For decades Poland’s nuclear power ambitions lay in ruins. Now, after years of neglect and exhaustive debate, it appears the atom will play a key role in the nation’s energy future
by Jacek Ciesnowski
A hole in the ground and some dilapidated ruins. That’s all there is left of Poland’s nuclear program. Between 1982-1990, the complex in Żarnowiec in northern Poland was bustling with life as Poland’s first nuclear power plant was under construction. Workers and engineers would live in a hotel especially built for them, a building which was quite modern by communist standards, where they had their own rec-rooms, gym and even a cinema.
But after the program was halted, the village quickly became deserted. Everything valuable from the hotel was stolen. After scrap merchants peeled away parts of the hotel’s metal construction, the structure fell down. A few years ago, the remains of what was left were demolished.
Dawn of a new era
There were a few reasons the Żarnowiec project came to a halt. First, after the Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine, Poles grew wary of having a nuclear facility on their soil, fearing that such a disaster could happen here. Then, after the fall of communism, new governments had more pressing issues on their minds and their wafer-thin budgets couldn’t afford the financing of such a controversial project. Until 1990, the communist government had spent some $500 million on Żarnowiec, but the first two (of the four planned) blocks were only 40 percent ready.
After 25 years, a lot has changed here. The transition to a free economy was painful but successful, so Poland decided to reboot its nuclear energy program. Society’s sentiment toward nuclear energy has also changed, and despite the Fukushima disaster in 2011, some 56 percent of Poles favor building a nuclear facility (with 40 percent against it). Poland, which still bases its economy on industrial production, has an increasing demand for electricity but its outdated power grid means actual capacity has been falling. The economy ministry warned recently that the country faces a risk of power supply deficits in 2016-2017, and pointed out that Poland’s power capacity deficit in peak periods could amount to as much as 1,100 MW in the winter of 2017. The ministry also said 4.4 GW of existing capacity will have to be shut down by the end of 2017.
Building a nuclear power plant obviously takes more than couple of years, so there’s no chance that one will be finished three years from now. But when it comes to long-term planning, it clearly makes sense for the country to have one, and the government knows it. A study ordered in 2013 revealed that going nuclear is the cheapest way to cut the country’s rising CO2 emissions, although that would come at a price. The scientists behind the study estimate that Poland would need to increase its spending on power infrastructure to PLN 26-37 billion annually from the current PLN 18 billion in order to boost the efficiency of the sector.
Rome wasn’t built in a day
“Poland could really use nuclear energy,” said Wojciech Jakóbik, an analyst at the Jagielloński Institute. In addition to adding capacity, nuclear sources would be completely independent from outside interference, as it wouldn’t need imported gas or coal to be operational, Jakóbik explained. “We should diversify our energy mix as much as we can, having up to 20 percent of it coming from nuclear, some from renewables, shale gas if we will be able to commercially extract it, and the rest from coal,” Jakóbik added.
The current plan, which so far has changed a number of times and will probably change in the future as well – Poland still hasn’t confirmed its energy strategy going forward – stipulates that the country will have two nuclear power plants, each with 3,000 MW capacity. The first one would come online in 2025 at the latest, while the second one would be finished by 2035.
The International Atomic Energy Agency stipulates that the whole process of introducing nuclear energy in a country takes between 10-15 years. For Poland, which has to build everything from scratch, the latter date seems more realistic.
Looking for money
Where do the challenges over nuclear energy in Poland start? Money. For a few years now, Polish officials have been heavily promoting the idea to restart a nuclear effort, even going as far as to call the decision to scrap the program back in 1990 a “fundamental error.” But so far, Poland is sticking with coal and lignite as its main energy fuel for many different reasons, but here’s the main one: It’s much cheaper to build a coal-fired power plant than a nuclear facility. And Poland has tons and tons of coal. Meanwhile, lignite deposits are estimated at 13 billion metric tons, only 14 percent of which is being mined.
Coal-based power is also the cheapest kind of electricity to produce. That’s part of the reason the European Union’s efforts to curb carbon emissions and raise the prices of carbon permits have failed miserably so far. EU carbon permits have lost over half their value over the past year, and have fallen to below €3 per ton of CO2 produced.
