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Poland / Decisions Loom As Country Forges Ambitious Plans To Go Nuclear

By David Dalton
22 March 2018

Decisions Loom As Country Forges Ambitious Plans To Go Nuclear
Photo courtesy Lukas Plewnia.
Poland has drawn up ambitious plans to build up to 6 GW of nuclear generating capacity, potentially at two sites, by the late 2030s or early 2040s. But the government is yet to take a final decision and the deadline has pushed back several times, with plans hampered by changes in government, problems putting in place the right domestic legislation and the need to find the right financing model.

Poland is no newcomer to nuclear technology. The Polish National Centre for Nuclear Research (NCBJ) has operated a research reactor at Swierk, on the outskirts of the capital Warsaw, since the mid-1970s. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, the first plans to launch nuclear power were drawn up in 1956. Nuclear energy was seen as a tool that would enable reductions in internal coal consumption, on which the whole Polish energy sector was based. With nuclear, it would have been possible to save precious natural resources or to export them.

In 1971 the government made its first binding decision to build a nuclear plant. A year later it designated Zarnowiec, close to Poland’s Baltic coast in the northern province of Pomerania, as the site. After a decade of planning, construction of the four-unit Zarnowiec station began in 1982. The station was intended to have four Soviet-designed VVER-440 pressurised water reactors, which were to be manufactured by Skoda in Czechoslovakia. But public opposition to the project arose in 1986 in the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster in neighbouring Soviet Ukraine and work on Zarnowiec was suspended in 1989. The project was formally scrapped in 1990.

Fast forward nearly two decades and Poland revived its nuclear ambitions in 2009 as part of a drive to find alternatives to ageing coal-fired electricity generation, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and boost energy supply security.

Poland, the largest economy among the EU’s eastern members, generated 80% of its electricity from coal in 2016, according to the International Energy Agency. The remaining 20% came from wind, hydro, other fossil fuels and biofuels. This reliance on coal is a cheap way to produce energy but provides an enormous headache for any government trying to maintain economic growth and meet ever-stricter EU greenhouse gas emission targets.

Nuclear, which provides reliable baseload supply and has overall lifecycle emissions that compare to wind power, seemed the logical choice. In 2014 the Polish ministry of economy adopted the Polish Nuclear Power Programme (PPEJ), which included the construction of up to 6 GW of capacity by 2035. According to the PPEJ, construction of a first unit should be completed by the end of 2024, and a second by 2029. The programme said a second nuclear station should be ready before 2035.

In 2010, PGE EJ1 (Polska Grupa Energetyczna Energia Jądrowa 1) was set up and charged with the planning and construction of the first nuclear station with a capacity of up to 3,750 MW. PGE EJ1’s job would include site search, environmental impact assessment, various licensing procedures, construction and subsequent operation. The company is 70% owned by Polish state-controlled utility PGE. The remaining 30% share is equally spread between three state-run companies, Enea, KGHM Polska Miedz and Tauron Polska Energia.

Under the proposed schedule in the PPEJ, site selection and a tender process should have been concluded by the end of 2016 and licensing by the end of 2018. In reality, development of the nuclear programme has not gone to schedule and these deadlines have become increasingly unrealistic.

Delays...and some progress

According to Professor Grzegorz Wrochna of the NCBJ one of the problems was that the PPEJ had assumed the project would take 10 years from the investment decision to operation of the first reactor. This schedule was based on International Atomic Energy Agency documents, which were in turn based on the experience of other nuclear countries. However, it soon became clear that Poland would need 16 years to get its nuclear programme operational because existing Polish laws did not allow many of the regulatory processes to run in parallel to each other.

Delays also arose when, in December 2014, PGE EJ1 cancelled a contract with Woorley Parsons over slow progress on site characterisation and licensing work. PGE EJ1 awarded the contract to Woorley Parsons in 2013 with 2016 set as a deadline. PGE EJ1 had to take over the contractor’s tasks.

However, there has been progress. In April 2017, PGE EJ1 began environmental and site selection surveys at two locations: Lubiatowo-Kopalino in the municipality of Choczewo and Żarnowiec in the municipality of Krokowa, both in northern Pomerania, west of the city of Gdansk. The studies aim to determine the potential impact of the project on both the environment and local residents. This work is expected to be completed by 2020.

