The good news is that Poland is no longer denying or ignoring the climate crisis. The bad news is that it believes the solution to eradicating its 80 percent dependency on fossil fuels – the highest in the EU – is an expansive nuclear energy program. Even the three democratic parties likely to form a new, liberal-minded coalition government, the outcome of the October 15 general election, believe that their country is going nuclear – big time and very soon – by building in total six full-size conventional reactors and as many as one hundred small modular reactors (SMR) in coming years. Paul Hockenos reports.
The groundwork for an advanced pressurised water reactor (PWR) – the very first nuclear plant ever on Polish soil – has already begun. In September, one of Poland’s state-owned utilities contracted the US firms Westinghouse Electric and Bechtel to develop an AP1000 PWR on its Baltic Sea coast that is supposed to commence energy generation in just ten years. The price tag: US$20 billion.
Clean energy offensive
“Our energy system of the future will have two pillars: renewables and nuclear power,” the current deputy minister of climate and environment, Adam Guibourgé-Czetwertyński, told Foreign Policy magazine in October.
In terms of renewables, Poland is finally out of the blocks: 21% of its electricity supply is covered by a mix of green technologies. This modest but undeniable progress was topped up by a three-year boom in rooftop solar installations, prompted by a government-initiated subsidy. In contrast to just four years ago, when Polish conservatives vowed coal in Poland was here to stay, they now acknowledge that coal will be phased out by 2049 – a ludicrously late date that would have torpedoed EU climate goals. The new coalition hopes to replace coal as the main source of Polish electricity by the end of this decade or perhaps somewhat later, shifting to wind and solar – and nuclear.
Nuclear power to the rescue
It is the exceptional Polish politico, like the Green Party’s Urszula Zielińska – or off-the-record energy experts – who appear properly informed about the costs and rollout time schedules of nuclear power in democratic-minded countries. She understands that since 1973 only one nuclear plant has been constructed and gone online in the US. This is due foremost to atomic reactors’ exorbitant cost: the two AP1000 PWR reactor blocks at the Vogtle Plant in Georgia ballooned past US$35 billion, a consequence of mismanagement and poor oversight, triggering none other than the main contractor, Westinghouse, to declare bankruptcy and exit the project.
In fact, there are no nuclear reactors at all, of any kind, under construction in the US because of their sky-high construction and insurance costs, and a per kilowatt price three to eight times as high as wind and solar power. Nor since 2017 are there any US American reactor models, like the AP1000, being built anywhere else in the world. If the US can’t afford them – despite bipartisan lip service to a robust US nuclear power program and billions in subsidized loans – does Poland expect to dish out for six of them, and on top of that, one hundred SMRs?
In terms of speed, Poland is as starry eyed as it is about a realistic business plan. Europe’s first new reactor in 15 years, the Olkiluoto 3 in Finland, took 17 years to construct and bring on line – 3.5 times longer than planned. It costs tripled during the fiasco. Olkiluoto is not an exception but par for the course in Western Europe.
As for the SMRs – “the smaller ones” – there is not a single model of this envisioned technology operable anywhere in the world. The only company with permission to begin construction is the US firm NuScale, which cannot move forward until it finds investors for the pilot project – which, other than Biden administration subsidies, it is having trouble doing. Moreover, the project still needs to go through additional design, licensing by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and pre-operational testing, according to US energy think tanks. And since their scale is so much less than the 20th century dinosaurs such as a Vogtle, their cost per kilowatt of power will be more – not less – if even one is ever built.
Off the record, Polish energy experts say that they know well that their nuclear propositions are unrealistic. The energy establishment in Poland, as across Central and Eastern Europe, is profoundly conservative, much off it hold-overs from the communist era. They cannot conceive, despite numerous studies and best practices across the continent, that energy systems can be run on one-hundred percent renewables, smart grids, storage capacity, hydrogen, and demand response strategies.
It doesn’t help that the four state-run utilities – the only ones in Poland – are all heavily invested in the coal sector. Any infringement on their traditional standby cuts into their profits. That’s why they favor nuclear power: because they know it won’t.