Under current EU regulations, energy producers have to buy a permit for each ton of carbon dioxide they emit. But these permits would have to cost around €45 to make burning natural gas more profitable for them than hard coal. Lignite coal sourced domestically would require an even higher carbon price.
The EU has tried to force through the so-called “backloading” scheme, which would delay the auction of 900 million emissions permits, and as a result raise their price. After a huge amount of lobbying against the scheme by the EU’s biggest polluters, including Poland, the first attempt to pass the regulations failed in the European Parliament. However, a second attempt was successful. Still, the measure lacks sufficient support to become law, since it has to be accepted by the governments of all EU states, a highly unlikely scenario given the current political and economic situation, especially in Poland.
“Poland is still an industrial country, and as such needs a source of constant energy supply,” said Piotr Maciążek, an energy expert from the Energy for Europe Foundation. He argues that renewable energy is not the way to go for the country for two reasons: economic, as it’s simply too expensive to produce; and because wind farms and solar panels cannot provide a constant supply of energy that Polish factories need.
“Unlike Germany, Poland can’t afford to switch to renewables,” Maciążek added.
Besides renewables, however, there are only two other ways to curb CO2 emissions – shale gas or nuclear energy. At first it looked like shale – also a fossil fuel – would be the way to go, as Poland was hoping that its vast shale resources would result in tons of cheap, easily available energy. However, exploration for shale gas has faced a number of challenges, from the lack of a legal framework to hugely varied estimates of how much shale gas actually lies beneath
A switch in the mindset on shale could be seen early this year. Three state-owned utilities, PGE, Tauron and Energa, as well as copper giant KGHM (also state-owned) signed two different deals. One pertained to cooperation in shale gas extraction, while the other was about the development of the nuclear facility. Both agreements ran out at the end of 2013, with only the latter extended.
Clearing the roadblocks
Some recent personnel reshuffles also indicate that nuclear energy has been green-lit by the government. Krzysztof Kilian, CEO of PGE, Poland’s largest utility, resigned in November last year. He was not a big proponent of nuclear energy and was constantly at loggerheads with Aleksander Grad, who heads the company’s nuclear program.
Furthermore, in November last year Prime Minister Donald Tusk dismissed Environment Minister Marcin Korolec, who was often criticized for a tendency to forget that energy regulations need to be business-friendly. He was replaced by an economist, Maciej Grabowski, with energy companies welcoming the news.
Jakóbik doesn’t think that personnel changes are important when it comes to such important projects, however. “What nuclear energy needs is consistency. The current government has flip-flopped on this matter in the past saying everything from ‘nuclear energy is a priority’ to ‘we don’t need it at all.’”
Like moths to flames
Building such a complex, intricate and sensitive installation is out of reach for Polish companies. Yes, they can build its structure, the buildings themselves, but the reactor and the technology will have to be supplied by an international experts who can assure its safety.
Firms from all over the world are lining up, hoping for a multibillion złoty contract. Russia’s Rosatom, France’s Areva, Japan’s Hitachi and Toshiba, as well as USA’s Westinghouse are among those in the running. It’s way too early to tell which one will be chosen, as Poland doesn’t even have its nuclear program adopted yet (it’s being currently discussed within the government), but most of the candidates are already offering various incentives to Polish companies that could produce the parts necessary to build a nuclear reactor, obviously only after all the necessary contracts for the construction are signed first.
Location, location, location
The only remaining question is where Poland should build such a power plant. From the initial 92 potential locations, only two remain: Choczewo and… Żarnowiec, which looks to be a frontrunner, as PGE has already purchased over 100 hectares of land there. This would bring Poland’s nuclear program full circle.
It’s likely to be two years or more until the exact location of the plant is set, as environmental studies need to be done first and – in what will perhaps be the most difficult problem to overcome – a local residents need to agree to a nuclear facility on their doorstep.
Despite all the challenges, Poland’s path to nuclear energy never had so few roadblocks as in recent history.