Poland Is Planning to Become a Nuclear Power

WARSAW—Many things may be set to change in Poland now that the country’s largest liberal-minded group of parties, called Civic Coalition, is potentially in a position to form the next government. On issues ranging from the European Union to women’s rights, the differences with the long-serving conservative government are profound. But at least one overlap on domestic policy is already clear: the push to become a nuclear energy power.

Almost every Pole I spoke with earlier this month, as I marched through Warsaw’s think tanks and ministries, was proud to share that their country is on the verge of going nuclear, and on a massive scale. Whether those plans make sense is another question.

The nuclear push is framed as belated climate policy after years of neglect. Poland’s energy system has nearly 80 percent dependency on fossil fuels—the highest in the EU. Crossing the German-Polish border by train, one quickly notices the spotty presence of wind turbines and solar arrays on the Polish side of the Oder River, in stark contrast to the German landscape, with jumbo clean energy parks lined up one after another. But Poland is no longer denying or ignoring the climate crisis. In fact, it thinks it has an answer for it.

The conservative government recently announced plans to build eight full-size conventional nuclear reactors at three locations and as many as 100 small modular reactors (SMR) in coming years. The groundwork for one advanced pressurized water reactor (PWR)—the very first nuclear power plant on Polish soil—has already begun. In September, one of Poland’s state-owned utilities contracted the U.S. firms Westinghouse Electric and Bechtel to develop an AP1000-model PWR that is supposed to commence energy generation in just 10 years’ time. The price tag: $20 billion—and counting.

“Our energy system of the future will have two pillars: renewables and nuclear power,” Poland’s deputy minister of climate and environment, Adam Guibourge-Czetwertynski, told Foreign Policy.

In terms of renewables, Poland is finally out of the blocks: According to Warsaw-based think tank Forum Energii, 21 percent of its electricity supply in 2022 was covered by a mix of green technology. This modest but undeniable progress was topped off by a splashy three-year boom in rooftop solar installations, prompted by a government-initiated subsidy. Today, one in four Polish houses have photovoltaic panels bolted to their roofs, and even more would sport them, too, had the government not canceled the subsidy program in 2022.

The fact that a consumer-driven build-out happened in Poland, where the long-serving conservative government regularly derided renewables as unreliable and costly, reflects a healthy popular interest in clean energy. Surveys show that around 60 percent of Poles understand global warming as a human-perpetrated phenomenon and consider climate policy worthwhile. Civic Coalition, the presumptive leaders of the next government, pledges to replace coal as the main source of Polish electricity by the end of the decade, shifting to wind and solar—and nuclear, too. It’s unclear whether they will accelerate the country’s phaseout of coal, which is currently slated to be completed by 2049 (a ludicrously late deadline that will, should it hold, torpedo European Union climate goals and, in light of ever-higher carbon pricing, probably the Polish economy, too).

The Poles’ mini revolution in household solar stands in glaring contrast to its abysmal failure to roll out utility-scale solar, offshore and onshore wind farms, and adequate smart grid and storage technology. “The government has consistently hampered the energy transition,” explained Michal Hetmanski, the director of the think tank Instrat. “Basically, it says, that we’ll have coal until we have nuclear.”

The few Poles, such as the Green Party’s Urszula Zielinska or off-the-record energy experts, who talk openly about the high costs and rollout time schedules of nuclear power, go unheard by the government. I presented Guibourge-Czetwertynski with the fact that only one plant has both been constructed and gone on line in the United States in the past 45 years. This is because of atomic reactors’ exorbitant costs: The two AP1000 PWR reactor blocks at the Vogtle power plant in the U.S. state of Georgia, the country’s most recent to go on line, ballooned past $35 billion due to mismanagement and poor oversight, triggering the bankruptcy of the main contractor, Westinghouse—the same company that Poland has chosen as a business partner.

Currently, I told Guibourge-Czetwertynski, there are no nuclear reactors of any kind under construction in the United States because of their otherworldly 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 U.S.-designed reactor models, such as the AP1000, being built elsewhere in the world. How, I asked, if the United States can’t afford to build them—despite bipartisan lip service to a robust nuclear power program and billions in subsidies—does Poland expect to dish out for 108 of them?

Guibourge-Czetwertynski explained that in addition to the $46 billion that Poland plans to spend, there’d be (unspecified) U.S. assistance. Moreover, he argues, nuclear power’s expense doesn’t reflect the fact that it is, unlike wind and solar but like coal, a baseload energy; namely, it can generate the minimum amount of power required around the clock.

And unlike Germany, which had planned on (primarily Russian) gas bridging gaps until an all-renewables-based system takes over, Poland commenced weaning itself off Russian fossil fuels, lickety-split, after Russia’s invasion of Crimea in 2014. And lastly, he said with a straight face, the nuclear rollout can be very fast: Some 7.5 years for the large reactors and much less for the smaller ones.

In terms of speed, Guibourge-Czetwertynski is as starry eyed as he 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, and that’s not counting the financial and legal preparations. Olkiluoto 3’s costs nearly tripled during the fiasco. The Finnish plant’s tribulations are not an exception but par for the course in Europe.

As for the SMRs—the “smaller ones”—there are only two plants (in Russia and China) with properties close enough to those of this  envisioned technology to warrant the label of SMR. The only company with a permit to begin construction in the U.S. is the American firm NuScale, which cannot move forward until it finds deep-pocketed investors for the pilot project—which, other than Biden administration subsidies, it has been unable to do. Moreover, the project still needs to go through additional design stages, licensing by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, construction, 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 Vogtle, their cost per kilowatt of power will be more—not less—if a U.S. model is even ever built.

“The [SMR] technology remains unproven in the sense that we have not built any yet,” Matt Bowen, a senior research scholar at  Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy, told Energy Monitor, an independent media source, this year. “If the construction of SMRs proves anything like the construction of the AP1000 [at the Vogtle plant], then in all likelihood we won’t build very many of them.”

Off the record, Polish energy experts say that they—and perhaps figures such as Guibourge-Czetwertynski, too—know that their propositions are Panglossian eyewash. The energy establishment in Poland, as across Central and Eastern Europe, is profoundly conservative, much of its mindset a holdover from the communist era. It cannot conceive, despite numerous studies and best practices across the continent, that an energy system can run on 100 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 all stoke the dream of nuclear power: because they know it’s nothing more than that.


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