Back to the atom: Caught between Communist past and democratic future, Poland eager to revive old nuclear power plant project

Publish date: August 16, 2010

Written by: Maria Kaminskaya

KALININGRAD/ST PETERSBURG – The East European nation of Poland, the United States’ new partner in the sphere of development of nuclear energy, is looking to revive its plans for commercial nuclear capacities – starting with Żarnowiec, or Żarnobyl, as the unfinished nuclear power plant was dubbed in popular vernacular twenty years ago, when construction was halted over mass-scale public protests that followed the 1986 disaster at Ukraine’s Chernobyl.

Poland has just recently signed a US-Polish declaration of cooperation in the field of development of nuclear energy, and earlier, in November 2009, also received support for its nuclear energy programme from France. According to plans envisioned by the Polish government, legislation mandating new nuclear power plant (NPP) construction is to be ready by late 2010, with appropriate documentation and authorisations put together between 2011 and 2015, and construction of the first NPP to be built in Poland completed between 2016 and 2020.

These plans are now put in motion in Poland as other nuclear projects are being pushed aggressively in other countries that share together the shores of the Baltic Sea – such as in Lithuania, which, having closed its only nuclear power plant, Ignalina, is considering going ahead with a completely new project to replace it; Belarus and its controversial Belarusian NPP project in Ostrovets, close to the Lithuanian border; Russia, with its two new reactors in St. Petersburg and a new NPP in the westernmost enclave of Kaliningrad; and Finland, which has plans for three additional reactors and a deep underground repository for spent nuclear fuel.

Poland’s state energy company Polish Energy Group (PGE) intends to build two new NPPs, by 2020 and 2022, respectively. The location for the first one – as well as sources of funding and the reactor type – will be decided on between 2011 and 2014.

As prospective locations go, the leading candidate so far is Żarnowiec, a village in northern Poland, some 60 kilometres northwest of the regional capital of Gdańsk. Żarnowiec, where construction was halted in 1990, already has two unfinished reactors, both of Soviet design, type VVER-440.

Poland, the anti-Communist movement, and nuclear energy

The original decision to build a nuclear power plant in Żarnowiec was made in January 1982. At the time, Poland was still called the People’s Republic of Poland, the official name it was known under between 1952 and 1990, or during most of the period of Soviet occupation, which began after the end of World War II. The Żarnowiec project arose barely a month after martial law was declared in the country by Soviet leaders, amid numerous arrests of dissidents and a clampdown on the Solidarity opposition movement.

Solidarity, a first non-Communist party-controlled trade union in a Warsaw Pact country, was founded in Gdańsk in September 1980 and gradually grew into a national anti-Communist movement fighting for Poland’s freedom from the Soviet Union. By 1989, Solidarity and its leader Lech Wałęsa managed to force Moscow to allow Poland to hold semi-free elections – a springboard to Wałęsa’s presidency and Poland’s independence. But in 1982 Poland had still remained a subjugated USSR satellite state and, needless to say, the decision to build Żarnowiec was made without any public discussion of the project.

The situation started to change drastically in 1986, when the April 26 nuclear catastrophe at Ukraine’s Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant and the following rapid decline of Soviet power – 1986 was also the year when Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev declared his famous perestroika – reignited Poland’s protest movement. In a May 27, 1990 referendum in the województwo of Gdańsk, 86 percent of respondents – Wałęsa among them – voted against the construction of the Żarnowiec NPP.

“The initial lack of truthful information [about Chernobyl] intensified the panic caused by the catastrophe and reinforced [the protesters’] mistrust of the government,” says Radosław Gawlik, who stood at the roots of the protests against Żarnowiec and today is one of the key figures of Poland’s ecological movement. Gawlik heads the Ecological Association Eko-Unia, has been elected several times to the Sejm – the lower house of the Polish parliament – and is a member of Poland’s Green Party, Zieloni 2004.

In September 1990, a Solidarity-led coalition government moved to end construction at Żarnowiec and put a temporary freeze on nuclear projects overall until at least 2000 – a decision influenced not only by the recognition of the risks of nuclear energy, rendered all the more palpable by the Chernobyl tragedy, but also by the prohibitive construction costs. At the time, Poland was still making its transition from an Eastern Bloc state impoverished by the Communist regime to an independent nation with a free-market economy, a path necessarily involving certain economic hardships.

Twenty-five years on: Back in the nuclear future

“A sad analogy can be traced between the decision made by the leader of the Communist Poland, Wojciech Jaruzelski, in 1982 and the one [to finish Żarnowiec] made by the prime minister of the democratic government, Donald Tusk, in 2008,” says Gawlik.

