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Warsaw weighs nuclear options

Jo Harper
June 19, 2020

As Polish president Andrzej Duda prepares a convenient preelection trip to Washington to get his picture taken with Donald Trump, his Climate Minister has reopened the thorny issue of the country's nuclear ambitions.

Zusammenarbeit deutscher und polnischer Umweltaktivisten
Image: DW/Elzbieta Stasik

With lucrative tender options on the table, potentially for US firms, and US President Donald Trump bent on reducing NATO troops in Germany, the presidents of America and Poland will have plenty to discuss. 

Poland's nuclear power plan may be of special interest to the deal-making US president after the Polish climate minister Michal Kurtyka announced this week that construction of the first nuclear power plant in Poland should start in 2026, the first reactor in 2033 and that by 2040 six nuclear blocks should be in operation.

Under its draft Energy Policy to 2040, Poland targets 20 terawatt-hours (TWh) of electricity from nuclear energy by 2035, with the new reactors expected to have an estimated service lifespan of 60 to 80 years, Kurtyka said.

"This is a big program, but when it is completed Poland will have 20%, or little more than 20%, of stable and safe energy produced in nuclear power plants for the next 60 years," said Piotr Naimski, government commissioner for strategic energy infrastructure. Officially, Poland aims to cut the share of coal in its electricity mix from 80% to 32% by 2040 and to introduce nuclear power accounting for 18% of total capacity. 

Kurtyka said the nuclear power would not be limited to electricity sector and that the country is researching high-temperature gas-cooled reactor (HTGR) technology to serve its chemical and fertilizer industries that today rely on cogeneration plants that will need to be replaced within the next 15 years. 

High-grade coal lies in a heap before transport at the KWK Pniowek coal mine in Pawlowice, Poland.
Poland still produces 80% of power used in the country from coal and lignite-fired plants. The country is reluctant to join the EU's goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2050 as it wants to protect jobs in coal minesImage: Getty Images/S. Gallup

Ditching coal 

According to the Climate Ministry, the EU's Sustainable Development Strategy and the recently set target for climate neutrality by 2050 are a challenge for Poland, which has a "unique energy basket," still mainly based on coal, Kurtyka said. 

The European Green Deal Investment Plan, which the European Commission unveiled in January, aims to help coal-producing regions move away from fossil fuels. Poland said it would wait and see what financial incentives would be on offer and later announced it had secured an exemption from the EU's 2050 climate target. The Green Deal overlooks nuclear power, however, as does the green recovery plan from the coronavirus pandemic the European Commission announced in May.

Poland should "massively expand" its wind and solar power capacity to replace its coal-fired fleet in order to become carbon neutral by 2050 at a total cost of €380 billion ($410 billion), consultancy McKinsey said this week. Poland's energy mix should also include up to 10 gigawatts (GW) nuclear power, its report added.

"Two-thirds of coal-fired power plants in Poland are over 30 years old... by 2050 their replacement will be necessary... it creates opportunity for zero-emission technologies to take over," the report noted. In addition to installing wind, Poland should also add 18 GW of gas-fired plants, up from the 2 GW currently installed.

Love me tenders 

While in Washington in February, Climate Minister Naimski announced the tender process for developers interested in participating in Poland's first nuclear power plant project would soon be getting underway. He noted that US companies were keen to cooperate with Warsaw.

Global nuclear power giants EDF-Areva, Westinghouse, GE Hitachi, AECL and KHNP already submitted bids in an earlier public tender launched by the state-owned Polish Energy Company PGE, while Japan's Hitachi, Mitsubishi and Toshiba are also reportedly interested.

Nuclear energy a tough sell in Poland

Berlin angsty

PGE EJ 1, the nuclear subsidiary of Polska Grupa Energetyczna, is reportedly tasked with managing construction of Poland's nuclear power plants. Construction of the first plant could begin in four years in the village of Zarnowiec, which lies on the Baltic Sea and is just 150 kilometers (93 miles) away from the German border.

The Baltic Sea town of Mielno is another of three sites selected, even after its residents voted against an earlier similar plan in 2012, with German citizens living in the neighboring Mecklenburg-Western Pommerania region across the border having joined the petition.

The third nuclear site reportedly will be near Belchatow in central Poland.

Poland's plans have already raised concern in Germany. Berlin is angry because an environmental impact assessment has not been carried out by the Polish side. In a letter sent to Economy Minister Peter Altmaier (CDU) at the end of November 2019, Green MP Sylvia Kotting-Uhl said this was "incomprehensible and unacceptable." 

But in a letter to Berlin, a state secretary at Poland's Ministry of State Assets, Artur Strabon, wrote that a strategic environmental impact assessment for the Energy Strategy 2040 had "no potentially significant environmental impacts on other member states."

The ruins of Polands first nuclear power plant for which construction was stopped in 1990 due to protests of the local population and lack of funds
Zarnowiec was intended to become the location for Poland's first nuclear power plant, but was stopped in 1990 due to protests of the local population and lack of funds. Will plans for new reactors end up in ruins, too?Image: picture-alliance/dpa

More symbolic than real?

Wladyslaw Mielczarski, a professor at the Institute of Electric Power Engineering at the Technical University of Lodz, Poland, is skeptical about his country's nuclear plan, arguing that "few believe in its implementation."

"Poland was an exception in the Soviet Bloc in not having a nuclear power plant," he told DW, adding that the reuturn to this discussion 30 years later was merely "symbolic." 

He's analyzed sentiment within the EU to nuclear power and thinks "the atom is passé…and some attempts in the UK cannot change it."

The professor cites the story of earlier nuclear ambitions in Poland which saw the emergence of a National Nuclear Plan already in 2008 and the establishment of a PGE subsidiary called Nuclear Power 1 aiming to prepare for the investment.

"But after three years, the plan was called off because Donald Tusk [Polish prime minister at the time] moved to Brussels," Mielczarski says, noting that the project cost got out of hand after rising from an estimated €8.5 billion ($10 billion) to €12.8 billion.

The nuclear reboot