In the context of the green revolution, the “blind branch” of energy development that nuclear technology is regarded as in the eyes of the supporters of radical changes, seems to have no alternative in Polish conditions. Will Poland be able to realise the ambitious plan to change the foundations of its electrical power system from coal to nuclear? And if not, will we be able to achieve climate neutrality without the atom? This is not the first time that we have seen national economic plans emerge late or take too long to produce the anticipated economic and social effects at the desired level.


  1. Poland is about to make another attempt at building its own nuclear power industry. The first reactor would be in operation as early as 2033. Ultimately, the atom should take over from coal to become the basis and to stabilize the system.
  2. There is an intense debate in Europe about the position of nuclear power in the new green deal. The opponents seek its complete elimination (the so-called “blind branch’), the supporters point out that the most efficient and cheapest available zero-carbon energy source is nuclear.
  3. Probably no technology in the world evokes such strong public emotions. The vision of Chernobyl and Fukushima happening again along with limited public trust in scientists and politicians pose very difficult communication tasks for the nuclear industry and the Polish government.
  4. The partial failure of the program to replace old coal-based sources with modern, highly efficient power plants based on this fuel was due to the inconsistency of the Polish government’s actions and serious errors in strategic communication. It will be even more difficult in the case of the nuclear project.
  5. The alternative to abandoning nuclear plans in Poland is an unacceptable scenario: no energy independence in the mid- to long-term perspective and the imperative to meet demands through energy imports.

Polish nuclear power plant within 10 years

“In the coming weeks, there will be a development plan discussed (…) that provides for the construction of the first industrial nuclear power plant within the next 10 years”. – as Życie Warszawy reported on 13 February 1957. In the 1970s, a nuclear power plant “Warta” was planned to be built in the then Piła Province, and on 18 January 1982 the Council of Ministers adopted a resolution to build the Żarnowiec Nuclear Power Plant. As decided on 31 December 1983, block 1 of the Żarnowiec NPP was to be put into operation in December 1990, and block 2 a year later. The inhabitants of the village of Kartoszyno were evicted, the nuclear law was passed and large-scale construction began. The Chernobyl disaster, the bankruptcy of the People’s Republic of Poland and the will of the people expressed in a referendum resulted in the project being put into liquidation on 17 December 1990. After almost twenty years, there was a new opening: On 13 January 2009, the Council of Ministers decided to start working on a new Polish Nuclear Power Program. The then government representative for nuclear energy even indicated a possible completion date of 2020. Therefore, it is impossible to avoid having doubts and the impression of yet another “déjà vu” when listening to assurances that “in 2033 the first Polish reactor will be up and running”.

“Green” development opportunity for effective transformation

By setting the ambitious goal of climate neutrality in 2050, the European Green Deal offers the power generation sector a way forward by relying on renewables and phasing out fossil fuel generation at a rapid pace. This primarily concerns coal, and in the longer term also less carbon-intensive gas. The general framework of the treaty, which also takes into account the need to ensure security of supply and the affordability of energy for consumers and businesses, gives Member States the opportunity to construct their own pathway to the goal, adapted to the realities of the local markets. Given that Poland has an electrical power system that is mostly dependent on coal fuel, it faces a challenge that is difficult or, according to skeptics, even impossible to achieve.

A strong and well-functioning fuel and energy sector is the foundation for the development of other areas of the country’s economy, an element of its competitive advantage, and a prerequisite for energy sovereignty and national security. Despite the package of extremely ambitious climate targets and inconvenient legal regulations associated with it, the European Green Deal should be seen as a huge development opportunity for the sector, providing the push to successfully achieve the necessary transformation. The financial support tools associated with climate neutrality targets, such as the Fair Transformation Fund or the National Recovery Plan budget, open up new opportunities.

Something worrying has been happening in national strategic and economic planning over the past three decades. In many cases, we fail to make the most of the potential we have and react to megatrends, especially in terms of progress and the technological race, with considerable delay. Consequently, national sectors abandon their aspiration to be a trendsetter right from the start, and become more of a “client” of implemented solutions. It has become a rule to copy spot investment solutions or “trendy projects”, often aimed at obtaining short-term benefits or satisfying the expectations of specific social groups. This type of economic policy, which is in fact a kind of clientelist arrangement towards other advanced economies, tycoons and partners, does not allow for optimal use of the high development potential of a country that is, after all, the largest economy in Central and Eastern Europe and aspires to a future role as one of the most prosperous in Europe and the entire world. At this point, it is worth raising the question of whether we are able to properly assess the political and economic environment, trends included, in which the Polish economy operates, and how we define national interest and strategic goals in the short, medium and long term perspective. Perhaps the shortcomings in this respect are one of the important elements of the weaknesses and strategic constraints we have seen in recent decades.

