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The Warsaw Voice » Business » November 29, 2012
Business & Economy
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Europe Still Big on Nuclear Power
November 29, 2012   
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Hanna Trojanowska, deputy economy minister and the government’s commissioner for nuclear energy, talks to Andrzej Jonas and Andrzej Ratajczyk.

Over two decades ago, after the Chernobyl disaster, the Polish authorities stopped work on the construction of the country’s first nuclear power plant at Żarnowiec. Now Poland has again decided to join the nuclear club. This is a brave decision in a situation when some European countries are withdrawing from the development of this type of energy. What are the prospects for nuclear energy in Poland?

It is true that we want to join a club that brings together more than 30 countries worldwide, especially the most developed ones, whose economic strength is generally based on cheap nuclear energy. In Europe the situation is indeed more complicated, because Germany, one of the largest producers of nuclear energy so far, has decided against developing nuclear energy. But Germany is rather isolated in its spectacular decision. It is true that there are countries, such as Belgium and Switzerland, which have declared that they would not be renewing their nuclear power capacity. But that does not mean they do not intend to extend the operation of the already existing power plants. The situation is not bad. Europe has not turned away from nuclear power. At the moment, as many as 14 European Union countries with nuclear power plants are planning to further develop their nuclear power sectors. Alternatively, they intend to carry out programs to extend the life of the already existing power plants. Most of the power plants in Europe have already passed stress tests recommended by the European Commission after last year’s events in Fukushima in Japan. This means that these plants can continue to operate.

What are the basic tenets of Poland’s nuclear energy development program?
The decision to develop a nuclear power sector in Poland, based on a government resolution passed in 2009, provides for the construction of 6,000 MW of installed capacity in nuclear power plants. This means the possibility of producing 50 TWh of electricity from this source per year. In the situation we have today, this would represent more than 30 percent of the country’s total energy mix. But considering the projected increase in demand for energy, after the planned capacity is launched, this level of production would only account for around 17 percent of the energy mix. It is worth noting that the launch of a total of 6,000 MW of installed nuclear power capacity in Poland will make it possible to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 47 million metric tons per year—in comparison to energy produced from fossil fuels.

The economic factor is also very important. According to many studies, nuclear energy is cheaper than other sources of energy. Therefore, it may have a stabilizing effect on prices in the future. It will not, however, immediately become a panacea for all the ills of the Polish energy sector. We are starting from scratch so the first nuclear power plant will be burdened with the costs of building all the necessary infrastructure. The effect of price stabilization will only be visible in the subsequent years as nuclear power plants are operated.

When will Poland’s first power plant begin to operate?

The government said it would have the first nuclear power plant unit up and running by about 2020. Today it is known that this date will have to be rescheduled due to factors including the need to create a legal and institutional basis for Poland’s nuclear power plant program. At the moment, 2023 is being mentioned, but the precise date can only be set after a definitive decision is made to go ahead with the construction of a nuclear power plant. Prior to that, Polska Grupa Energetyczna (PGE), the Polish energy group which is the investor behind the project, will submit the selected technology and location as well as the partners and the financing method to the government for approval. The investor has declared that this will be possible in 2015.

What about the issue of choosing the site for a nuclear power plant? Is it already known where Poland’s first nuclear power plant will be located?

Under the current regulations, the investor is responsible for the final choice of the location for a nuclear power plant. In November last year, a shortlist of locations was announced by PGE. Specialized studies must be carried out there. They are quite expensive and expected to last about two years. These are different types of seismic surveys and geological studies needed to check the structure of the soil in terms of whether it is suitable for building a power plant there, as well as hydrological and environmental studies. Only as a result of these studies will the investor be able to choose the location for the first plant.

How much will Poland’s nuclear energy program cost to carry out?

Today there is talk of costs in the order of 3.5 million euros per 1 MW of installed capacity for implementing the technology alone.

According to some experts, Poland’s nuclear power plant construction program is unrealistic because the government is unlikely to have enough funds for it. No one will be ready to fork out the zl.150 billion needed for this investment project, especially as Europe is struggling with an economic crisis.

When it comes to the costs of the project, my calculations are different, though I’m aware that the first plant will be burdened with the costs of all the necessary infrastructure, which will have to be built from scratch. This includes infrastructure needed for supervision to guarantee top safety standards. But the actual level of financial commitment will only be known after the bidders interested in carrying out this project declare how much they expect it to cost.

Some argue that developing a nuclear power sector could impede the development of other technologies in the country. Furthermore, nuclear energy is competing with shale gas and renewable energy sources for the same funds.

Nuclear power should not be put in opposition to any other technology for producing energy. I think each type of technology has its place in the power production system. It should also be remembered that, due to their low efficiency, renewable energy sources will never be capable of being the basic method of producing electricity. As for shale gas, I’m against attempts to treat the as-yet unproven deposits as a potential source of electricity. I think shale gas should primarily be channeled to the chemical and petrochemical industries.

Besides it will be the investor who will make their own decision on what they want to be involved in. And most major investors on the market have wind farms, conventional energy and nuclear energy in their portfolios.

It is assumed that the company which will build the power plant in Poland will be 51-percent owned by the state. Don’t you think that such an ownership structure could discourage foreign companies from becoming involved in Poland’s nuclear power program?
The assumption is that this should be not only a nuclear power plant in Poland, but a Polish power plant in the sense of ownership. But in the future it cannot be ruled out that the Polish consortium which will be building the power plant will decide to sell a larger package of shares in the company to a foreign investor.

Poland’s nuclear energy development program is a strategic project that spans generations. What do you think is the biggest challenge? The technology, finances or social issues?

It’s hard for me to point to any single issue as the most important in the whole catalog of problems that needs to be overcome. This project will involve not only the investor and subsequently the operator, but also the government for the next 300 years—a period that covers the preparation of the project, the construction of the power plant, its operation for 60 years, and then the process of shutting down the plant, which sometimes takes 20 years. And later the issue of managing spent fuel and waste will still remain.

Radioactive waste is a very sensitive topic. How do countries developing nuclear power today cope with this problem?

For example, Sweden and Finland build storage facilities for spent fuel. Other countries develop reprocessing technologies for spent fuel, as a result of which there’s much less waste in terms of volume. Our research and analysis shows that in Poland both these methods are feasible. But such decisions will be made later.

And what is the role of the government in this strategic project?

The government’s role is certainly to justify the choice of nuclear power. And to create an institutional and legal framework to ensure the highest safety standards. But the government should also provide the basis for the development of science for improving the methods and technologies involved. Today Polish research centers are involved in such projects abroad.

The government is also responsible for the dialogue with the public...

Of course. But in this matter, the Economy Ministry believes that our responsibility is to raise awareness of nuclear power in Polish society. Surveys show that the public’s approval of nuclear power increases with better familiarity with the subject. That is why our public awareness campaign, which we have been running since last year, is purely informational and educational in nature. We do not focus on specific technologies, but on the functioning of the nuclear power sector as a whole. We are also trying to show how nuclear power will influence the regions in which it will be developed.

Since its inception the nuclear power industry has been developing under the shadow of deep skepticism and concern. Of course, in countries where nuclear power has been in existence for 50 years, for example those neighboring Poland, public acceptance is much higher than in our country.

And what is the current level of approval for nuclear energy in Poland?

Today it runs at about 52 percent and is rising. But after the Fukushima problems, approval clearly fell below this level. We assume that the upward trend will be maintained thanks to factors including our educational campaigns. It is worth noting that public debate has been under way for a long time. During this debate we have been focusing on providing the public with information from the scientific community, and not from politicians or celebrities. On the other hand, we are aware that the language of science may not reach everyone. We have to reconcile many issues here so that the information is reliable and conveyed in a relatively attractive way.

All laws and regulations as well as the draft nuclear power program itself were widely consulted when they were being introduced by the organizations authorized to do so. We organized two debates with the participation of many opponents of nuclear energy—as well as consultations with regional government officials from the provinces which are being considered as locations for the power plant. These are very interesting discussions which not only make it possible to convey some information, but also find out about the arguments and concerns of different communities.
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