Indeed, the resemblance is plainly there, not only in the very choice to build an NPP, but in how it was made on both occasions – shielding the decision-making process from any participation of the public and in absence of an assessment of the social and economic impact of such a project.

“Instead of a discussion, the Polish government is offering propaganda, and anyone who tries to object to the construction of nuclear power plants in Poland is portrayed as a ‘crazy tree-hugger,’” says Zbigniew Karaczun, a scientist from Warsaw Agricultural University’s Department of Environmental Protection. Karaczun is the president of one of the regional branches of the Polish Ecological Club (PKE), which was founded in Krakow in 1980 during the early days of Solidarity, and an expert with the Polish Climate Coalition.

“The impression is that the decision to build the plant was made personally by the prime minister and his inner circle,” Karaczun concludes.

The fast-growing love affair between the Polish government and the nuclear energy industry has also been picked up on by Wladyslaw Mielczarski, Professor in Power Engineering at Technical University of Lodz and a member of the European Energy Institute, a 16-strong think tank providing expertise in energy and power supply to a variety of European institutions.

According to Mielczarski, this unexpected cosiness came as quite a surprise for Poland’s environmental organisations, which are now hard-pressed to find adequate means of resistance to repel the government’s aggressive pro-nuclear campaign.

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“The simplified, one-sided statements such as ‘If we don’t build a nuclear power plant, we’ll be forced to remain on the coal diet’ are easily and firmly impressed on people’s minds,” Gawlik continues. “The Polish media broadcast government messages completely unfiltered and present almost exclusively the upsides of nuclear energy. As for the balance of opinion in the public debate, I’d estimate it as 9:1 in favour of the nuclear lobby’s propaganda.”

The Polish government has, in fact, earmarked several hundred million zlotys (the current exchange rate for PLN 1 is around EUR 0.25) on promoting its nuclear agenda.

“The taxpayer money that has been allocated for this is being lavishly spent: According to the Ministry of Economy, PLN 450 million is to be spent on the implementation of nuclear plans before 2012, of which PLN 210 million will come from the state budget,” Gawlik said.

Nuclear power as an energy security trump card

The evocation of Poland’s dependency on coal, which, according to Gawlik, the Polish government resorts to, is of the class of arguments most readily made by proponents of nuclear energy. It is not without substance. Today, 93 percent of all energy produced in the country is generated from coal. Though in recent years Poland has increased its coal exports from Russia, the country remains the largest producer of hard coal in the European Union (EU) and the second largest in Europe, after Russia, which makes its energy import dependency among the lowest in the EU, according to the European Commission. Still, says a European Commission fact sheet, coal’s dominating share in Poland’s electricity generation and also in primary energy supply results in high emissions and carbon dioxide intensity. Besides, with the shares of other energy sources, such as oil and gas, growing recently, “there are public concerns over security of supply, with Russia being by far the major supplier of gas and oil for Poland,” the European Commission says.

Thus, according to Poland’s energy programme for the period until 2030, nuclear power plants are hoped to establish the country’s energy security. According to calculations available, the new reactors are supposed to supply between 15 and 20 percent of all future electricity produced in Poland. But in 2005, the share of electricity in Poland’s total energy supply was 14.5 percent, and by 2020 it is projected to grow only to 15.4 percent. This means that the share of nuclear energy in the country’s entire energy supply will not exceed three percent, rising only to a mere seven percent in primary energy supply by 2030. According to Karaczun, this essentially deflates the case for nuclear energy as a means to achieve Poland’s energy independence.

Furthermore, not only will nuclear energy not help Poland overcome its dependency on coal, but it will effectively impede its attempts to develop renewable energy. And Poland, a relatively new EU member state, which acceded to the union in 2004, is bound by its climate obligations to the European Union to build up its renewable energy share in total energy supply to 20 percent by 2030.

Experts say that as energy security concerns go, Poland will benefit more if it joins its power grid with those of fellow EU member countries. Combined with energy efficiency measures, gradual modernisation of Poland’s national grid, and a dynamic development of renewable energy sources, as well as expansion of power production from gas, this will both ensure Poland its energy security and reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.

Cheap electricity?

Another argument that nuclear energy proponents in Poland are using to make their case is the purported low cost of nuclear power generation. The Polish nuclear lobby says the new reactors will drive electricity prices down since the construction costs involved are commensurate with those of building other types of power generating plants, while the cost of fuel is lower, which will make electricity produced at nuclear power plants cheaper by extension.