Given the prospect of a new, green opportunity, will we make the effort this time and rise to the challenge so that future generations can benefit from a modern energy infrastructure, which is likely to be built over the next few years or decades, and ensure the much-anticipated rapid economic development and prosperity for citizens? Or will we once again choose the familiar and seemingly more secure route of “splitting hairs” when implementing and realizing strategic projects. Unfortunately, the consequence will be a greater dependence on imports of energy and raw materials.

The way to carbon-free Poland

Despite the gigantic investments in the last decade, the basis for the security of the national electricity generation system still remains, and will continue to be in the coming years, the units burning lignite and hard coal. For the most part, these are amortized production facilities that have been operating in the system for more than 40 years, and have been modernized and adapted to meet strict environmental standards on a number of occasions. The recent commissioning of highly efficient, ultra-modern 1000 MW class coal-fired units has significantly reduced the balance of CO2 emissions, the consumption of coal per unit of energy and, as a result, the costs, while replacing the generation capacity phased out with the oldest coal blocks. However, after 2025, which in the power industry means “as early as tomorrow’, the process of phasing out amortized and unprofitable units of the 200, 360 and 500 MW class, due to the lack of support from the power market, high operating costs and the price of CO2 emission permits, will strongly accelerate. Under the government’s plans, described in the Polish Energy Policy until 2040, the role of coal sources in the national energy mix will rapidly decline, reaching 56% in 2030. The declining capacity is to be partly replaced by intensive development of renewable sources, including distributed generation. The installed power capacity, especially in photovoltaics, is already growing exponentially, breaking new records. Renewables are expected to reach a minimum 32% share of net electricity generation in 2030. This is an ambitious target, but the question still remains as to where to source the rest of the energy that the economy requires. Unless we want to end up dependent on imports, new units such as gas, nuclear or perhaps biomass must take over as the foundation of the electricity system after more coal plants are phased out. And they have to, because energy storage technology is unlikely to become ready and of the required scale to be able to stabilize the system. According to the PEP, a minimum of six nuclear units should be built in the 2030s, with the first unit of 1-1.6 GW expected to supply the system as early as 2033.

Nuclear statistics and development plans

According to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), as of the end of December 2019, the world’s total, nuclear power plant capacity amounted to 392.1 GW. There are 443 power units of various types operating in 30 countries. In the last decade, nuclear power capacity has increased by 23.2 GW through the construction of new units or the expansion of existing ones. The leaders in the use of this technology for power generation are Europe (especially France), North America (USA) and the Far East (China, Korea, Japan). The largest amount of new generation capacity is being built in Asia, particularly China, while Europe (Germany) and Japan are responsible for the largest capacity that has been decommissioned in recent years. There are three new nuclear units currently under construction in Europe: in Finland (Olkiluoto 3), France (Flamanville 3) and the UK (Hinkley Point C). However, in addition to Poland, there are other increasingly high-profile ambitions to develop emission-free energy sources based on the latest generation of nuclear technology in other Central and Eastern European countries, such as Bulgaria, the Czech Republic and Romania.

As mentioned earlier, Poland plans to join the nuclear club of countries generating energy from this fuel in the 2030s. The current goal of the Polish Nuclear Power Program is to build 6-9 GW capacity installed in nuclear power based on large, proven PWR reactors in which water is both moderator and cooling medium. This is not going to be easy to achieve, as recent experience shows. It is necessary to acquire the right technology to guarantee efficiency and safety, build local competence, establish legal conditions, educate specialists, and ensure a whole system of continuous fuel supply and waste disposal. Given the estimated $30 billion cost of building Poland’s first nuclear power plant, an amount that by far exceeds the total capitalization of all domestic energy companies, it is also necessary to raise adequate investment funds. One way to reduce costs and accelerate construction is by involving the State Treasury, the planned selection of a single, common reactor technology for all power plants, and the appointment of one strategic co-investor linked to the technology provider. Here, the government assumes that the Treasury will retain at least 51% of the shares in the company. There is no doubt that the choice of such a partner is a strategic state decision, linked to ensuring energy security. For this reason, there has been an acceleration in the implementation of the Polish program in recent months. The schedule has been updated, the State Treasury has bought back its shares in PGE EJ1, and an agreement with the American party has come into force, giving it priority and 18 months to submit a bid. In addition to the Americans, the French and the Koreans have shown interest in participating in the construction of a Polish nuclear power plant.

