In October 2020, the “Polish nuclear power programme” was updated, according to which the nuclear technology is to be soon selected, and in the following year, the optimal location for a nuclear power plant that has been planned. According to the programme, the construction of all six reactors will have been finished in 2043. Grumpy people call this power plant a “paper” one because it is not the first attempt to implement such a strategic investment. Why the construction of nuclear power plant evokes so many emotions? Is it really needed in Poland? What can be an alternative? These are a few questions that are answered by Prof. Janusz Janeczek, a geologist from the University of Silesia, chairman of the Council for Nuclear Safety and Radiation Protection, an advisory body to the president of the National Atomic Energy Agency (PAA).
Dr. Małgorzata Kłoskowicz: Professor, many myths have arisen around the topic of nuclear power. If we wanted to look at each of them, we would probably not have enough space in the entire “University of Silesia Magazine.” Let’s try to face at least a few of them. At the end of last year, an update of the “Polish nuclear power programme” was adopted, along with a new schedule for the construction of a Polish nuclear power plant. Although the research of the Ministry’s website shows that over 60% of Poles support the plant construction, we can certainly expect social opposition against the very idea itself and the location that is to be indicated in 2022.
Prof. Janusz Janeczek: The construction of the nuclear power plant in Poland is a huge challenge. According to the schedule, the technology for the power plant is to be selected this year, and its location is to be selected next year. The construction of the first reactor is planned to commence in 2026, whereas the last sixth reactor is planned to be launched in 2043. What’s the conclusion? First, we see how broad the adapted time horizon is. Second, this type of planning is bound to consider the entire life cycle of the nuclear plant, starting from the choice of technology, through its construction, operation, radioactive waste disposal, to the shutdown of the last reactor.
M.K.: The National Atomic Energy Agency (PAA) will oversee the safety of the entire investment. The legislative body of the PAA president is the Council for Nuclear Safety and Radiation Protection which you are the chairman of. Is there a chance you could lift the veil of secrecy on several issues?
J.J.: When planning the construction of such controversial facilities as a nuclear plant, a part of society may think that someone is always hiding something from them. Conspiracy theories multiply, and fake news that emerges in the media only ignites negative feelings. Consequently, this perpetuates the already numerous myths, and new ones pop out like mushrooms.
M.K.: Speaking of mushrooms… There are some mysterious places in Poland, e.g., Brzeźnica-Kolonia village, which is hard to locate on the map. It has some fascinating facilities in which nuclear warheads were once stored. The sign that warns against ionizing radiation and warning signs with NO ENTRY, DANGER OF DEATH stimulate the imagination. Additionally, we can recall the biggest nuclear catastrophes in Chernobyl, Fukushima, Three Mile Island, watch a few movies which portray highly contaminated plants or animals that glow or mutate, and we have a clear view of the problem. On the one hand, we cannot underestimate the effects of acute radiation syndrome; on the other, we still lack reliable – and often basic – knowledge.
J.J.: Let’s start from the end that is reliable knowledge. One of the few most important tasks planned within the Polish nuclear power programme is communication and informing about all aspects of plant construction. People who are interested already can gather some basic knowledge about the safety systems of the plant on the National Atomic Energy Agency website. Not only our society has any concerns related to ionizing radiation. For example Sweden, a country with well-developed nuclear power. When 40 years ago the decision about starting of taking actions to construct an underground nuclear waste repository from Swedish plants, several promising locations for the geological, environmental, and many other types of necessary research was selected in order to make a final decision about the plant location. Of course, they forgot about one detail. They didn’t inform the interested communities about the purpose of these types of research. And when the information came out, the local people immediately protested and effectively stopped the fieldwork. The programme has been blocked right away at the early stage of its implementation. So the golden rule “nothing about us without us” was applied. They invited representatives of communities from preselected municipalities to take part in the works of the teams responsible for carrying out this task from scratch without omitting any aspect of the repository construction. The residents were social inspectors who have insight into all documents, and they monitored the course of works. Reliable presentation of the pros and cons of the future repository eventually resulted in the situation that two municipalities with the best results of the several-year field research have competed with each other in their efforts to locate the repository in their area. Eventually, one of them was chosen, and last October, its council voted for the construction of the underground nuclear waste repository. It is worth following the example of Sweden. By the way, we have some examples of good practices in Poland as well. Representatives of the local community are involved in monitoring the security of the national Radioactive Waste Repository in Różan town. I would have lied if I had said that nuclear power has only its pros. There are also problems we have to face. These include technological and economic challenges and the already mentioned nuclear waste, but we won’t march forward unless we provide society with reliable information about all pros and cons.
M.K.: However, Sweden slowly gives up on nuclear power. A similar situation happens in Germany or Belgium. We are only preparing to make use of its advantages. Is it worth investing huge sums of money and time in the solutions that may eventually end up in an energy dead end? Is there any alternative?
J.J.: You have asked one of the most difficult questions. We should have probably invited numerous outstanding experts and together discuss the so called “pros and cons.” On the one hand, a set of countries gives up on nuclear power, that’s true. We know, however, that these decisions often have political background, not necessarily economic or environmental. On the other hand, currently 441 nuclear reactors operate around the world, 107 of which are on the territory of the European Union. Another 54 reactors are being built. Nuclear power produces 30% of the world’s power and as much as 50% of the European Union’s power. Many countries develop this way of producing energy. These are, for example, our neighbour Slovakia, and the remote Japan, which might be a shock, as we all know they had a difficult experience of the Fukushima catastrophe. In our close vicinity, nuclear plants are being built in Belarus and Kaliningrad Oblast. Currently, new nuclear plants are being built in over a dozen countries, and in another dozen, there are advanced plans for developing this branch of power industry. It is hard to tell that the world is giving up on nuclear power.
Nuclear plants are attractive because they can produce relatively cheap energy regardless of the price fluctuations in the fuel market. Nuclear fuel can be safely stored up for up to several years and used later. What is more, it contributes to decreasing the global emission of CO2 into the atmosphere. Paradoxically, it is one of the least emissive sources of energy we know. It is practically zero-emission. The only thing that comes out of nuclear plants is steam. The problem obviously lies in radioactive waste, which is a particular subject of my scientific interest.
However, the nuclear waste is much smaller compared to the amount of by-products of electricity generation in conventional power plants. Let’s not exaggerate the problem of storing nuclear waste. It can be safely dealt with over a time horizon of thousands of years. Even the very nature gives us clues about the ways of dealing with such waste, but that’s a topic for another conversation.
Nuclear power is also a way of energy “protection” for the regions that wrestle with its insufficiency. In Poland, it mainly concerns the seaside; therefore, we take into consideration two locations in Pomeranian voivodeship, the areas near Lubiatowo and Kopalino, or Żarnowiec. However, there are 20 potential locations for the construction of nuclear power plant in Poland. The decision should be made next year, and the council that I lead will be pass judgment over the proposed location. Nothing has been decided yet.
M.K.: There are renewable sources as well…
J.J.: Yes, it is an interesting alternative to nuclear power. However, we have to bear in mind that power produced in this way is way more expensive and can be a challenge for our purse after the government grants are empty. I think that the best way to develop the Polish power industry would be by combining the advantages of both solutions and the creation of an optimal power industry mixture. I think that we should construct a nuclear plant according to the established plan and do not cease the development of technologies based on renewable energy sources. The assumption is that the technology applied in the Polish nuclear plant is to generate electricity at favourable costs in comparison to renewable energy sources.
I regret that the plant in Żarnowiec wasn’t finished in 1980s. We would have been in a different spot when it comes to nuclear energy. Probably few people know that this reactor was made in the Czech Republic, and the same model is still operating in one of the Finnish nuclear plants. Certainly, we wouldn’t have had problems with power insufficiency in the northern Polish areas, and a lot of myths regarding nuclear power could have been abolished as well. If the construction of a nuclear plant starts in Poland, I can assure you that the National Atomic Energy Agency, including the Council for Nuclear Safety and Radiation Protection, will scrupulously supervise each and every stage of this investment. Starting from the environmental assessment and choice of its location, through its design, construction, and operation, until its liquidation. Of course, the choice of technology is of key importance when it comes to the efficient and safe operation of the facility. We have to be well-prepared in terms of nuclear supervision and radiological safety, not only for the people living in the vicinity of the future power plant but also for the whole country and even neighbouring countries. Nuclear power is of the trans-boundary range.
M.K.: That’s one of many tasks the Councils is facing…
J.J.: The Council is a statutory body of the chairman of the National Atomic Energy Agency, which takes action regarding regulating and supervising the nuclear materials and objects located in Poland and taking care of radiological safety. In other words, it deals with any human activity connected with the potential and actual exposure of our health to ionizing radiation.
M.K.: What types of actions are these?
J.J.: Currently, we have three nuclear facilities in Poland. One of them is a nuclear reactor “Maria” in Świerk near Warsaw, operated by the National Centre for Nuclear Research. We have two storages for nuclear fuel from this reactor and, finally, the already mentioned domestic radioactive waste repository in Różany near Ostrołęka. The last two are operated by the National Radioactive Waste Management Plant, with its office in Świerk. We also have remains of the first nuclear reactor, “Ewa,” which has already been liquidated. These can be used as an example for the future storage of nuclear fuel. There is no potential radiological hazard currently there. The Council sees to the periodic reports regarding the safety of the “Maria” reactor operation and the chairman of the National Atomic Energy Agency decisions regarding permission for any alterations in the reactor and other nuclear facilities. We also look into a set of other documents relevant for nuclear safety and radiological security in Poland.
Apart from that, we are interested in the use of isotopes, including the so-called closed radioactive sources, for medical, industrial, and scientific purposes, also at our university. The management of isotopes, their neutralisation, and storage are also in the scope of the interests of the National Atomic Energy Agency and our Council. It mainly regards securing radioactive sources in Poland and minimising the threat of ionizing radiation exposure, including its natural sources. This year we will be dealing with, for example, preventing radon, which is a natural radioactive gas, infiltration into housing facilities. It is worth mentioning other initiatives, such as taking care of border safety regarding the illegal and uncontrolled transit of radioactive materials.
M.K.: Thank you for your interview.
Prof. Janusz Janeczek | Photo by Agnieszka Julia Szymala