Nuclear energy in the Polish energy transition

One of the greatest challenges facing humanity is to halt disastrous climate change by reducing anthropogenic, or man-made, greenhouse gas emissions. In 2015, the European Union and 174 countries, including Poland, adopted the Paris Agreement at the United Nations conference, in which, in line with the recommendations of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), they committed to limit the increase in the global average temperature below 2°C compared to the pre-industrial period and make efforts not to exceed 1.5°C.1

To achieve this, humanity's net global greenhouse gas emissions must fall to zero by 2050 [2]. The production of electricity and heat is responsible for 65% of these emissions [3], implying the need to move away from their production from fossil fuels and replace them with low-carbon sources. The latter include nuclear power and renewable energy sources (RES) other than biomass – primarily solar, wind and hydropower. A comparison of CO2 emissions for different electricity sources (in grams per kWh) is presented in Figure 1.1.

Figure 1.1: Average emissions of electricity sources according to the IPCC. Data from [4].

Energy transition is a challenge, given that global energy demand continues to grow, especially in the Global South, where 770 million people currently have no access to electricity at all [5][6]. Figure 1.2 shows how unevenly electricity consumption is distributed between North and South countries. In practice, this means that it is impossible to reduce its consumption globally.

Figure 1.2: The standard of living depends, among other things, on the availability of electricity. Data from [7].

According to the IPCC, in order to meet climate targets and reverse the trend of rising emissions from power generation, between 2010 and 2050 global energy production from nuclear units should increase by a factor of two to six, and from RES other than biomass by a factor of nine to 14, with the near total elimination of fossil fuels. Similarly, the International Energy Agency estimates that in order to achieve climate neutrality by 2050, a 36% increase in electricity generation from nuclear and 82% from RES is needed over the next decade [8][2]

In 2018, 11238 TWh of electricity was generated worldwide, mainly from fossil fuels – coal, gas and oil (64%). These were followed by low-carbon sources: hydropower (16%), nuclear energy (10%), wind (5%) and solar energy (2%) [7]. This means that nuclear energy is already the world’s second largest low-carbon source. Worldwide, 443 nuclear units were in operation at the beginning of 2021, with another 50 under construction [9]. The breakdown between world regions is presented in Figure 1.3.

Figure 1.3: Nuclear reactors in the world. Data from [9].

Nuclear power has already shown that it can drive a shift away from fossil fuels: the largest energy decarbonisation programme in world history, albeit somewhat incidentally, was the French Messmer Plan. After the oil crisis in 1973, France decided to become independent of fossil fuels and in order to achieve this, 53 nuclear units were built in 19 years, which now provide more than 70% of France’s electricity needs. The decarbonising result of the Messmer Plan is shown in Figure 1.4.

Figure 1.4: Nuclear decarbonisation of the French energy industry. Data from [7][9][10].

After the oil crisis in Europe, a similar path to France was taken by: Sweden (34% nuclear power) and Finland (35%). Earlier, Switzerland (23%), among others, had built its nuclear reactors. These countries combine nuclear power with hydropower [9]. All the above countries, together with Norway and Albania, which are dominated by hydropower (93 and almost 100%), emit the least greenhouse gases per unit of energy produced in Europe. There are, obviously, low-carbon non-nuclear energy systems in the world, but they are almost exclusively those with favourable conditions for hydropower development; besides Albania and Norway mentioned earlier, these include Paraguay (99% of energy from water), Iceland (69%), Costa Rica (68%), Brazil (63%) and Austria (60%) [11].

Nuclear power has been developing fairly steadily in the world in recent years, above all in the two most populous countries in the world: China and India, a return to the game was announced by the US led by President Biden. In Europe, the Czech Republic, Finland, the Netherlands, Hungary and Romania, among others, are planning to build such plants. In Poland’s geographical conditions, the atom supporting renewable energy sources is the only way to low-carbon energy.