The technology planned to be implemented is large-scale pressurized water reactor (PWR) units with capacities of 1000-1650 MWe net. This is the most common reactor type in the world and therefore it is a proven solution that provides greater competitiveness when it comes to partner selection and potentially lower operating costs. The record of no failures of this type of reactor in the past is also very significant. The consequence of the planned replacement of coal power by nuclear one, according to government plans, will be to leave the electrical power system within a model, i.e. centralized and correlated with other energy sources. In other words, a model that is not quite in line with the vision of a green new deal favored by the European Union, indicating the need for further strong integration and the creation of a unified European market, based on centers in Munich and Brussels.

The European journey towards climate neutrality

The European Green Deal involves the emergence of a modern, resource-efficient and competitive economy that achieves zero net greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 and in which economic growth is separated from the use of natural resources. The supporters of the development of nuclear technology, led by the International Atomic Energy Agency, point out that it “provides access to clean, reliable and affordable energy, mitigating the negative effects of climate change”. It therefore represents a significant part of the world’s energy mix at the level of 10% of global energy production and “its use is expected to increase in the coming decades”, according to the IEAE website. Therefore, as the Polish Nuclear Power Program (PNPP) points out, “when it comes to the Polish energy transition, conditions demand the inclusion of emission-free nuclear power in the energy mix, as the basis for a sustainable national electricity system”. But does the Polish approach take into account all the factors identified in the European Green Deal? Or perhaps the plan for decarbonization through the development of nuclear power stems rather from a deep distrust in the energy transition being pushed through at the EU level, thus diverging from trends in the environment, which could result in another strategic failure? Such situations have already occurred more than once, it is enough to mention the project to build the “last coal-fired unit” in Ostrołęka.

The European environment is definitely and above all in favor of renewable technologies development and on a rather distributed basis. As the European Commission states, “the transition to clean energy should involve and benefit consumers” and the new energy infrastructure framework should “encourage the deployment of innovative technologies and infrastructures, such as smart grids, hydrogen grids, or carbon capture, storage and utilization and energy storage’, as well as enabling the integration of industry. Thus, the European Green Deal is guided by a scenario of a continent-wide integrated energy sector, based essentially on distributed renewables, in which the current role of large-scale conventional sources to serve as system stabilizers will be taken over by smart grids, energy storage and extensive digital management systems. The role of gas technology, regarded as a transitional solution, will in fact be more about supporting decentralization processes in the sector.
In addition to the objectives addressed directly to the energy sector, the European Green Deal points other industries in the direction of a closed-loop economy, which will prioritize the reduction and reuse of materials. Moreover, Brussels has announced the extension of a scheme to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to new sectors of the economy, including industry, domestic heating and transport. Taken as a whole, these are a vision of the future in which it is difficult to find a direct analogy with nuclear technology. They can be seen as preserving a centralized configuration of energy systems, consuming resources and leaving behind all the waste from technological processes, albeit in small quantities, but still unsafe and endangering the environment for centuries to come.

Emotions and problems with public approval of the nuclear power

While considering plans for the development of nuclear power, we must not ignore the social aspect, as this may prove to be the most significant. In Poland, a considerable part of the population over 40 years of age still remembers the apocalyptic sense of danger caused by the Chernobyl disaster in the spring of 1986. The cover-up, denial and outright public lies about the scale of the disaster and the danger it posed, typical of the “real socialist” system, have become a permanent part of the high-risk image of nuclear power. Just how vividly this image is still alive today is demonstrated not only by the immense popularity of the excellent HBO series “Chernobyl”, or the success of such works as Adam Higginbothan’s “Midnight at Chernobyl”, but also by the rumor appearing almost every year at the end of April, with varying intensity, of another nuclear accident concealed by our eastern neighbors.

