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Poland’s sad love for these US nuclear lemons

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Picture: Nichola Groom/Reuters

By Linda Pentz Gunter

Congratulations must go to Poland – and to US vice-president Kamala Harris and US energy secretary Jennifer Granholm for brokering the deal – for its commitment to purchase a triad of American nuclear lemons.

With breathtaking myopia, the Polish government has signed a deal to partner with the US company Westinghouse in the construction of three nuclear reactors in Poland.

Apparently, everyone concerned is happy to ignore the fact that Westinghouse was bankrupted by its disastrous nuclear projects in South Carolina and Georgia. The former was cancelled mid-construction and the latter, at Plant Vogtle, is now years behind schedule and well beyond its originally predicted 2016 start-up date, with ever-ballooning cost overruns that have now topped $30 billion (about R525 billion).

Also overlooked was that former Westinghouse Electric Company senior vice-president Jeffrey A Benjamin was charged with 16 felony counts – including conspiracy, wire fraud, securities fraud, and causing a publicly traded company to keep a false record – over the company’s handling of its now cancelled VC Summer two-reactor project in South Carolina.

The official reason that long-shelved plans to build nuclear reactors were suddenly revived is that the war in Ukraine has caused energy shortages in heavily fossil fuel-dependent Poland. But, tellingly, another reason given was Poland’s “lack of immediate renewable substitutes”.

Like France with its nuclear power monopoly, Poland’s reliance on coal and gas stifled renewable energy development. Now there is nowhere else to turn. France is similarly stranded and is importing fossil fuel energy and even reopening closed coal plants.

The backward turn by France in climate mitigation was effectively caused by prioritising nuclear power for so many decades. Added to that, its ageing nuclear reactor fleet is now breaking down with remarkable alacrity – at various times recently more than half of all French reactors have been out of operation. It’s a perfect demonstration of why the nuclear choice is a rash and unreliable one, even without addressing all the inherent dangers and waste issues.

The Polish decision to partner with a bankrupt company that has a track record of failure to deliver on time or on budget, as well as criminal activity, certainly seems like a bizarre choice. So perhaps there is another agenda afoot here?

Poland’s unhappy history of invasion, occupation and shifting boundaries puts the country in a uniquely vulnerable position. Once behind the Iron Curtain and a member of the Warsaw Pact, Poland is now an enthusiastic member of Nato and outspokenly critical of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Its multiple shared borders include Ukraine as well as Russian ally Belarus.

In announcing the Westinghouse contract with Poland, the US State Department called it “a watershed moment in advancing European energy security”.

Polish government spokesman Piotr Müller echoed this when he said: “Nuclear energy will be an important element of Poland’s energy security.”

The International Energy Agency defines energy security as “the uninterrupted availability of energy sources at an affordable price”.

But, more revealingly, it describes electricity security thus: “Variable renewable generation has already surged over the past decade, driven by cost reductions and favourable policy environments, a trend that is set to continue and even accelerate in line with climate change objectives. Meanwhile, conventional power plants – notably those using coal, nuclear, and hydro – are stagnating or in decline.”

Poland won’t get energy security from three Westinghouse reactors. It probably won’t even get the reactors. What it will get, however, is junior membership in the Nuclear Club. In possession of nuclear materials, technology, personnel and know-how, it will join other aspirational nations developing nuclear power, not because they need it or can even afford it, but because it delivers some sort of absurd prestige. Not quite a member of the Big Nine – the actual nuclear weapon states – Poland will at least arrive on the doorstep.

In early October, President Andrzej Duda even said that he had asked to have US nuclear weapons stationed on Polish territory, although the US government denied receiving any such request. None of this is coincidence or unconnected.

The UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, now supported by a majority of the world’s countries, works hard to stigmatise nuclear weapons. We need to do the same for nuclear power. Otherwise it serves as the nuclear drawbridge that is never raised.

Linda Pentz Gunter is the international specialist at Beyond Nuclear. The article was first published on: