Poland’s first nuclear power plants are attracting criticism – from neigbours

In November 2018, the Polish government submitted a draft of its national climate plan for 2040. It provides for the construction of six new nuclear power plants, two of which are to be built on the Baltic Sea coast at Żarnowiec or Kopalino. [TTstudio/ Shutterstock]

As Poland plans to build six nuclear plants, it has to inform its neighbours about potential environmental consequences. Given that it has not yet told anyone, except Austria, could this mean that Poland is ignoring international rules? EURACTIV Germany reports.

The construction of Poland’s first nuclear power plant could begin in four years in the village of Zarnowiec, which lies on the Baltic Sea, just 150 kilometres away from the German border.

Berlin is outraged at this because an environmental impact assessment has not been carried out yet, although international law stipulates this.

In a letter sent to Economy Minister Peter Altmaier (CDU) at the end of November 2019, Green MP Sylvia Kotting-Uhl said the fact that Germany had not heard of the matter thus far was “incomprehensible and unacceptable”.

Altmaier called on the chairwoman of the Bundestag’s Nuclear Safety Committee to make use of international law and request a consultation with the Polish government but nothing has happened so far.

A year earlier, in November 2018, the Polish government submitted a draft of its national climate plan for 2040. It envisages the construction of six new nuclear power plants, two of which are to be built on the Baltic Sea coast at Żarnowiec or Kopalino.

Between 2024 and 2043, nine gigawatts of nuclear power will be connected to the Polish power grid, and the power plants will have an estimated service lifespan of 60 to 80 years. According to the plan, the first unit could become operational as early as 2033.

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Poland’s ongoing large-scale investment in three new coal-fired power plants may be the country’s last fossil fuel venture, its energy minister said on Wednesday (6 September), indicating a possible energy shift in the EU’s largest eastern member amid revived plans to embrace nuclear power.

Poland sees no environmental impact on other countries

In the case of large construction projects, which include the building of nuclear power plants, for instance, states are typically obliged to carry out a transboundary environmental impact assessment.

This is provided for by the UN Espoo Convention, signed in 1991, and stipulates that the states concerned by the possible environmental damage caused by a construction project can also request a consultation with the affected state.

With regard to the construction of the Polish nuclear power stations, however, this was not done.

While a strategic environmental impact assessment for the Energy Strategy 2040 had been carried out, it was said that “no potentially significant environmental impacts on other member states” were found, according to a letter from Artur Soboń, state secretary at Poland’s ministry of state assets, which has been made available to EURACTIV.

The construction of six nuclear power plants would not influence the neighbouring states. Since no request for a further environmental assessment had been received from the German side, no reason for this was seen.

According to Kotting-Uhl, the actual situation is different. Poland is violating international law by “deliberately ignoring the obligation to report on its nuclear power plant plans”, she wrote in response to EURACTIV’s request.

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Replacing Poland’s obsolete coal power fleet is a top political priority for the country, both for environmental and energy security reasons. But even as it steps up renewable energy plans, Warsaw is also pushing hard for new gas and nuclear plants to fill in the gap.

Austria criticises nuclear power plant construction plans

The German Ministry of Economic Affairs seems less worried. A state secretary replied to Kotting-Uhl saying that because the economy ministry had not been notified that the project might have an environmental impact on Germany, it had not insisted on an impact assessment from Poland.

The situation is quite different in neighbouring Austria.

Although the country is geographically much further away, people in Vienna have been thinking about Poland’s nuclear plans for some time. They requested a cross-border impact assessment about a year ago.

The assessment was completed two weeks ago, and the Austrian Federal Environment Agency has since issued an opinion on the subject.

The opinion raises concerns about some aspects of Polish construction projects. While it remains unclear what is to be done with the radioactive waste, there is no strategy for possible consequences abroad in the event of an accident or attack on nuclear power stations.

Also, a high-temperature reactor is planned for one of the power stations, for which there are no international regulations.

The Polish argument, which relies on an initial environmental assessment for the Polish nuclear programme conducted back in 2011 that had not identified any transboundary effects of the nuclear power plants, was null and void, according to Austria’s environment agency.

That is because the assessment of safety and risks of nuclear power plants has changed in recent years, particularly as a result of the accident in Fukushima.

Poland’s just transition bonus cut 50% under latest EU budget proposal

Poland would see its €2 billion share of the EU’s Just Transition Fund cut in half under a new EU budget proposal published on Friday (14 February), which penalises countries that have not signed up to the bloc’s 2050 ‘climate-neutrality’ goal.

Poland is not the only country banking on nuclear power

In Berlin, they are currently examining whether Germany should also submit a request for consultation, according to the letter from the economy ministry’s state secretary.

However, Kotting-Uhl filed a complaint on 11 February with the responsible UN Economic Commission for Europe, which monitors transboundary environmental impact assessments.

In the run-up to its EU Council Presidency, the German government should “finally accept its pioneering role in the sense of a Europe-wide nuclear phase-out and act decisively”, she said.

But this does not change the fact that Poland will probably be dependent on nuclear power. After all, the country currently still obtains almost 80% of its energy from coal and is under pressure to drastically reduce its CO2 emissions.

However, Poland is not alone when it comes to banking on nuclear’s future: at the EU summit in December, the Czech Republic, Hungary and France, in particular, had advocated including an extra clause in the final declaration allowing nuclear power to achieve climate neutrality in 2050.

Each country can decide for itself, given that EU member states retain sovereignty over their energy mix.

Nuclear 'excluded' from EU's new Just Transition Fund

The EU’s regional policy Commissioner Elisa Ferreira revealed on Tuesday (14 January) details of the €100 billion Just Transition Mechanism, a key financial component of the European Green Deal that should make the bloc climate neutral by 2050.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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