Poland has decided to invest in nuclear energy, which is supported by a significant majority of the country’s population and, importantly, also by the inhabitants of Pomerania, the region where the first nuclear plant will be located. Such large and long-term projects sometimes raise doubts about the safe management of radioactive waste or the impact on nature and the environment. However, it is worth taking a closer look at these issues and see if there really is anything to fear – writes Michał Perzyński, editor at BiznesAlert.pl.
Emissions, radiation, waste
To begin with, let’s us take a look the role of the atom in Europe’s energy mix – in 2019, nuclear energy accounted for 26 percent of energy production in the European Union. By comparison, gas accounted for 19 percent, coal for 17 percent, followed by wind (13 percent), biofuels (5 percent) and photovoltaics (4 percent). The countries where the atom has the largest share are, of course, France (70 percent), followed by Slovakia (53 percent) and Hungary (48 percent). Importantly, the nuclear sector can play a significant role in the labor markets of countries that choose such an investment – across Europe, the industry employs around a million people and it is estimated that one reactor generates up to 10,000 jobs. The sector is also a stable employer, as a reactor’s life span is around 60 years. This means, two entire generations will find work there. This has a positive impact on gross domestic product.
The atom can play a key role in the energy transition of the European Union. According to Eurostat, in 2021, nuclear power plants were responsible for the production of 50 percent of low-carbon electricity. Atom also beats the competition when it comes to emissions of harmful gases such as sulfur dioxide or nitrogen oxides – in this case, it performs much better than coal, gas or biomass power plants. Moreover, nuclear power plants can prove to be a remedy for the problems of the fledging European hydrogen market, since the raw material used thanks to electricity has three basic advantages: it is low-carbon, affordable and its production can last practically without interruption, since it does not depend on weather conditions. In this way, nuclear power could contribute to the decarbonisation of sectors where it would otherwise be difficult to reduce emissions, e.g. in heavy industry.
Another common concern about nuclear power is the issue of radioactive waste, and indeed nuclear power plants are the largest source of it, although not the only one – radioactive waste is also produced by industry, health services and research centers. However, it should be stressed that there are different categories of the wast: VLLW has very low activity, e.g. concrete, LLW is low-level waste, e.g. scrap, ILW is intermediate-level waste, e.g. elements of nuclear reactors. And finally HWL is highly active waste, primarily by-products of fuel processing. According to Nuclear Europe data from 2016, 72.7 percent of all waste is the least active kind, i.e. VLLW. Low-level waste accounts for 17.4%, medium – 9.7%. The most active waste, HLW, accounts for only 0.2 percent of all radioactive waste.
However, this is not all, because the circular economy comes to the rescue. And yes, modern reactor designs are getting better at producing less waste. Reactor performance and fuel production are also improving. There are also a number of technologies that allow the reuse of spent fuel, which will save about 25 percent of natural uranium resources. In addition, building materials used in nuclear facilities can be fully recycled. The remaining waste will either be stored in the long term, e.g. in geological landfills currently under construction, or temporarily to allow further recovery and processing of spent fuel.
Another issue is the use of water, and indeed nuclear power plants use a lot of it, but not the most – hydroelectric and biomass power plants have a bigger impact on water economy, while atomic power plants use more or less as much as coal-fired power plants. However, this is not a problem without a solution, because it can be minimized already at the stage of location selection and design – the first Polish nuclear power plant will be located in close proximity to the sea and seawater will be used to cool it.
Low environmental impact can also be evidenced by the fact that nuclear projects need a relatively small area to produce a lot of power. Four square kilometers is enough for a power plant to have a capacity of 1,800 MW – for comparison, wind farms would need 437 square kilometers and solar plants 56 square kilometers.
Interfering with forests
It has been alleged that the NPP in Pomerania will involve massive deforestation. The media have reported that 688 ha of forests would have to be cut down. However, Polskie Elektrowne Jądrowe (Polish Nuclear Power Plants, PEJ), responsible for this project, has reassured that if the location “Lubiatowo – Kopalino” is chosen, the total loss of the forest area in the Choczewo commune may amount to approx. 5%, or 335 hectares. In fact, the number 688 ha refers to the entire area of the project, that is, the maximum area of land reserved for the time of construction. The size of the area, i.e. 335 ha, of permanent deforestation, concerns the technical sub-option proposed by the investor, which involves the use of an open cooling system using seawater and hollowing, using TBM drilling machines, tunnels for the collection and discharge of this water. Thanks to this, there will also be no need to dig up the beach, because the tunnel would be built in the same way as, for example, subway tunnels. “As part of the research to assess the impact of the investment on the environment, the impact of the power plant on forest areas has been thoroughly studied. The purpose of the study, the results of which were published in the environmental report, was to, among others, determine the so-called “permanent deforestation zone” in which the power plant will be located and the elements of the necessary infrastructure associated with it. Permanent deforestation of part of the project area is necessary for safety reasons, including fire protection required for nuclear power plants, as well as other major infrastructure investments,” explains the company.
The results of the analyses carried out by PEJ confirmed that in the area of the location indicated for the construction of the NPP, the main affected tree species will be pine and planted mountain pine (dwarf mountain pine). Both species were planted to stabilize dunes both in the late 19th century and in the post-war period. The mountain pine grows here outside the range of its natural occurrence, while pine is a common species found along the entire Polish coast.
In the context of nuclear energy and its impact on the environment, there are many harmful stereotypes that can seriously distort the reality. The atom is a zero-emission source of energy, and its impact on the environment is relatively small; as time passes and technology improves, this impact will become less and less, benefiting both the natural world and the economy.