Nuclear

“All the waste in a year from a nuclear power plant can be stored under a desk.” So said Ronald Reagan. And, technically, he was correct although, inevitably, it is not quite as simple as that and the treatment and disposal of nuclear waste remains a contentious issue. But not, it appears, in Poland where, in a recent survey, more than half of Poles who responded were in favour of the government’s plan to build nuclear power stations.

In the survey by the Polish Institute of International Affairs (PISM) almost 64 percent of the respondents said they were in favour of using nuclear energy in Poland. Which is just as well since earlier this year the Polish government approved a programme, which provides for the construction of the country’s first nuclear power plant by energy group PGE in 2024. And, by 2050 Poland is it envisaged that Poland generate 15 percent of its energy supply from nuclear power.

It seems that the result of this survey was influenced by recent events in Ukraine which have brought into focus the country’s energy security, or lack of it. Hitherto, surveys have tended to suggest that no more than half of Poles favoured the nuclear option. Of course, coal is dominant at present but the Polish prime minister’s repeated statements that Poland will not abandon coal (please see Coal Country) a wholly coal reliant policy is not a long term strategy. This survey also shows that Poles are in favour of a mixture of energy sources: 58 percent of the respondents mentioned renewable energy, 48 per cent nuclear, 21 per cent to shale gas extraction, 16 per cent reducing energy use and 8 per cent to coal.

Interestingly Germany seems to be abandoning nuclear for coal, a policy which gave rise last weekend to a moment of German Polish cooperation when Greenpeace organised the inhabitants of the Polish village of Grabice and the German village of Kerwitz to join hands across the border. Some 7500 protesters from 27 countries including Poles from 14 cities joined hands to protest about the plans of group of energy companies, including Poland’s PGE, to develop open cast mining. The villages worry that they might be resettled as a result of these plans. Meri Pukarinen, climate and energy unit head at Greenpeace Poland, said: “This human chain clearly shows the growing anti-coal movement, not only in Germany and Poland, but in the whole of Europe.” However, Ryszard Kosciesza, vice chairman of an association which promotes development in the region, dismissed the action as counter-productive, and serving only to bring on the economic stagnation of Poland.

Poland produces about 90 percent of its electricity from coal-fired plants and has been under EU to reduce its CO2 emissions, which are 50 percent above the European average. Poland is trying to broaden the energy mix through investment in shale exploration and an LNG import terminal, and nuclear is potentially a welcome addition to this.

In fact, nuclear represents the modern technological solution which is greatly to be preferred to windmills and wood chips, technologies with which Chaucer would have been familiar. However cleverly engineered the pellets may be, moving truck loads of wood about to burn in power plants doesn’t seem much of an advance after 600 years. I have no doubt that the problem of nuclear waste – which gives rise to the greatest reservations about nuclear – will one day be solved, and the more nuclear we have the greater the incentive and opportunity to do so. After all, less than two lifetimes ago, the greatest problems in cities such as London and New York was how to dispose of all the horse manure. Once technology intervened in the form of the internal combustion engine, that problem disappeared. Who knows, nuclear fusion might even become a commercial reality.

Be that as it may, is it not better to err on the side of optimism? As Ronald Reagan also said: “There are no great limits to growth because there are no limits of human intelligence, imagination and wonder.”

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