The Polish Nuclear Society (PNS) – the other camp across the aisle of the heated nuclear debate – estimates the cost of construction of a 1,600-megawatt nuclear power plant at EUR 3.5 billion. The PNS, which is a member of the European Nuclear Society, describes itself as an organisation striving to bring a sense of balance into the public presentation of nuclear power, which, the society complains, is heavily tilted against the development of atomic energy – exactly the mirror claim to the argument made by environmentalists.

The PNS started its activity after the 1990 decision to stop the construction at Żarnowiec, which it says resulted in a “massive exodus of specialists to other jobs in Poland and abroad,” and it now aims to save as much as possible of the existing expertise and infrastructure as it believes Poland’s future does not exclude safe application of nuclear energy.

But the contention of nuclear energy’s cost-efficiency is easily overturned by both assessments in the expert community and practical experience gained elsewhere where nuclear projects have been recently proposed.

For instance, the construction of a third reactor at Finland’s Olkiluoto, a 1,600-megawatt unit being built to a French design, has been desperately mired in delays and financial troubles. The reactor was supposed to go online in May 2009, but the launch date has been postponed several times, with the latest change in schedule being implemented last June, when the new deadline was set for 2013.

The cost of construction estimated at the time Olkiluoto-3 received its go-ahead from the government was EUR 2.5 billion, with the construction time frame settled at four years. Today, Olkiluoto-3 has an overbloated EUR 6 billion budget, and by the most optimistic expectations, the overall construction period will have stretched out to seven years when the reactor is ready for launch.
Elfi, the Finnish consortium of large electricity consumers, is reported to have estimated that the overspending would result in EUR 3 billion in indirect costs to electricity users, prompting Greenpeace Nordic to plainly refer to the project as a “a three-billion-euro mistake.”

The experience of France, whose main energy source is nuclear – in 2007, 78 percent of power production in France was accounted for by nuclear energy – tells a similar story: The initial cost of a new nuclear power plant project touted by the utility company Électricité de France (EDF) to the French government stood at EUR 2 billion (at EUR 28.4 per megawatt-hour), but then underwent several revisions until it rose to exactly double that much – EUR 4 billion (at EUR 55 per megawatt-hour) – by December 2008.

The claim that construction investments make the bulk of costs that influence the final price of nuclear-produced electricity for consumers has also been contested in expert statements – including those shared by nuclear industry insiders. At the end of July 2000, a report was submitted to the French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, co-authored by the economist, Commissioner for Planning Jean-Michel Charpin; Director of the sustainable development (Ecodev) programme at the National Centre for Scientific Research (Le Centre national de la recherche scientifique) Benjamin Dessus, and Commissioner for Atomic Energy René Pellat.

In a letter commissioning the report, Jospin had asked the authors to “carry out a comparative analysis of the various methods of generating electricity and to examine all the factors on which a public decision must be based.” The comprehensive study, entitled “Economic Forecast Study of the Nuclear Power Option” (or “Étude économique prospective de la filière électrique nucléaire”, in the original French version – download both PDFs to the right), shows as a result that capital investments only account for 25 percent of a nuclear power plant’s total costs.

It also says that the expenditures associated with the operation and maintenance of a reactor make up for 43 percent, while fuel costs – including the management of spent nuclear fuel – only come to 32 percent of total costs, respectively.

Given the diverse backgrounds of the study’s authors, the report seems to have generated enough credibility to prompt the then French Minister of Planning and Environment Dominique Voynet to say in a 2000 interview given to the French publication LesEchos that “this is probably the first equitable report in the history of nuclear energy in France.”

Back in Poland, the problem of construction and maintenance costs will be exacerbated by additional expenses incurred by the necessary construction of new power transmission infrastructure.

“We must keep in mind that the NPPs will require the construction of power transmission lines that would link them to the energy grid, and that the energy grid will have to be made compatible with large 1,600-megawatt power generators,” says Prof. Mielczarski. “The Polish power distribution system is relatively low-capacity and consists of several 400-kilovolt lines, while the old, 220-kilovolt lines are urgently in need of modernisation. The largest source of energy in the Polish grid today has an output capacity of 500 megawatts.”

There is yet another problem with the contemporary state of the Polish power distribution network – which is that it will have to have a stand-by energy source in case the NPP temporarily shuts down. At present, the reserve output capacity of the Polish grid is at the level of between 700 and 800 megawatts, and that is enough to make up for the loss of a 500-megawatt primary energy source, should it have to go offline. But the inclusion of a nuclear power plant into the energy system will require larger back-up capacities. According to some expert assessments, a EUR 1 billion investment into the generating facilities will necessarily entail investing between EUR 0.5 million and EUR 0.7 million into the distribution network to ensure its capability to accept and transmit the energy produced.