Yet another powerful blow to the nuclear sector was the disaster at Fukushima in Japan. A much more modern, safer and, above all, properly managed by well-trained specialists, the plant could not withstand a massive tsunami after the earthquake. In March 2011, it became clear that nuclear power can be a hazard regardless of human error or lack thereof, even when the highest safety standards are maintained. In the process, there were once again doubts about the true scale of the event being concealed from the public. Indeed, this once again undermined the question of safety of nuclear facilities and public confidence in the managers and scientists managing them. As a direct result of the disaster in Japan, there has been an acceleration of Germany’s withdrawal from nuclear power, as well as similar declarations in several other countries. This negative power of the atomic hazard image on a global scale is evidenced by the current reaction to Japan’s announcement to release the water used to cool the reactors at Fukushima into the ocean. The facts, i.e. the ongoing release of similarly “contaminated” water into the ocean by operating Chinese or Korean power plants, the use of state-of-the-art, effective methods to purify the water stored at Fukushima and, finally, the 12-year wait for the half-life of tritium “just in case’, are of secondary importance here.

The facts that support the thesis of the very high safety standards of nuclear technology, including the faultless operation of almost half a thousand existing nuclear power plants worldwide, are constantly confronted with public emotions and myths. For the time being, intensified efforts to communicate and promote the vision of a low-carbon and relatively cheap technology to foster a green revolution have had limited effect. The myth of danger and lack of trust in experts is still stronger.

Alternative visions: SMR and thermonuclear fusion

In the face of public excitement about traditional nuclear technologies, some call for postponing the decision until further technological breakthroughs. Since we have waited so long, we might as well wait a few more years, e.g. for the full commercialization of SMR (Small Modular Reactor) technology or a few decades to master thermonuclear fusion.

One of the goals of the technological race among the big nuclear giants is to build cost-effective, safe-to-use modular reactors (SMRs). Such units could operate independently, for example performing a function such as the Russian Academic Lomosov, a floating nuclear power plant supplying 70 MW to the town of Pevek in the far north, or they could be combined to form power units of different capacities as required. This latter solution in particular would offer tremendous opportunities arising from flexibility in terms of design, construction, supply chain construction, operation, grid cooperation and, last but not least, decommissioning, or rather replacement, of used reactors. The world leader in the development of modular reactors, the US NuScale Power project, is planning to commission the first modular power unit consisting of 12 integrated reactors with a total capacity of 720 MW, in 2030. The Chinese are also working on similar solutions (HTR-PM reactor).

On the other hand, the vision of humankind exploiting thermonuclear fusion, the physical phenomenon that powers the sun, appears to be a genuine energy “holy grail’. This means producing huge amounts of energy almost completely safely from a symbolic input of commonly available raw materials, such as ocean water and ordinary clay, while emitting completely environmentally inert helium. However, there is still a long way to go before this technology is mastered, as we are only able to carry out controlled thermonuclear fusions on a small scale in research facilities, but even there, no solution has yet been found to guarantee the positive energy balance of such a process. The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) project, currently under development at Cadarache in the south of France, aims to overcome the technological barriers and have commercial access to the solutions developed before 2050.

Given that it is not Poland that holds the lead in the development of the technologies described, there is some concern that we will not be the first to implement these solutions on an industrial scale. And even if we did, it is certain that within the next few years there will be other new promising technological solutions and first laboratory prototypes which, once commercialized, will have a chance to supersede the previous ones from the market “in the near future”. Thus, there will always be opinions about the need to hold off on projects and wait for a new generation of solutions, and such a way of thinking seems to be the way to nowhere.

Meanwhile, this strategic options, given the specific Polish conditions, means settling for new investments in gas generation, which is much less capital-intensive than nuclear one. Yet, gas is a so-called transitional fuel in the energy transformation, hardly “accepted in the short term” by the European Green Deal. It may therefore turn out that without the atom, Poland will remain dependent on this “short-term acceptable” solution for the next few decades, facing another profound transformation in the perspective of the next generation. This “gas” solution involves large-scale imports of that resource. Well, it is positive that we are diversifying the directions of supply, including through the emerging Baltic Pipe, but is that enough?

Another alternative direction to nuclear is to rely exclusively on distributed, overwhelmingly renewable energy sources and huge investments in the expansion of smart grids, which according to the proponents of this solution, will compensate for the weaknesses of unstable RES. This article is too short to get into a technical argument demonstrating the weakness of this solution, and more detailed arguments are available elsewhere. Nevertheless, in the authors” opinion, this alternative is more of an experiment and a test of the power system’s endurance and does not meet the basic condition of ensuring a secure energy supply to the economy.

