WARSAW, Poland — To its east, the Russian military occupying Ukraine’s largest nuclear power plant threatens the worst radiation accident since Fukushima. To its west, Germany remains so staunchly opposed to atomic energy, it is planning to shutter its last reactors in the midst of a global energy crisis.
Yet Poland, the coal-addicted nation whose 2018 hosting of the annual United Nations climate conference yielded no major breakthroughs, is coming to this year’s summit with a big and potentially controversial plan. The country is going all in on nuclear energy ― and betting on the United States to revive its own atomic power industry and lead a renaissance of reactor construction.
Over the past year, at least three major U.S. startups signed tentative deals to sell Poland shrunken-down fission reactors like those in naval warships, which they say can be manufactured and constructed faster and more cheaply than traditional large reactors.
Last week brought the biggest announcement: Warsaw chose U.S. nuclear giant Westinghouse Electric Co. to build Poland’s first nuclear power station out of a trio of large-scale reactors placed on the Baltic Sea coast.
Days later, Poland selected the runner-up, South Korea’s state-owned Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power, to simultaneously build the country’s second large-scale nuclear plant with a state-controlled utility and a private company. If all goes according to plan, the first plant would come online in 2033, while the second facility would finish its final reactor in 2043.
It’s an engineering feat few modern democracies have managed to actually pull off, requiring decades of steady financing, planning and political support in an age of mounting chaos and cascading crises.
If completed, the two projects would chart a path for the European Union’s sixth largest economy ― and fourth biggest source of planet-heating emissions ― to shutter the coal-fired power plants that generate upward of 70% of Poland’s electricity. It would also herald a turnaround for the declining American nuclear industry and make the U.S. a serious rival again to Russia, whose robust nuclear supply chain makes it the go-to partner for most countries looking to build their first atomic power plant.
That requires reactors actually funneling electrons onto the power grid. And experts warn that the high-stakes race to build Poland’s first nuclear reactor may include enough hurdles to keep any projects from crossing the finish line anytime soon.
The deals highlight a growing debate over the size and design of 21st-century reactors. The U.S., United Kingdom and France are each building one new nuclear power plant with state-of-the-art, large-scale reactors, and all three are years delayed and wildly over budget. It took famously technophilic Finland 17 years to finish its own new reactor, and there are already problems postponing its coming online.
By contrast, companies selling “small modular reactors” say forging the machines in factories and manufacturing so-called SMRs at scale will make building new nuclear plants safer, cheaper and faster. Few of the roughly dozen or so companies competing to build the first SMR are anywhere close to receiving licenses and permits, and many have yet to even begin the years-long process. Market forecasts generally expect the technology to become commercially available in the early 2030s.
“We are late with nuclear technology,” Michal Kobosko, vice president of Polska 2050, a fast-growing opposition party in Poland, told HuffPost in an interview in Warsaw last month. “Therefore, coming late, we might easily jump into the next generation technology and small reactors, which are really coming to the market and might be a real alternative to the big nuclear power plants.”
Adam Błażowski, an engineer and nuclear advocate in the western Polish city of Wrocław, has a joke about that.
“We have a saying that SMRs are known for always being seven years in the future,” said Błażowski, the co-founder of FOTA4Climate, a pro-nuclear environmental foundation.
On the other hand, he said, there are Westinghouse AP-1000s producing electricity right now.
Considered the world’s safest nuclear reactor, the AP-1000 was supposed to spearhead an American nuclear comeback after Westinghouse released the model in 2006.
The debut AP-1000 project in Georgia was planned as the first of many. But as the total cost doubled to more than $30 billion, the tides turned against nuclear energy in the 2010s when U.S. frackers flooded the market with natural gas, and the Fukushima disaster scared investors away from atomic power. Turning instead to renewables and gas, the U.S. canceled all future plans for new nuclear plants. Unable to keep up with the costs of the Georgia construction and the cancellation of a project in South Carolina, Westinghouse filed for bankruptcy in March 2017. Months later, the engineering company Bechtel took over construction at the Georgia site.
Westinghouse exited Chapter 11 the next year, selling itself to the Canadian asset manager Brookfield Business Partners. In September 2018, one month after the bankruptcy ended, China ― which had been building several of the Westinghouse reactors in its own country ― fired up the first AP-1000 to produce commercial electricity. Ukraine, Poland and Turkey all expressed interest in buying their own AP-1000s.
