Refusing to learn the lessons from Chernobyl, Poland embarks on a rash nuclear power program
By Beata Cymerman
It was April 28, 1986, early morning in Poland. The radiation monitoring station in Mikołajki, Mazury area (north-eastern region of Poland) showed that the radioactivity in the air was 550,000 times higher than the day before. The radioactive cloud from Chernobyl had travelled to Poland. The story of the catastrophe began here.
The Chernobyl disaster in Poland
The government of Poland didn’t immediately release an official statement regarding the catastrophe. Poland was a satellite state of the Soviet Union. After the day of the explosion, April 26, no information was presented by the Polish media. One of the first people informed about the catastrophe was Prof. Jaworowski – Chairman of the Scientific Council of the Central Laboratory for Radiological Protection (CLOR) in Warsaw. He obtained information about the catastrophe from BBC radio and connected it to the unusual measurements from the Mikołajki station.
Together with the President of Polish National Atomic Agency, he set out to monitor the situation. After taking several more measurements on the same day, it became clear that they were dealing with a high radiation risk. Despite the obstacles presented by the Soviet bureaucratic system and with the help of Jaworski’s wife, who was affiliated with the Polish Academy of Science, they managed to directly inform the Prime Minister of their findings.
On April 29, members of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Polish United Workers’ Party (KC PZPR) and the government appointed Government Commission took measures to combat the crisis. The priority was overcoming the effect of exposure to the radioisotope I – 131, which greatly increases the risk of thyroid cancer. The rapid action of administering iodine, which began on the afternoon of April 29, serves as a model for action in the event of a radioactive crisis. It was the largest preventive action in the history of medicine performed in such a short time. In just three days, 18.5 million people were administered iodine solution, adults as well as children. In comparison, in Russia, iodine was distributed a month after the catastrophe.
From personal stories from our parents, I know that we were told not to eat salad, mushrooms and not to drink milk, while friends told us about the radioactive cloud coming to Poland. But there weren’t any official restrictions. Children had to go to school as normal. Moreover, the national bank holiday on May1, and the obligatory march that was customarily held on that day, went on as planned. That shows how the Soviet Union worked, placing political interests over human health.
Nuclear energy development in Poland
The first plans to build nuclear power plants in Poland began in 1956. The initial plan was to build an experimental power plant with a capacity of 200-300 MWe on the Narew and Bug rivers. In 1956, the office of the Government Plenipotentiary for the Use of Nuclear Energy was established (renamed in 1973 the Office of Atomic Energy) and operated until 1980.
In 1971, the Polish government decided to commence the construction of the first Polish nuclear power plant equipped with WWER-440 reactors.
The programme of participation of the Polish industry in the production of nuclear power equipment was approved on 8th June 1979. The resolution specified the types of equipment to be produced, the production schedule and the activities which were to be undertaken to develop the nuclear industry in Poland.
In 1981 there was already a nuclear industry in Poland: our factories were already producing heat exchangers for WWER-440 reactors and construction companies were involved in the construction of nuclear power plants in the USSR, Hungary, East Germany and Czechoslovakia. In 1982, the construction of the “Żarnowiec” – the first nuclear power plant – began.
Żarnowiec – the project doomed to failure
Żarnowiec, the first power plant in Poland, was meant ultimately to consist of four power units fueled by WWER-440 reactors with a total capacity of around 1600 MW. It was the first step towards developing a nuclear energy plan in Poland; the second included the construction of the “Warta” nuclear Power Plant at Klempic.
The construction works on the Żarnowiec plant lasted till 1989, but were abandoned after mass protests by ecologists over the Chernobyl catastrophe. Unfortunately, this story hasn’t taught us anything. In 2011, Żarnowiec was selected along with two other sites (Gąski and Choczewo) as the site for Poland’s first nuclear power plant, to be built by 2020. A government study in 2014 assumed the opening of Poland’s first nuclear power plant in 2024. In early 2015, the Treasury Minister estimated this date to be 2027. The plans were not implemented.
The current situation
The Polish ruling Law and Justice party created an official energy document called the Polish Energetic Policy (PEP2040). The document announces the construction of 6 nuclear power units by 2043 in Poland with a total power output of 6-9 GW, with the aim of reducing GHG emissions. The first unit is planned to become operational in 2033. Currently, negotiations are taking place to select a partner to build and operate the nuclear power plant – the USA, Korea and France are under consideration. The atom is presented as a remedy for the elimination of polluting carbon energy.
In Poland, green conservatism, whereby nuclear energy is seen as a way of achieving carbon neutrality, is gaining popularity. But not only the conservatives, but also the leftist political fractions such as Razem, support the idea of nuclear energy in the energy mix. New groups and projects supporting nuclear power have developed in Poland (Fota4Climate, website “Green atom”). Even activists are divided into nuclear opponents and enthusiasts. How is that possible, if we have so much to fear after the history of Chernobyl?
The Shadow of Chernobyl – Civil society and opinions regarding nuclear energy
Research by the Polish Public Opinion Research Center (CBOS) shows the attitude towards building a nuclear power plant in Poland over the years:
- 1988 –29.5% in favour, 39.3% against, 31.1% have no opinion
- 1989 – 19.9% in favour, 45.9% against, 33.9% have no opinion 
- 2006 – 30% in favour, 56% against, 14% have no opinion 
- 2011 – 40% in favour, 53% against, 7% have no opinion
- 2013 – 35% in favour, 52% against, 13% have no opinion 
- 2016 – 38% in favour, 50% against, 11% have no opinion 
Alternatives in the form of citizen energy projects struggle within a capitalistic scheme based on nuclear energy or offshore energy sourcing. Despite the enormous potential of solar and wind energy, the Polish government blocked developing this infrastructure in 2016 – the so-called Distance Act was adopted. The law stipulates that wind turbines with a capacity of more than 40 kW can only be built at a distance of at least 10 times their height (including the rotor with the blades) from residential and mixed-use buildings, as well as areas of high environmental value. In effect, only large, off-shore wind farms can be built on the Baltic sea. There is a hope in increasing interest in solar citizen energy, with the government starting the “My electricity” programme, financing photovoltaic installations.
The European Green Deal is also concerned with energy security and independence. Although it does not include the aspect of nuclear energy in decarbonisation, an official letter to Ursula von der Leyen was recently written as part of an initiative by several countries, including Hungary, Slovakia, Romania, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Cyprus, Malta and Poland, to include nuclear and gas in green investments as a strategy for fighting global warming.
In Poland, it is hard to break through to the public discussion with anti-nuclear arguments. The government maintains its willingness to invest in nuclear energy despite its unprofitability, high costs, risks and lack of public support in order to replace coal-fired power plants with nuclear ones.
Few people in Poland are interested in discussing the sourcing of the uranium and connect this problem with energy security. Few people care about radioactive waste. We need more discussions, focusing not only on the costs and time of building a nuclear power plant, but also energy security, the consequences of failure and the non-sustainability of uranium. We need anti-nuclear rhetoric. Will we learn our Chernobyl lessons?
This article was first published on April 26, 2021 by Heinrich Böll Stiftung, Brussels, and was republished with kind permission. It is part of a dossier “Nuclear Power in Europe: 35 Years After the Chernobyl Disaster“.
Headline photo of the disastrous Żarnowiec nuclear power plant site by Mzywial/WikimediaCommons. It had been planned as the first nuclear power plant in Poland, but was cancelled thanks to anti-nuclear protests in the late 1980s and early 1990s.