Joe Biden’s victory in the US presidential election will not derail Washington’s co-operation with Warsaw on plans to develop its own nuclear energy sector, Poland’s climate minister has said.
Donald Trump’s administration built close ties with Warsaw, where the rightwing government is led by Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s Law and Justice party. In October the US signed an agreement to draw up a design for Poland’s proposed nuclear programme, which envisages constructing six nuclear plants with a capacity of 6-9GW in 2033-43.
But relations with Mr Biden’s incoming administration have been cooler. During his campaign, Mr Biden sparked consternation in Poland by mentioning the country in the same breath as Belarus — where Alexander Lukashenko cracked down brutally last year after claiming victory in a flawed election — and “the rise of totalitarian regimes around the world”.
Poland’s president Andrzej Duda — like his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin — was among the few world leaders who did not congratulate Mr Biden on his November 3 victory until it was confirmed in mid-December by the US electoral college.
However, Michal Kurtyka, climate minister, played down concern that the change would have a significant impact on Poland’s plans. “There is an advanced discussion with the US on this subject and I think it is very promising,” he told the Financial Times.
“As far as I know there is bipartisan support for the development of nuclear energy in the US, and I wouldn’t expect any changes in a strategic decision which has been engaging [our] countries for a long time.”
Along with a 130bn zloty investment in offshore wind projects, Poland’s proposed 150bn zloty nuclear programme is intended to help cut dependence on coal. The fossil fuel provided 74 per cent of the country’s electricity in 2019, but is becoming increasingly uneconomic as the EU ratchets up its CO2 reduction targets in a bid to curb global warming.
Piotr Naimski, the government’s chief strategic energy adviser, said in November that the end of this year would be the “last moment” for Poland to pick a strategic partner for the nuclear programme.
The energy strategy envisages a “strategic co-investor” taking a 49 per cent stake, although Mr Naimski said in December that the investor’s share could be “slightly” smaller.
“We are looking not only for a seller of technology or a constructor who will build us blocks, but for a partner who will invest with us, and take on risk, including operationally,” he told media group Newseria Biznes.
France’s EDF has held talks with Poland over the project. But the frontrunner is the US, which Poland regards as its security guarantor. The Trump administration has been pushing for American companies such as nuclear reactor maker Westinghouse and engineering group Bechtel to be involved.
Mr Kurtyka said nuclear energy was an “obvious choice”, because as well as helping decarbonise the economy, it would give investing companies stable and competitive energy.
“What they expect is a reliable, zero-emission source of energy, which is climate friendly and which fits within the framework of the Paris agreement. That is why this nuclear programme . . . should be built,” he said.
Despite the climate ministry’s enthusiasm, big questions remain. One issue is timing. Many nuclear projects in the EU are far behind schedule, and just 12 years before the first plant is due on line Poland has yet to choose a location or confirm its financing model.
“Assuming that we can have the first nuclear plant up and running in 2033 is beyond optimistic,” said Joanna Flisowska, head of Greenpeace’s climate and energy unit in Poland.
“We need to replace coal power stations now, because most are already set to close by 2035 at the latest . . . So nuclear is just the wrong answer. It’s too late. It’s too expensive and it’s not really a technology that works well with renewables.”
However, other analysts say nuclear power could play a role in the longer term, especially given the EU’s new target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55 per cent from 1990 levels by 2030, rather than the 40 per cent previously envisaged. This is expected to drive up carbon prices and make energy from coal increasingly uneconomic.
“This higher climate ambition is a game-changer, not only for Poland, but for all Europe,” said Robert Tomaszewski, an energy analyst at Polityka Insight in Warsaw.
“Our projections suggest that, before 2040, we are going to have some kind of coal exit in the energy sector in Poland. We won’t be able to use coal any more because of the prices of CO2.”
Aleksander Sniegocki, head of the energy, climate and environment programme at WiseEuropa, a think-tank, said nuclear power could play a role in Poland, “but not like in the French model where 80 per cent of the energy comes from nuclear”.
“It can really facilitate the end of the energy transition in the 40s,” he said. “It could for example be the source of hydrogen, which can be produced not only from green energy but also from nuclear.”