New York, Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto told Russian state news agency Tass that Hungary wants the project to "enter into the establishment phase” in the first half of this year.
The 12 billion-euro ($13.6 billion) expansion of the Paks nuclear plant in central Hungary involves the construction of two new nuclear reactors. The work is be carried out by the Russian state nuclear energy corporation Rosatom and financed with a 10-billion euro ($11.3 billion) loan from a Russian state bank.
“We would like to see the two new reactors operational by the end of this decade,” Szijjarto said.
Orban and Putin agreed on the project in 2014, but it has gone through numerous delays and permitting issues.
Orban's nationalist government, which has pursued close ties with Russia under Putin, says the expansion of Hungary's only nuclear facility is necessary to make the country more self-sufficient in its energy production.
Critics of the project say it places Hungary under further financial and political dependence on Russia and poses environmental and safety risks.
The Hungarian foreign minister said that increasing the volume of Russian gas supplies under a 15-year contract Russia signed with Hungary last year also would be on the agenda when Orban meets with Putin.
The contract, which calls for 4.5 billion cubic meters of Russian gas to be delivered annually to Hungary via Serbia and Austria, angered Ukraine, Hungary's eastern neighbor.
The Ukrainian government argued the agreement damaged Ukraine's national interests by bypassing the country and causing a loss of lucrative transit payments.
Szijjarto said the Feb. 1 talks between Putin and Orban would also cover Hungary becoming a manufacturer of Russia's Sputnik V COVID-19 vaccine, which Hungary has administered to nearly 1 million people.
“By autumn, we would like to be a manufacturing place for Sputnik because we see that there’s a big market for the vaccines in the future,” the foreign minister said.