Betting this could be the start of a comeback for the nuclear energy firm, Brookfield Renewable Partners formed a joint venture with the Canadian uranium producer Cameco to buy Westinghouse in a nearly $8 billion deal.
Next year, utility Georgia Power is expected to start up the first of its two new AP-1000s at Plant Vogtle. It will have more than symbolic value.
“It will take the biggest open wound in American nuclear and turn it into a timely and crucial success,” said Mark Nelson, a nuclear engineer and managing director at the consultancy Radiant Energy Group. “Why timely? Because we now have an energy crisis, and the coal and gas saved in Georgia is coal and gas that can help out our European allies.”
The U.S. vs. South Korea vs. France
In Poland, Westinghouse went up against Korea’s KHNP and France’s state-owned EDF. It should have been a tight contest.
The French completed western Europe’s first new nuclear reactor in 25 years in Finland this year, and EDF is building two more at home and in England. The company offered to build Poland four to six of its EPR reactors for between $33 billion to $48.5 billion, according to the financial news site money.pl, which reported the dollar estimates of each bid.
While the single-reactor Finnish project suffered long delays, the Koreans built four AP-1400 reactors in the United Arab Emirates more or less on time and on schedule. KHNP’s bid for six APR-1400s came in at just under $30 billion.
But Westinghouse’s $31 billion proposal for six AP-1000s benefited from geopolitics, Błażowski said. A former Soviet satellite that suffered from centuries of Russian bullying, Poland views the U.S. as its most valuable ally, and its ties to Washington have become even stronger since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The site the Polish government picked out for its flagship nuclear plant was assessed to the AP-1000’s parameters.
Any hope of the U.S. and South Korea collaborating on the project seemed to be dashed when Westinghouse last week sued KHNP, claiming the Korean APR-1400’s design uses intellectual property the U.S. firm owns.
“This just shows everyone what the pecking order is,” Błażowski said. “The Americans are dealing the cards, and the Americans are saying, ‘you can do this, and you can do that.’”
Hedging With Korea, Jeopardizing Another Opportunity
South Korea, which has its own strategic importance to Poland as a major supplier to the country’s military, didn’t completely lose out. On Monday, Poland’s Deputy Prime Minister Jacek Sasin said during a visit to Seoul that KHNP would team up with Polish energy group ZE PAK and the state-owned utility PGE to build the country’s second nuclear plant at an as-yet-undetermined site.
But the deal could create problems for one of Poland’s most promising other options for building nuclear reactors.
Last fall, GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy ― ranked by analysts among the most promising SMR developers ― agreed to sell 10 of its scaled-down reactors to Synthos, the chemical giant controlled by Poland’s richest man.
But Synthos’ partner on the SMR buildout was ZE PAK.
In an email to HuffPost, ZE PAK said it had terminated the agreement while it reconsiders the project.
Some experts believe the KHNP proposal casts a shadow over the GE Hitachi project’s future.
“Smaller reactors would be a wiser decision,” said Chris Gadomski, the lead nuclear analyst at the energy consultancy BloombergNEF.
The wartime logic propelling Europe’s shift away from fossil fuels may also favor smaller reactors, he said. Ukraine’s gigantic Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant has become a major battleground since Russian forces occupied Europe’s biggest atomic station in March. If Poland wants to steel itself against invasion, a network of smaller nuclear plants with SMRs buried underground may help.
“During World War II, what did the Germans do? They built small power plants and distributed them so in case they lose one plant, it’d take out 10% of the power grid instead of 100%,” Gadomski said.
Betting the future on a giant, centralized power plant, he added, “is the wrong approach.” But Poland might also be better off waiting until after richer countries in North America deploy their own and work out the costly early kinks. The federally-owned Tennessee Valley Authority and Canada’s Ontario Power Generation are making plans to build a series of SMRs, including those from GE Hitachi.
Błażowski said there’s room for reactors of all sizes in the future Polish energy system, but that the currently existing technology is a safer bet for now.
“We need both,” said Błażowski. “We need big reactors and we need SMRs, but the SMRs are going to be a second phase of the Polish nuclear program, not the first one.”