Atom as a safe low-carbon source

The need for nuclear power as the only controllable source of clean energy is recognised by an increasing number of countries and organisations worldwide. Characteristic of this atmosphere is the emergence of a number of non-governmental organisations - such as the German Vernunftkraft, the French Association des écologistes pour le nucléaire, which in fact also has an equivalent in Poland (SEREN – Association of Ecologists for Nuclear Energy), and the American SARI (Scientists for Accurate Radiation Information). Also, there has been a turnaround in the attitude of the Finnish political party, the Green League, which, in the autumn of 2020, withdrew the anti-nuclear demand from its programme and, on the contrary, sees it as a way to curb global warming [12]. A shift towards an appreciation of nuclear power can also be seen at state level. Vice-President of the European Commission Frans Timmermans declared in October 2020 that the Commission would not oppose the construction of nuclear power plants [13], and the Dutch government, following a positive report by the consultancy ENCO and a declaration by the Dutch energy company EPZ of the need for new nuclear power plants, announced in parliament a change in energy policy and is preparing to open a tender to undertake the construction of new units [14].

 These changes are due, among other things, to the excellent performance of nuclear power plants in many countries. In the USA, the capacity factor of all nuclear units has remained above 90% for a number of years (Figure 2.1) and nuclear power provides a stable power supply 24 hours and 365 days a year.

Figure 2.1 High and increasing utilisation rate of installed capacity at all 100 power reactors in the USA), own figure, data from [15]

Figure 2.2 Actual power variation as a function of load in German nuclear power plants during the day [16]

As wind and solar power plants are introduced, whose operation depends on the time of year, time of day and meteorological conditions, nuclear power plants that can operate on a load following system are particularly valuable in the electricity system. In Figure 2.2, the power development patterns of nuclear power plants in Germany during the day are shown. French nuclear power plants work in a similar way, and the UK–EPR reactors being built in the UK are designed for power cycling between 25%-100%.

Observers of their work also point out that nuclear power plants are very resistant to weather disturbances, and during hurricanes and floods which hit the USA, they are the only really reliable source of power. Their response to grid disturbances is faster than that of other baseload energy sources (Figure 2.3).

Figure 2.3 Flexibility of nuclear, coal, lignite and gas (CCGT) plants. Figure based on [17].

Nuclear units provide clean air, water and soil. Emissions of radioactive substances are many times lower than permitted, and the radiation level caused by the nuclear power plant is less than the variations in natural radiation between cities in Poland (Figure 2.4). If an inhabitant of Wrocław moved to Kraków, his annual dose from natural gamma radiation would increase by 0.36 mSv. In turn, if a modern nuclear power plant with a typical French PWR reactor were built near his flat in Wrocław, the additional dose of radiation would be (on the fence of this power plant!) only 0.01 mSv/year, i.e. over 30 times LESS!

Figure 2.4 Comparison of radiation doses from NPP with natural background and authorised doses. Own figure.

The nuclear power plants proposed for Poland will be equipped with Generation III reactors, ensuring the safety of the population even in the event of a major meltdown, considered as a hypothetical accident occurring less than once in a million years (Figure 2.5).

In contrast, probabilistic safety analyses, which take into account even the extremely improbable simultaneous occurrence of all possible external risks, damage to the power station’s systems and human error resulting in a complete meltdown of the core, have shown that, in the case of modern Generation III(+) reactors to be built in Poland, the potential danger is limited to the immediate vicinity of the power station. The results of the actual calculations for the delimitation of the restricted use zone around the planned Żarnowiec NPP are presented in Figure 2.6.

Figure 2.5 Generation III reactors – the EPR and AP1000 – provide a reduction in the probability of failure hundreds of times below US nuclear regulatory requirements. Own figure.

The laws and regulations in force in Poland ensure that sufficient funds are set aside during the operation of nuclear power plants for the disposal of radioactive waste and for decommissioning. All in all, nuclear energy is recognised as the most humane and environmentally friendly, and the nuclear fuel resources ensure that the effort to build nuclear power plants and fuel cycle plants will be a good investment for hundreds of years.

Atom and the Polish issue

At the end of 2019, the installed electrical capacity in Poland was more than 47 GW, of which 38 GW was in commercial power generation [20]. Moreover, as Figure 3.1 illustrates, electricity demand, even on a monthly basis, is not constant.

Figure 3.1: Actual electricity demand in February 2021. Weekends are marked in grey. Data from [21].