In October 2015 general elections in Poland brought the conservative Law and Justice party to power and responsibility for the nascent nuclear programme was transferred to a newly formed ministry of energy. The new energy minister Krzysztof Tchorzewski confirmed work on the programme would continue, but that it needed to be reviewed. The review was expected to be completed by mid-2017, but that deadline was later extended to the end of 2017 and was never met.

There have been few official updates from PGE EJ1 or the energy ministry on the status of the nuclear programme.

In January 2017, however, Mr Tchorzewski said he had received a mandate from the cabinet to present a new financing model for the project. A few months later he said the government had abandoned plans to finance the nuclear project by way of contracts for difference – similar to those set up for the Hinkley Point C nuclear station under construction in England – because it was too costly for consumers. He said the government would like to find funding on a commercial basis, without state guarantees on loans or electricity prices.

PGE EJ1 has stopped short of confirming a financing scheme and has said all options remain on the drawing board. Recently, the Polish media has speculated about possible government plans to involve state-owned energy companies in the nuclear project. Officials from Orlen, Poland’s largest oil refiner and petrol retailer, recently hinted to journalists that the company would be interested in cooperating with PGE EJ1 on the nuclear project.

In another twist, in September 2017, Jozef Sobolewski, director of the Polish ministry of energy’s nuclear energy department, told a parliamentary committee on nuclear energy that the government was considering using “domestic” financing for construction of the first station. He said the government did not want to have its decision about the project dominated by financial markets. “It's not a financial project, it’s an energy project”, he said.

Mr Sobolewski estimated the cost of building 1 GW of nuclear capacity at €2.8bn to €3.25bn, based on the assumption that a 3-GW station would be built.

Rafał Zasun, an editor at the specialised energy portal Wysokie Napiecie, told NucNet that the main reason for delaying the final decision on the nuclear programme is the government’s inability to agree on its financing. “The idea of building a nuclear power station has strong opponents in government and in state-owned energy companies”, he said.

According to Aleksandra Gawlikowska-Fyk, head of the international economic relations and energy policy programme at the Polish Institute of International Affairs, the energy ministry is in the process of revising the national energy policy framework for the first time since 2009. Because there are many overlapping aspects, the review impacts the nuclear programme’s schedule, she said.

A decision is now expected by mid-2018, according to the latest reports.

Why does Poland need nuclear?

Poland needs nuclear because of its low carbon footprint and as a way to decrease the country’s carbon emissions, said energy minister Krzysztof Tchorzewski. He told a recent conference that Poland’s ongoing large-scale investment in three new coal-fired power plants may be the country’s last fossil fuel venture, indicating a possible energy shift in the country’s revived plans to embrace nuclear power.

There are other factors that point to the need for nuclear. Poland signed up to the EU’s target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 20% from 1990 levels by 2020. It has had one of the fastest growing economies in the EU for the past decade and electricity demand is expected to grow by about 36% by 2030.

“Poland needs to decrease emissions and nuclear offers that”, Ms Gawlikowska-Fyk said. “This argument has been used for years”.

“It is no secret that the European Commission expects a vision of the future energy mix in the country and nuclear is showcased by Poland as a way to reduce emissions”, she said.

According to Ms Gawlikowska-Fyk, smog is “the elephant in the room” and a significant influence on Polish public opinion. A report by the World Health Organisation says that out of the 50 European cities most affected by smog, 33 are in Poland. The WHO estimates that around 50,000 Poles die every year due to illness caused by air pollution.

But the prominence of coal mining and coal-related industries in Poland presents challenges to every government when it comes to energy sector reforms. Poland is the second largest coal mining country in Europe, second to Germany, and the coal industry employs 100,000 people.

However, experts have warned for years that the cheapest sources of coal in the Silesian Basin are nearly depleted and that the country’s mining sector will have to prepare for higher costs in the future.

Meanwhile, work continues on the choice of a technology for the project. The PPEJ did not shortlist a technology; the only requirement is for reactors to be of the Generation III/III+ design because of their improved safety and 60-year design lifespan. The number of units that will be built and their site configuration will depend on the technology choice.

In December 2015 PGE EJ1 said five companies had expressed an interest in supplying reactor technology. They were GE-Hitachi Nuclear Energy Americas, Korea Electric Power Corporation, SNC-Lavalin Nuclear Inc, Westinghouse Electric Company and Areva. PGE EJ1 said at the time that preliminary discussions had been held with all five.

A public tender for the construction of the first nuclear power station was scheduled to be announced in late 2017 or early 2018, but this now seems unlikely.

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