Will The U.S. Put Up Money?
The next big challenge for the Westinghouse project in Poland is financing.
The Polish government said it would spend about $40 billion on both projects, though the split is unclear. Even more uncertain is what the funding will look like on the American side.
Asked whether the U.S. Department of Energy would provide support, a spokesperson sent an agency press release announcing the Polish agreement. But a U.S. government source with knowledge of the deal said the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation and the Export–Import Bank of the United States planned to put forward a financing plan.
Washington’s Export-Import Bank gave the United Arab Emirates $2 billion in 2012 to buy American parts for its Korean-made debut nuclear plant. In 2020, the federal credit agency set aside about $7 billion for Romania as the Eastern Bloc nation pursued new nuclear plants.
The Nuclear Energy Institute, a trade group, estimated that new reactor deals abroad could require the bank to loan as much as $75 billion in the next 15 years. But the price could go even higher as inflation, strained supply chains, and rising interest rates conspire to increase the cost of building a massive new facility.
Poland had wanted the winning developer to take a 49% stake in the power plant. But last week’s announcement did not say whether Westinghouse planned to take equity in the project, and the company did not respond to an email requesting comment. A source in Poland who requested anonymity to speak candidly about unconfirmed details of the deal said Westinghouse is pushing back against the equity plans.
European Union rules make it hard for government-owned power plants to sell electricity to the internal market. But Finland pioneered a corporate ownership structure for its energy markets called the Mankala model, where power plants’ parent companies are controlled by the electricity buyers. For example, the utility giant TVO, which built Finland’s newest nuclear plant, is a Mankala company whose shareholders are Finnish municipalities and businesses.
Błażowski said he’d like Poland to follow a similar path with what he calls the Saho model, where the government assumes the risk of building a power plant but starts selling off equity to municipalities and businesses as construction progresses.
At a time when near-term energy shortages are forcing Poles to burn trash to keep warm, spending public resources on infrastructure that won’t provide electricity for a decade or more could prove controversial.
“There is no roadmap for Poland to get away from coal,” said Katarzyna Jagiełło, a former Greenpeace campaigner who is now active in Poland’s political opposition as a Polska 2050 adviser. “My government is panicking, blindly looking for solutions, and they have no clue.”
In an interview at one of Warsaw’s many vegan cafes, she said she fears the time and money it will take to build reactors may not be well spent by Poland’s controversial ruling Law and Justice party at a moment when there is little room for error, and accused nuclear proponents in the government of silencing dissent.
“There is no roadmap for Poland to get away from coal. My government is panicking, blindly looking for solutions, and they have no clue.”
“If you ask those questions, first you hear that you are sponsored by Russia and then you hear that you are a Luddite movement representative, and you are afraid of the technology,” she said. “What worries people in Poland is that the original place they want to build the power plant is in a very special place of the Polish seaside.”
Poland has recently hit new milestones in renewables, and has plans for more wind power. But the country’s dark winters make solar a tough sell. And the natural gas that most countries have used to wean off coal and backup renewables when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow is in short supply since the continent’s biggest provider, Russia, went to war.
Still, activist Konrad Skotnicki, a young climate advocate who studied Poland’s past nuclear efforts and is prominent on Polish TikTok as @doctor_z_tiktoka, told HuffPost he feels public skepticism will make it hard to maintain Poles’ faith in any nuclear projects.
But Europe’s energy crisis might be changing the conversation. Last October, a survey by UCE Research and Business Insider Polska found 45.1% of respondents were against building nuclear plants in Poland, including 28.6% strongly opposed. That compared to 38.8% in favor of construction, with 11.2% strongly supporting. The remaining 16.1% expressed no opinion, news site Notes From Poland reported.
Polls taken since the war broke out and thrust energy markets into chaos show widespread support for nuclear power.
Last August, 64% of Poles supported nuclear power, of whom 27% were strongly in favor and 37% supported speeding up construction of the plants in a survey by the pollster ARC Rynek i Opinia. Of the 13% who opposed nuclear power, 9% said they wanted the current plans withdrawn and 4% wanted them permanently shelved. Another 23% of respondents had no opinion.
“The biggest battle in nuclear,” Nelson said, “is deciding to go nuclear, not which nuclear plant.”