“Despite the claims made by the nuclear lobby that nuclear power plants produce the cheapest electricity compared to other means of production, professional investment appraisals reveal that nuclear energy is the most expensive technology for the production of electric power. Absent subsidies, nuclear power plants have no competitive edge,” Prof. Mielczarski concludes.

Forecast evaluations for electricity prices in Poland for 2015 show that the price of electricity produced at coal- or gas-fired power plants – taking into account the likeliest estimated value of the carbon credit, at EUR 40 per tonne of carbon dioxide, for that year – will hover around PLN 400 per megawatt-hour, while the price of nuclear-generated electricity, should commercial reactors be built in Poland, is expected to exceed PLN 550 per megawatt-hour.

Dictatorship or democracy: Will the peaceful atom find its place in Poland’s future?

Experts say there is no credible economic, political, or social basis for reviving the idea of nuclear power generation in Poland – and the nuclear option’s unviability is even better illustrated when compared to other energy sources, as in the multi-criteria evaluation table below on the left (please click to expand the image). This, experts say, is a simple truth that needs no reinforcing with other, equally substantive considerations, such as all the drawbacks and hazards associated with nuclear and radiation safety and security – the risk of severe accidents, the absence of safe methods of management of spent nuclear fuel and radioactive waste, or the threat of a terrorist attack or nuclear proliferation.

The economic, financial, ecological, and social disadvantages of nuclear power are clearly highlighted when they stand against the background of renewable energy sources, coal, gas, and energy efficiency measures. This is demonstrated in the report entitled ***“Poland’s Alternative Energy Policy until 2030,”(download PDF to right) which was written in 2009 by specialists at the ** Institutue for Sustainable Deelopment, a Warsaw-based think-tank. This non-governmental, non-profit organisation, founded in 1990 by members of the Polish Ecological Club with the stated objective to promote, advance, and implement the principles and methods of sustainable development, aimed to demonstrate in its study the different scenarios, involving different energy carrier mixes, under which Poland could achieve its energy security in the near future.

Though it contributes to climate protection – and Poland’s climate obligations do have to be taken into account – and offers low operating costs and relatively modest requirements for a specialised work force, nuclear energy will not be an economically viable option until 2030, the report says. The authors continue: “…it will take 15 years to build the first power plant. The development of this mode of energy production generates high capital and related costs, reduces financing for the development of other, cheaper energy sources, fails to promote the development of domestic companies, does not generate new jobs and enjoys low support from local communities, although it is supported by many local politicians.”

The impending energy crisis, expected by the Institute’s experts to hit Poland already in 2015 to 2016, and the task of implementing the EU’s Climate and Energy Package, will not be helped either by nuclear energy or by the carbon dioxide capture and storage technologies (CCS). But even if nuclear energy is chosen as an option, in an extremely optimistic scenario, Poland will not start producing its first nuclear megawatt-hours until early 2025.

Regardless of the attitude to nuclear energy or CCS programmes, the authors conclude, energy efficiency and renewable energy projects should be strongly developed in order to prevent the impeding shortage of capacity and to meet the requirements of the EU climate policy.
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Given these and other expert assessments, the very question why the Polish government would so steadfastly push for the renewal of its commercial nuclear programme is not an idle one. Finding an answer to it, however, would be impossible without a broad public discussion. Only in the context of a public discourse would the question arise that should be asked anyway – namely, if the Polish leadership may be using the nuclear option to solve some unrelated issues and whether the underlying reasons have nothing to do with the national energy security rationale insisted upon by the government, says Karaczun. For the moment, alas, the construction of nuclear power plants is apparently not something openly and comprehensively discussed in Poland.

“Almost a quarter of a century after the decision was made to build an NPP in Żarnowiec, the Polish government seems to have forgotten the scale of opposition that such decisions could give rise to. Instead of a discussion, they are offering propaganda,” Karaczun reiterates. “They believe that this is the way to shape the majority to support nuclear energy. This could have catastrophic consequences.”

“The public has demonstrated more than once that it does not like being ignored and that its participation in important decision-making is its democratic right.”

Gawlik, who well remembers how it all began when Poland was still a Communist dictatorship, cannot help musing about a correlation between the promise of Poland’s safe, sustainable future and the integrity of its democratic progress.

“In a democratic society, we can force politicians to respect a different format of decision-making than the one in a totalitarian state. This is why all citizens are responsible for making sure that all available democratic procedures are used,” he warns.

“The future of sustainable development of our country is being decided today, and the choice of sources of energy is a determining factor. There is the risk that we will choose a technology whose peak of development is in the past and whose future is a series of unsolved problems.”

Galina Raguzina reported from Kaliningrad and Maria Kamiskaya reported from St Petersburg.