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Economy

Why Poland Still Doesn't Have Nuclear Power

Poland has announced plans to build its first nuclear power plant with the help of a U.S. firm. But it's not the first time the country has tried to build such a plant. So, will it actually happen this time?

Photo of a nuclear power plant located in Bavaria

Isar 2 nuclear power plant in Bavaria

Ireneusz Sudak

-Analysis-

WARSAWPoland is surrounded by numerous nuclear power plants in the neighborhood: in Germany, the Czech Republic, Ukraine, Hungary, Belarus, Bulgaria, Finland and Sweden. But we don't have our own. There are more than 500 reactors in operation worldwide, and another 55 are under construction. Most are slugging along, and their prices have risen well above the original construction costs.

The best example is Britain's Hinkley Point C power plant. The UK owns the most expensive nuclear power plant in the world. But the work is still going on, as the construction has been delayed.

The construction of a Polish nuclear power plant seemed to be underway in the 1980s, when the country was to join the ranks of nuclear-powered countries. We were to have not one but two power plants — one in Pomerania in Żarnowiec in the north of the country and another in the village of Klempicz, near the city of Poznań in the west. But the government abandoned these plans in 1990. The reasons were a lack of money, the collapsing USSR, and a lack of enthusiasm following the Chernobyl disaster.


Now, Poland wants to have its first ever nuclear power plant operational by 2033 with the help of a US firm Westinghouse Electric Company. Time is of the essence as the country tries to establish energy security and an alternative to Russian gas.

But is the idea actually feasible?

Will Poland build a nuclear plant?

The idea of building a power plant returned in 2014.

There was a lot of commotion around the nuclear program, but nothing concrete happened: environmental studies were underway, the nuclear company PGE EJ1 was established, but all of this was just spitting in the wind.

In January 2014, the Civic Platform/Polish People’s Party coalition government formally adopted an atomic power program, which set out a so-called road map to Poland's first nuclear power plant, but the final decision was yet to be made. The program assumed that electricity from Poland's first nuclear power plant would flow in 2024. The current schedule calls for construction to begin in 2026 and an inauguration in 2033.

According to the plans, the plant is likely to be built in the commune of Choczewo in Kashubia, in north Poland, or in Bełchatow, in the center of the country, where Europe's largest lignite coal power plant currently operates, but where lignite deposits will run out in a dozen years or so.

But this is not a tight schedule. It is an extremely tight schedule.

"Yes we can" v. "No can do"

Energy experts have been skeptical for years about the possibility of building a nuclear power plant in Poland. Firstly, there is a problem with the quality of the execution. We in Poland are completely unfamiliar with this technology. We don't have the personnel or know-how; our companies don't have the faintest idea about how to go about it. The atom is an ascent to the heights of modern engineering, while in Poland there is still a problem with the operation of a new coal power plant in Jaworzno in southern Poland.

Perhaps these concerns will turn out to be just a typical Polish grumbling and another form of the "no can do” approach. Maybe when it comes down to it, the construction will go smoothly and we'll follow the American "yes we can" principle.

But the second problem is more prosaic and boils down to money — or more precisely, the lack of an answer to the question about how to effectively finance such a gigantic undertaking. In their offer, the U.S. firm doesn’t mention how they intend to help finance the construction. Ultimately, the financial plan has yet to be approved by the European Commission.

Photo of a protest against the construction of a nuclear plant in Poland

Environmentalists protest on the construction of a nuclear power plant in Poland

DPA/ZUMA

The all-important money question

What kind of money are we talking about here? Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said last Monday that the government plans to build six reactors at three nuclear power plants.

This will perhaps be an even greater challenge than the technological difficulties.

The initial US offer was $31.3 billion, but it will be spread over many years. The first installment will be one third of that amount. But it's still a huge sum of money, which one doesn’t just get from the bank as a loan.

In this respect, nuclear power is currently one of the most expensive sources of energy in terms of new construction costs (as opposed to already existing, paid off nuclear power plants). Its main perk, however, is that a nuclear power plant is fully "available": once it is finally started, it runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. And that, in addition to renewable energy, is exactly what we need in Poland.

At this point, we don't know anything about the financial plan. This will perhaps be an even greater challenge than the technological difficulties.

There is no ideal way to finance it — it's a cost that will have to be carried and that all of us will have to contribute to. As for electricity from offshore windmills, which prominent Polish politician Jaroslaw Kaczynski is now also betting on, we will also have to chip in. The value of the public aid already approved by the European Commission will amount to 100 billion złoty (about US$21 billion).

The first step in a marathon

Finally, Poland needs to prepare a storage site for radioactive waste. First, this waste is stored on the site of the power plant for a few years, but then must be sent to a repository – and the waste cannot be sent to another country.

No one can tell if our economy and ourselves will prove fit enough to reach the finish line.

It can't be just a hole in the ground, but an installation that will have to last thousands of years — that is, it has to be as durable as the pyramids. Currently, we don't have a repository to which nuclear waste can be taken, so such a sarcophagus will have to be built.

The problem is which municipality in Poland will want to become the receiver of such a gift. There are already a few sites selected in Poland, but the cost of construction? About $1 billion, in addition to the other costs.

The problem is that even if the public as a whole wants a power plant (poll results vary, but recently supporters of the construction of the power plant have been growing in numbers), local communities won’t be as enthusiastic. This is especially true concerning the radioactive waste dump and a phenomenon known as NIMBY or "not in my backyard," which can be translated as: "I am not opposed to nuclear power. As long as it's as far away from me as possible."

So, the decision to build is only the first kilometer of an marathon. No one can tell if our economy and ourselves will prove fit enough to reach the finish line.

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