Predictions indicate that due to dynamic economic development, demand for electricity will increase, which induces the need to build new generation capacity. In light of this information, nuclear energy as a mature commercial low-carbon technology can make a significant contribution, and the assumption of the Polish Nuclear Power Plan (PPEJ) [22] to build 6 nuclear units of 6-9 GW capacity by 2040 does not represent a revolutionary change in the structure of the Polish electricity industry. It can also be seen that the power sources installed must have considerable flexibility. Moreover, if we want to implement the European Union’s policy (to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55% by 2030 compared to 1990[23]), intensive decarbonisation of the Polish energy market is necessary. It is also worth remembering that Poland stands out negatively in terms of air quality, incurring gigantic health costs, and although the power industry is not the main source of smog (it is mainly transport and heating small houses with solid fuel furnaces [24]), the electricity supply provided by nuclear energy at stable prices may contribute to changing this state of affairs (heating, development of electric transport).

Poland already has a legal framework created by the Atomic Law and adopted implementing regulations (in line with the standards and recommendations of the European Atomic Energy Community and the International Atomic Energy Agency) for the construction of a nuclear power plant. The long-term geological, seismic and meteorological studies required by law at possible NPP sites are also nearing completion.

According to the current PPEJ, 2 power plants with 3 reactors each are expected to be built by 2043, with a total installed capacity of 6-9 GW [22], with the construction of the first reactor foreseen for 2026-2033. This is reiterated in the Polish Energy Policy until 2040 [25].

The PPEJ shows that the first NPP will be built in Pomerania, near the village of Żarnowiec. The location of the second one is not known, but it is worth mentioning the possibility of building it near Bełchatów. The deposits in that area are running out, which means that Poland’s largest power station (over 5 GW of maximum capacity) will be left without fuel. It could therefore be replaced by a plant of similar capacity, in line with the green transformation of the region.

However, regardless of the choice of location for the first NPP in Poland, the construction of a Polish nuclear power plant must be carried out with strong public support. One of the problems with the construction of the Żarnowiec Nuclear Power Plant was that it was associated in the public mind with a failing system and the Chernobyl Disaster. Nowadays, Poles seem to be won over to the atom – support for nuclear energy is over 60% [26]. This result is comparable to the support declared by the Swedes and Slovaks, who have nuclear power plants in their countries. At the location of a potential construction site, where information and education activities are carried out to provide the public with up-to-date, objective and reliable knowledge on nuclear energy, the support reaches as much as 70% [27]. It is important that state action does not erode this trust.

Figure 3.2: Overview of the costs of generating electricity from different sources - BP and PSE analysis commissioned by MK. A weighted average cost of capital (WACC) of 6% and a RES share of 35% were assumed, corresponding to the planned Polish energy mix in 2050. Data from [28]

The Polish government has not yet determined what the full business model for financing nuclear power plants will be, and its shape will have an impact on electricity prices paid by consumers. However, financial outlay and the cost of capital are not the full cost of energy production – it has many components. Figure 3.2 illustrates the cost of electricity from different sources calculated using the total cost method. It takes into account not only the financial outlay to be borne by the developer, but also other human and environmental costs. These include the costs of back-up generating capacity, which is needed as a back-up for weather-dependent, uncontrollable energy sources, and, in the case of fossil fuels, environmental pollution from emitted substances. We all pay these costs in bills and other charges. Nuclear power, as a zero-emission, weather-independent source of energy, is one of the cheapest existing sources of energy, despite the considerable financial outlay required during its construction.

Finally, it should be mentioned that the power industry in Poland is responsible for only about 20% of fossil fuel consumption [29]. And while industrially deployed technologies (light-water power reactors currently under construction producing steam at a temperature of around 280°C) are only applicable in the power sector, further development and commercialisation of nuclear technology offers the prospect of decarbonisation also in other areas of industry. The main focus in this respect is the use of high-temperature reactors (capable of heating a medium to 500-1000°C) in the metallurgical and chemical industries – including the production of fuels (e.g. hydrogen).

Conclusion and recommendations

Moving away from fossil fuels is a necessity. At the same time, it is a civilisational challenge to carry out the energy transition in such a way as to ensure that residents have a stable and reliable electricity supply at reasonable prices. Different countries have chosen different policies for this purpose, with the common goal of reducing net greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2050. Figure 4.1 presents actual hourly GHG emissions from energy in selected European countries for 2019. It shows how important it is to choose the optimal energy mix depending on geographical and weather conditions. The difference between two countries with similar sized electricity systems is particularly noticeable: Germany, which has abandoned nuclear power, and France, which has based its decarbonisation on it.

