3.8 million people in Poland depend on coal to keep their homes heated through harsh northern winters. Last month when the European Union slapped sanctions on Russian coal, Poles flocked to local coal mines, queueing for days in the late August heat and sleeping in their cars in hopes of securing enough coal to make it through the winter. While Poland is the third biggest coal producing nation in Europe (after Germany and Russia), the nation has grown increasingly reliant on cheap Russian coal imports in recent years, rendering them vulnerable to coal price shocks in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and ensuing economic sanctions and supply chain volatility. "This is beyond imagination, people are sleeping in their cars. I remember the communist times but it didn't cross my mind that we could return to something even worse,” a man in the coal lines told Reuters. Poland is one of many nations that have recently been reminded in recent months of the dangers of relying too much on any one nation or form of energy production. Much of the EU is reeling from the loss of Russian natural gas after the Russian state-owned and -run gas company Gazprom cut off supply to the bloc indefinitely, blaming infrastructural issues that conveniently took place just as the EU decided to impose a price cap on Russian oil. France and China are also suffering from their own over-reliance on certain energy sectors: in France, nuclear production has plummeted at the worst possible moment thanks to a myriad of issues, and in China prolonged drought has slowed hydropower production to a trickle. Both of these squeezes have forced an increase in coal consumption, causing global coal prices to rise and compounding Poland’s energy woes.
Now, Poland is scrambling for new energy supplies, and the nation’s leaders have set their sights on nuclear power. Late last month, as Poles slept in their cars in coal queues, Poland's Council of Ministers amended national law in order to ease nuclear energy investment. The country had already planned, beginning last year, to start building six nuclear reactors to help wean Poland off of its long-standing reliance on coal under increasing pressure to lower carbon emissions and phase out the dirtiest fossil fuel. But the first nuclear power plant wasn’t slated to begin construction until 2026, and the first Polish nuclear reactor would not be commissioned until 2033. Subsequent units would be built every 2-3 years, bringing the budget for the whole project to a whopping PLN150 billion (USD32 billion) – at least. That plan, however, no longer seems feasible.
As Poland frets over how to keep homes heated through the winter, the government is in a huge hurry to speed up the nuclear power investment process. Warsaw is seeking a partner to help them start and scale up their nuclear energy sector as quickly as possible, and the United States has thrown its hat into the ring. The partnership, as Poland proposes it, would involve helping to install 6-9 gigawatts (GW) of nuclear capacity, and the partner would have to provide 49% equity financing for the project. "It's more than a commercial offer, it reflects 18 months of work and millions of dollars spent on analysis and evaluations,” says the Polish climate ministry.
Just this week Poland received an offer from Westinghouse, a Pennsylvania-based nuclear power company, to cooperate on the project. Westinghouse is competing with other entities from South Korea and France to win the nuclear project. South Korea's state-owned Korea Hydro Nuclear Power has submitted an offer to build the first nuclear plant in Polish history as soon as April. Several different French-based companies are also in talks with Poland, and the Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki has been cozying up to French nuclear industry leaders, although France’s own domestic nuclear industry is currently in crisis.
By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com
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