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Poland’s nuclear high wire act at East-West crossroads

  • August 02, 2021

Polish billionaire Zygmunt Solorz-Zak is considering investing in a Russian nuclear project in Kaliningrad, a Russian exclave between two EU neighbors, Poland and Lithuania. This followed an announcement by the Polish chemical firm Synthos owned by another billionaire, Michal Solowow, on the development of four small nuclear reactors. The Polish government also has its own nuclear power plans.

Synthos’ plans would not appear until the 2030s at the earliest, while the Baltic Nuclear Power Plant (BEJ) could be built by the turn of 2028 and 2029, reported the newspaper Rzeczpospolita. The cost of erecting four Polish units with a capacity of 4 gigawatt is estimated at 105 billion zlotys ($28 billion, €23 billion), while the cost of BEJ would be approximately 30 billion zlotys.

BEJ originally involved the construction of two reactors with a capacity of at least 1,170 MW each, intended for commissioning in 2016 and 2018, But in 2013, construction of the station was suspended when neighboring states said they would not buy the electricity — because of their attempts to escape the Kremlin’s highly politicized energy strategy.

Russia’s nuclear utility Rosenergoatom (part of Rosatom) in 2019 suspended construction for five years.

Tomasz Matwiejczuk, the press spokesman for Solorz-Zak, confirmed to DW that ZE PAK was preparing to implement projects related to nuclear energy and that various options were being considered. 

Successive Polish governments since 1989 have sought to disattach Poland’s energy sources from Russia and the construction of a power plant in Kaliningrad capable of supplying electricity markets in the EU is dependent on Polish acquiescence to the building of an “energy bridge,” an interconnector, between Kaliningrad and the Polish grid. 

According to the government’s energy strategy, Poland plans to construct six nuclear power units. In 2033, Warsaw should launch the first reactor in its first nuclear power plant, generating 1-1.6 GW of power. Subsequent reactors should be constructed every two to three years until the target of six units is reached.

Warsaw earlier this year unveiled plans to shift away from coal dependence and raise renewable and nuclear energy

The end of imported energy?

Poland’s electricity demand was 165.5  terawatts per hour in 2020 and imports of electricity 13 TW/h. The potential share of energy supplied by a nuclear power plant in Kaliningrad is approximately 15 TW/h per year. 

“It is also worth remembering that in 2020 almost 10 million tons of coal worth several billion zlotys were imported to Poland from Russia, which was then burned in Polish power plants and houses,” Matwiejczuk said.

“An alternative is clean, cheap energy, and in addition from a power plant that would be jointly controlled by Poland,” he added. 

In 2020, the share of coal and lignite in Poland’s energy mix fell to below 70% from 73% in 2019, according to a report by the Instrat Foundation. In accordance with Poland’s new energy policy, this share should not exceed 56% by 2030.
Renewable energy is to constitute at least 23% of final energy consumption by 2030. 

The Belarusian Astravets nuclear power plant is located near the border with Poland

Price prohibitive

“The investment in nuclear generation assets is very expensive,” Wladyslaw Mielczarski, a professor at the Institute of Electric Power Engineering at the Technical University of Lodz, told DW. 

“The latest constructions in Europe such indicate the final costs reaching $10 billion per 1GW, which is 8-10 times more expensive than similar investments in combined cycle gas turbine generation. The economic effectiveness of nuclear power stations is doubtful taking into account overwhelming construction costs,” he added.

Rosatom is the largest producer of electricity in Russia, ensuring over 20% of the country’s energy needs

Neighbors’ mixed reactions

Polityka Insight reported that Solorz-Zak may partner Hungarian state-owned MVM in the Kaliningrad project. 

The prime ministers of both countries, Viktor Orban and Mateusz Morawiecki, talked about this topic several times, and the Polish side has not yet blocked this initiative. 

MVM is already working with Rosatom on expanding its nuclear plant in Hungary.

Hungary has four nuclear reactors generating about half of its electricity, with natural gas 23%, and coal 15%.

MVM owns Paks, which according to the Hungarian-Russian agreement of 2014 is to be expanded with two new VVER reactors with a capacity of 1,200 MW each, which will be supplied by Rosatom. The investment is to be 80% financed from a Russian loan worth €12 billion. 

Polish involvement in the project may be not seen favorably by the Baltic states, which are cutting their links with the Russian power grid. 

“Poland is planning to develop renewable and nuclear energy sources, so I find it difficult to understand how Russia would export electricity to Poland. It sounds like a misunderstanding,” said Lithuanian Energy Minister Dainius Kreivys.

Kaliningrad was once a city in East Prussia, and home to the philosopher Immanuel Kant

Polish government in the middle

As the Warsaw government is embroiled in a very public recent spat with Washington over its treatment of a US media investor in Poland and restitution claims, the nuclear talks could provide some leverage for the traditionally Russophobic ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party, which is also furious over the Biden adminsitration’s green light for the Russo-German gas pipeline Nord Stream 2.

PiS needs a close alliance with Budapest due to the balance of power in the EU. 

Robert Tomaszewski, an energy analyst at Polityka Insight, believes such a scenario is extremely unlikely but cannot be ruled out. “If relations between Poland and Russia improve, the project in Kaliningrad may receive the green light from the government,” he told DW. 

Also in the event of problems with stabilizing the energy system because of fast transformation and decarbonization, Warsaw, in some future time, may be interested in energy from Russia, he told DW.

“But many EU countries will not be pleased to have such constructions just over the fence,” Mielczarski said. Germany is one of them.

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