France's emissivity is low regardless of system load and weather conditions. Germany, which aims to maximise the share of the renewable energy sources without nuclear power, has not made such a spectacular reduction and has greenhouse gas emissions several times higher than France. The small island of Denmark is also an instructive case, where sources burning fossil fuels are activated if the wind does not blow.

Nuclear power and renewable sources of energy are the only viable technologies on which decarbonisation can be based. They are not in competition with each other and complement each other well in the electricity system, replacing coal. In the absence of electricity storage technologies (according to forecasts, even in decades’ time, energy storage facilities will not be able to store energy for windless days nationwide [33][34]), abandoning the atom actually means slowing down the energy transition – natural gas will have to be fuelled.

Figure 4.1: Actual power system output achieved and corresponding CO2 emissions in selected European countries in 2019. Data from: [4][30][31][32]
Nuclear power plants operate regardless of the weather, producing electricity both day and night. They also do not require a drastic transformation of the electricity system and can mitigate the socio-economic impact of the energy transition by providing jobs for local communities, replacing decommissioned coal-fired power plants.

Energy transition requires carefully planned and implemented policies. Such policies are the Polish Energy Policy until 2040 and the Polish Nuclear Power Programme supporting it. Their effect will be the almost complete elimination of coal in the power industry by 2040 and the simultaneous minimisation of the use of natural gas, the latter impossible to achieve without the atom, both resulting in a significant reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

The Polish dimension of the energy transition requires cross-party consensus. In the transnational dimension – cooperation. It is important that it is carried out efficiently, without imposing excessive costs on the citizens. It is also important that the objective remains minimising greenhouse gas emissions and not maximising the share of a particular technology in the energy mix, thereby falling into the trap of natural gas as a transition fuel. Nuclear power is an essential part of this.

Authors: dr Katarzyna Deja, dr Marek Kirejczyk, mgr inż. Maciej Lipka, dr. inż. Andrzej Strupczewski, prof. NCBJ


Paris Agreement under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change – EUR-Lex [Internet]. [cited: 10 March 2021]. Available at:

Masson-Delmotte, V., P. Zhai, H.-O. Pörtner, D. Roberts, J. Skea, P.R. Shukla, A. Pirani, W. Moufouma-Okia, C. Péan, R. Pidcock, S. Connors, J.B.R. Matthews, Y. Chen, X. Zhou, M.I. Gomis, E. Lonnoy, T. Maycock, M. Tignor, and T. Waterfield (eds.). Summary for Policymakers. in: Global Warming of 1.5°C An IPCC Special Report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels and related global greenhouse gas emission pathways, in the context of strengthening the global response to the threat of climate change, sustainable development, and efforts to eradicate poverty [Internet]. Geneva: World Meteorological Organization; 2018 [cited: 10 March 2021]. p. 32. Available at:

BP Energy Outlook 2020 edition [Internet]. BP; 2020 [cited: 10 March 2021]. p. 159. Available at:

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Climate Change 2014 Mitigation of Climate Change: Working Group III Contribution to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Internet]. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; 2014 Available at:

Access to electricity – SDG7: Data and Projections – Analysis [Internet]. International Energy Agency. [cited: 10 March 2021]. Available at:

International Energy Outlook 2019 with projections to 2050 [Internet]. Washington: Energy Information Administration; 2019 [cited: 10 March 2021] p. 169. Available at:

World Bank. DataBank | The World Bank [Internet]. [cited: 10 March 2021]. Available at:

International Energy Agency. Electricity Information 2019 – Analysis [Internet]. IEA. [cited: 10 March 2021]. Available at:

International Atomic Energy Agency. Power Reactor Information System [Internet]. [cited: 10 March 2021]. Available at:

Prêcheur C. L’électricité en France en 1959 et 1960. ingeo. 1961;25(3):109–20.

International Energy Agency. Data & Statistics [Internet]. IEA. [cited: 10 March 2021]. Available at:

Helsingin Sanomat. Puolueet | Vihreiden ydinvoimakanta loiveni – pian puolue saattaa olla siunaamassa Fennovoiman ydinvoimalan rakentamisluvan hallituksessa [Internet]. Helsingin Sanomat. 2020 [cited: 10 March 2021]. Available at:

World Nuclear News. EU Commission will not hinder pro-nuclear countries, says Timmermans : Energy & Environment – World Nuclear News [Internet]. [cited: 10 March 2021]. Available at:

Nuclear needed in future Dutch energy mix, says EPZ : Nuclear Policies – World Nuclear News [Internet]. [cited: 10 March 2021]. Available at:

U.S. nuclear power plants’ capacity factor 2019 [Internet]. Statista. [cited: 10 March 2021]. Available at:

Lokhov A. Technical and Economic Aspects of Load Following with Nuclear Power Plants [Internet]. Nuclear Energy Agency of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development; 2011 [cited 10 March 2021] p. 53. Available at:

Electricity Generation 2020/2021 [Internet]. VGB Powertech; 2020 [cited: 10 March 2021]. Available at:

Regulation of the Council of Ministers of 27 April 2004 on the values of intervention levels for particular types of intervention activities and criteria for cancellation of these activities, Journal of Laws of 2004 No 98 item 987. Available at:

Kopka P, Korycki M, Potempski S, Wawrzyńczak-Szaban A, Wojciechowicz H. Application of the RODOS System to Determination of the Restricted use Area and Emergency Planning Zones for Planned Nuclear Power Plants in Poland. in: Annual report 2018. Otwock-Świerk: National Centre for Nuclear Research; 2019.

Annual report 2019 on the operation of the balancing market [Internet]. Polskie Sieci Elektroenergetyczne S.A.; 2020 [cited: 12 March 2021]. Available at:

NPS power demand - PSE [Internet]. Polskie Sieci Elektroenergetyczne S.A. [cited: 12 March 2021]. Available at:

Polish Nuclear Power Programme. Resolution No. 141 of the Council of Ministers of 2 October 2020 on updating the multiannual programme entitled “Polish Nuclear Power Programme”. Monitor Polski, item 946. Available at:

Report on the CO2 market [Internet]. National Centre for Balancing and Emissions Management; 2020 [cited: 12 March 2021] p. 25. Available at:ń_2020.pdf

National emissions balance of SO2, NOx, CO, NH3, NMZLO, dust, heavy metals and POPs for 2015-2017 [Internet]. National Centre for Balancing and Emissions Management; 2020 [cited: 12 March 2021] p. 25. Available at:

Polish Energy Policy until 2040:Announcement of the Minister of Climate and Environment of 2 March 2021 on the National Energy Policy until 2040, Monitor Polski, Item 264. Available at:

Public support for the construction of a nuclear power plant in Poland – Polski Atom [Internet]. Polski Atom. [cited: 12 March 2021]. Available at:

The attitude of the inhabitants of the location municipalities towards the construction of a nuclear power plant. [Internet]. [cited: 12 March 2021]. Available at:

Gajda P, Gałosz W, Kuczyńska U, Przybyszewska A, Rajewski A, Sawicki Ł. Nuclear Energy for Poland [Internet]. Warsaw: Sobieski Institute; 2020 [cited: 11 March 2021]. Available at:

Energy 2020 [Internet]. Warsaw: Statistics Poland; 2020 [cited: 12 March 2020] p. 26. Available at:,1,8.html

ENTSO-E Transparency Platform [Internet]. [cited: 10 March 2021]. Available at:

German Federal Office for Nature Conservation. CO2 Emission Factors for Fossil Fuels [Internet]. 2016 [cited: 10 March 2021] p. 48. Available at:

Burgherr P, Heath G, Lenzen M, Nyboer J, Verbruggen A. Annex II: Methodology. in: IPCC Special Report on Renewable Energy Sources and Climate Change Mitigation [Internet]. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press; 2011 [cited: 10 March 2021]. p. 28. Available at:

European Commission. Batteries Europe. Strategic Research Agenda for Batteries 2020 [Internet]. 2020 [cited: 10 March 2021] p. 75. Available at:

World Energy Outlook 2020 [Internet]. IEA. [cited: 10 March 2021]. Available at: