Energy 2 January, 2018 11:00 am   
COMMENTS: Mateusz Gibała

Nuclear energy will improve the climate in Poland. If a decision is made, we will be able to make it by 2031

Józef Sobolewski, Director of the Department of Nuclear Energy at the Ministry of Energy, talks to about how nuclear energy can help Poland implement its climate policy. In his opinion, it has advantages which are lacking in renewable energy sources, and therefore it is a better solution for Poland. In his opinion, the commencement of works at the beginning of 2018 will make it possible to build the first power plant by 2031, as the government declares. In the context of nuclear power and climate change, the Ministry of Energy stresses two aspects: zero-emission nuclear power plants and problems with the stability of renewable energy.

Józef Sobolewski: It is worth remembering that zero-emission nuclear power is one of the clean sources of electricity generation. It does not emit harmful dusts, chemicals, greenhouse gases or heavy metals. However, it can be seen in the EU’s climate policy that only renewable energy is treated as clean, especially wind and solar energy.

Large-scale renewable power generation, on the scale of the energy system, is becoming a problem. A systemic source is attempted from a non-steerable source, which can be dangerous for this system when a certain penetration level is reached. It is also economically unreasonable, significantly increasing system costs, especially network costs. There are no electricity storage facilities on the horizon, because no such solutions exist yet.

The European Commission assumes that if the RES capacity is sufficient and cross-border flows are added to it, the system will work.

It will not, unless we send energy from Spain to Poland. This is obvious nonsense. The EC says that the RES sector will be competitive on the market, but it clearly and systemically favours the RES. I consider the development of the RES (particularly wind and sun) as a systemic source to be the wrong path of energy development. When renewable energy sources were introduced in Germany, the then responsible minister said that subsidies for RES would cost the German family as much as a scoop of ice-cream. This surcharge turned out to be much higher. Today, it is probably the most expensive scoop of ice cream in the Universe. Since 2000, Germany has spent EUR 222 billion on supporting renewable energy generation. Over the last 8 years alone, wind and solar power plants have globally received more subsidies than nuclear power plants for over half a century. In the years 1962-2016, the nuclear sector received USD 1.8 trillion, while the RES industry was subsidised by USD 2 trillion only in the years 2008-2016. Renewable power generation makes sense only on a local scale (clusters) and we try to convince the European Commission about this.

Would Poles be willing to pay more for renewable energy?

I do not know such research. Did anyone tell the people that an average family in Germany is already paying PLN 5,000? There are people who can afford to bear such costs, but only until a certain point in time. Today, electricity in Germany is twice as expensive as in France, which produces 75% of the electricity from nuclear power plants.

However, it is worth looking at this issue not only in terms of finance, but also in terms of the climate. Officially, the European Commission is supporting the RES in the name of limiting carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere, but is this really the most effective method? In Germany, the power of solar power plants increased by 4% in 2016 compared to 2015, but they produced 3% less energy than in the previous year. On the other hand, wind power plants increased by 11%, but they produced 2% less energy.

I believe that if we really want to reduce CO2 emissions, we should do so as effectively as possible. Moreover, pursuant to Article 194 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, we have the freedom to shape our own energy mix. We should therefore be accountable for the results: the level of reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and not the share of the RES in the mix, because these are two completely different things. The question arises as to whether the European Commission is acting in the interests of the climate or someone else when forcing the RES development.

Not everyone knows that renewables are not emission-free. Their emission performance is due to the fact that their production consumes a lot of energy and material. For example, CO2 equivalent emissions per unit of energy produced from a photovoltaic panel are four times higher than from a nuclear power plant. The mass of construction material per unit of energy produced for this panel is more than 20 times greater than for a nuclear power plant. These are the facts.

Interesting is the EROI indicator, which shows how much energy we will gain during the whole life cycle of the source, when we invest 1 unit of energy in a given source. In the nuclear power industry we gain as many as 75 new units of energy, while in the photovoltaics we only gain 4. The difference is colossal.

Let us also remember that the RES technologies require significant amounts of so-called rare earth elements. Fate wanted China to have the biggest resources, and extracting them is highly damaging to the environment and to the people who perform such work. We know that photovoltaic batteries lose their efficiency with the elapse of time, so their continuous production is also detrimental.

Wind as a direct source of energy is quite efficient, but less after buffering. No wind farm is profitable without support. The cost of the network, priority access and other costs are often deliberately omitted in new records. It is coal and nuclear power generation that are the most efficient of the sources we know. Nuclear power is also very safe. Admittedly, we remember about Chernobyl, an accident caused by a lack of reason, to put it mildly, but in Fukushima no one died from radiation, but due to thoughtless evacuation and panic. Accidents happen also in other types of power plants. We remember the break of the dam in the hydroelectric power plant in China, with more than 100,000 victims or gas explosions with dozens of victims.

If we compare two countries: Germany, the leader in green energy in the media, and France based on nuclear energy, we can see that France produces twice as much energy from clean sources as Germany does. The decision to close down nuclear power plants by our western neighbours has increased CO2 emissions in the energy sector by 43%. With a similar volume of electricity produced in 2016, Germany emitted ten times more CO2 per kWh than the French. After initial declarations, even President Macron abandons the idea of switching to renewable sources as soon as possible, as this is linked to a decline in efficiency and an increase in the carbon footprint of the energy sector. Germany is therefore striving to build Nord Stream 2, which is not needed in Europe, but much needed by Germans. They will be able to replace brown coal with gas in this way in their mix, or they will never achieve the emission reduction targets.

The Ministry of Energy says that a differential contract for nuclear energy will be very expensive.

Everyone interested in nuclear power knows that the Hinkley Point C project is run in a very bad way, the declared prices are economically unreasonable and I would not like to see something similar in Poland.

Perhaps the situation would be different if there was a real energy market, that is, none of the commodities would have state support. A product subsidised by the State destroys the market because it has a natural preference. The price of nuclear energy in Finland, the Visegrad Group or France per kilowatt-hour is much lower than the average prices in Poland. This shows that investment in nuclear power will pay off. In France, nuclear electricity could be even cheaper, but there is a minimum price to protect other sources of production.

It is in Poland’s interest to provide the economy and citizens with stable energy at an acceptable price.

Will Poland manage to build a nuclear power plant by 2031, as declared by the government?

Construction of the power plant itself in terms of structure is about 5-6 years. There are, however, many legal regulations that need to be complied with. This will take an additional five years. We want to accumulate certain things in order to be able to start faster. When we start operating next year, we will make it.

However, it should be remembered that the state is the greatest risk in implementing nuclear energy generation. Regulatory changes are not always favourable. The government’s term of office is four years, and the power plant operates for 60 years.

Interview conducted by Wojciech Jakóbik