A recipe for our own low-carbon energy. Has the train already left?

As it has already been mentioned, one of the problems of the Polish energy sector is the technological and organizational lag in relation to Western trends. This results from a number of factors, and boils down to the fact that we started the large-scale reconstruction and transformation of the electricity system at a time when equivalent processes west of our country were already well advanced. The best example is the redevelopment of German coal assets, which were replaced to a large extent with modern, high-efficiency units in the early 2000s. The process has only recently been completed (the newly built Datteln plant in the Ruhr 4 with a capacity of 1,100 MW started operation on 30 May 2020), yet for many years it was combined with the implementation of a strategy known as the Energiewende, which was characterized by significant investment in renewables using appropriate financial support mechanisms. By all accounts, this direction has become dominant in Europe, and the strongest economy in Europe has successfully “encouraged” other countries to go the same way.

The Polish transition to a less carbon-intensive system is partly a repetition of German efforts, only a decade or two later. The large-scale construction of new high-efficiency hard-coal units in Kozienice, Opole and Jaworzno (together almost 5 GW of capacity, with the total capacity of energy sources installed in the Polish electricity system at almost 50 GW at the end of 2020 and peak energy demand exceeding 27 GW) was only completed at the end of the past decade (2017, 2019, 2020). In the course of their implementation, investors faced numerous challenges, including decreasing profitability rates, mainly due to rising prices for emission allowances and lower capacity utilization of new units in the system (replaced by higher priority green energy). Unfortunately, as opposed to the German approach of building coal-fired power plants in the greatest possible “media silence’, accompanied by widespread publicity of the green turn towards RES, almost exactly the opposite solution was adopted in terms of communication efforts in Poland.

It is hardly possible to assume that this was a deliberate communication strategy, although it was used to target the country’s energy policy both by governments that began investing in the modernization of the sector on the basis of low-carbon, high-efficiency technologies, while still using coal as a strategic fuel for the Polish economy, and by those who continued this policy. Criticism escalated when the development of renewable energy was statutorily slowed down (the so-called distance law), and the strong emphasis on further use of coal for energy production was interpreted as a short-term gesture towards the coal-related electorate. This state of affairs polarized the Polish debate on the directions of the transformation of the Polish electricity sector, bringing it down to emotions rather than substantive discussions backed up by thorough analyses and facts.

In line with the dynamics of the political dispute that the discussion has turned into, the actions of the parties have become more and more radical, thus generating a huge media buzz. This confusion in communication is a dream scenario for supporters of radical solutions, as their narrative naturally has a stronger starting position and they lobbied for solutions favorable to competitors of Polish state-owned energy companies. Moreover, with no consistent message and position from the Polish authorities, the European Union consequently seized the “opportunity” to raise its ambitious climate targets, including achieving climate neutrality by 2050 and reducing CO2 emissions to 55% in 2030, which directly influenced further increases in emission allowance prices and ultimately marked the fate of the Ostrołęka project. The final building block of the current state of affairs turned out to be the pandemic and the economic crisis. These phenomena reinforced and accelerated the European Union’s green turn putting countries like Poland, slightly lagging behind in the process, in a virtually zero-choice situation. As a result, the plan to replace outdated, depreciated coal assets with more modern, low-carbon ones in Poland was only partially successful, and the domestic energy sector faced the prospect of having to permanently import electricity, most of which would come from our western neighbors, who have high surplus of coal- and gas-fired capacity, not to mention RES.

Considering the European vision of distributed renewable energy, the rather unambiguous stance on nuclear energy of European opinion-forming groups, as well as the experience of the somewhat delayed attempts at transformation in Poland, it is hardly possible not to ask questions about the chances of success for the nuclear plan in Poland. Will relying on the atom today, as we did on coal yesterday, turn out to be another dead end? Will the absence of reasonable alternatives guaranteeing the safety and competitiveness of the national economy in the long term be a sufficient argument for action that falls short of Brussels” expectations? How to take advantage of the opportunities offered by the New Green Deal in a wise way and incorporate its tools to strengthen the sustainable development of the Polish fuel and energy sector? Finally, what can be done to avoid repeating the communication and image errors associated with the implementation of alternative scenarios to the big global players? These are important challenges for the entire sector, as well as for the current and subsequent Polish governments for the coming years.

Sławomir Krenczyk

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