Two-thirds of Polish people support the plans to construct a new nuclear power plant in Poland, above all because this would increase Polish energy independence. The Polish public wants their country to be less reliant on Russia and other suppliers and believes renewable energy and nuclear energy are the best options for this. They appear to have less enthusiasm for shale gas and coal. These results appear from a poll conducted by PISM, the Polish Institute of International Affairs, announced on 25 August.
With the appointment of Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk as the new President of the European Council, Polish energy policy takes on new importance within the European Union. Tusk has already made his mark on the European energy debate in April of this year with his plea for an “Energy Union”, which would include collective buying of gas. This proposal is still being discussed by European leaders.
The strong Polish desire for European and national independence is directly related to the dramatic events in Ukraine, which have created high tension among the Polish public and have resulted in a stark increase in sensitivity to national security. The highest level of perceived insecurity was recorded in March 2014 when Russia seized control over the Crimean peninsula, but even now more than half the Polish population still believes that the persisting crisis in Ukraine poses a threat to Poland’s security. Furthermore, for the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union, those who consider Poland’s independence to be in peril outnumber those who see no such danger.
In this paper I discuss the results of research carried out by PISM, focused in particular on the topic of nuclear energy. It concerns quantitative face-to-face interviews, analysed with the use of the CAPI system, carried out in the spring of 2014 among a random, representative sample of 1,000 adult inhabitants of Poland. It is part of the research project “Nuclear energy in Poland: balance sheet and future outlook.” I will also refer in this article to a survey on Poland’s security perception conducted in Summer 2014 by the Polish public opinion research center CBOS.
It is clear from our research that, given Polish over-reliance on Russian energy resources, i.e., oil and gas, the issue of energy independence has gained particular recognition in the eyes of the Polish public. Among potential solutions, renewable energy (58%) and nuclear power generation (48%) are favoured by the largest share of society. Shale gas extraction and development of coal-based technologies (8%) are considered by respectively 21% and 8% of respondents as other potentially viable options. The relatively low support for the latter two may signify that Poles are persuaded that regardless of Warsaw’s diversification efforts, continued reliance on fossil fuels will inevitably perpetuate energy dependence on Moscow due to Russia’s role as the country with the largest global oil, gas and coal reserves.
Nuclear Power Generation as a Step towards Energy Independence
After the Fukushima disaster and the subsequent decision by Germany and several other states to no longer rely on nuclear energy, there was a marked decrease in public support for the planned construction of a new Polish nuclear power plant. But this trend has now been reserved, another illustration of how the Polish perception of nuclear energy strongly depends on the international context. Poland began construction of its own nuclear power plant (Russian VVER-440 reactor) in Żarnowiec in 1982 but it stopped in 1990, as a consequence, among others, of the Chernobyl disaster. Therefore Poland has never had any nuclear power plants, nevertheless it had and still has training reactors.
But today, almost two-thirds of Poles support the plans to construct a nuclear power plant (64%). Among those in favour, the most prominent group is young people with secondary or tertiary degrees, with upper income levels and living in the largest cities.
The fears associated with nuclear energy are gradually disappearing
Pro-nuclear respondents point mostly to its potential role in increasing Poland’s energy independence (57%) and, to a lesser extent, to economic benefits such as an increase in employment (42%), technological progress (26%), and the participation of Polish companies in the construction of the plant (24%). Almost two-thirds of those in favour (63%) would support investment in domestic nuclear power generation capacity even if Poland could satisfy its energy demand by buying it at a low price from its neighbours.
The fears associated with nuclear energy are gradually disappearing. More than one in two Poles sees nuclear power plants as an attractive and reliable way of obtaining energy (71%) which is not threatening (57%), and believes that the existing plants in proximity to Polish borders do not endanger the environment or the health and security of the neighbouring Polish inhabitants (64%). Here again, those least sceptical are young people from large cities with high levels of education and income.
Among the potential threats resulting from a nuclear power plant deployment in Poland, most respondents point to technical failures and mismanagement of nuclear waste, with radiation and terrorist threats being mentioned only rarely. It is important to remark that in its majority Polish public opinion would not support environmental groups in their protests against the construction of a nuclear power plant (52%), with only one in every four Poles passively supporting such groups (23%) and fewer than one in 10 willing to participate in such protests (9%).
While the majority of Polish society strongly agrees that nuclear energy would bring economic benefits to Poland, there is less certainty as to whether it constitutes the most attractive of the various energy sources available—public opinion is split in equal parts among those who believe it to be true, those who think there are other, more attractive solutions, and those who have no opinion on the subject.
Important Regional Differences
There is a pronounced difference in perceptions of nuclear energy between eastern and western Poland. The voivodeships with the highest support for the construction of a nuclear power plant include Kujawsko-Pomorskie (89%), Lubelskie (85%), Małopolskie (85%) and Mazowieckie (78%). Voices in favour are far rarer in Zachodniopomorskie (17%), Wielkopolskie (27%), Dolnośląskie (37%), Łódzkie (45%) and Lubuskie (50%).
Within the western regions of Poland, many say they believe there is a negative impact on Polish territory from nuclear power plants operating in the proximity of the country’s borders, including on the environment as well as the health and safety of Polish citizens. In addition, the inhabitants of western Poland are more wary of the potential of accidents or even terrorist attacks on nuclear plants. In contrast, in eastern Poland, more people emphasise the likely economic benefits related to nuclear power plant construction and operation and point to a lack of viable financing as the biggest threat to such an investment.
If the conflict in Ukraine de-escalates and Russia ceases to confront Europe, the high support for nuclear power plant construction among Polish society cannot be guaranteed
It is no surprise that the ability to learn from the experience of other countries when it comes to designing, constructing, operating and financing the plant is considered to be of utmost importance for Polish society, nearly in its entirety (88%), regardless of the region. When identifying such benchmark countries, Poles point to highly developed continental European countries with decades of experience in nuclear energy provision, such as Germany (49%) and France (27%). Despite their equally important experience, countries such as Japan (18%), the U.S. (14%) and the U.K. (12%) were mentioned more rarely, perhaps due to the geographical and cultural divide looming larger than in the case of more proximate partners, such as Paris and Berlin. Only a small minority (5%) believes Poland should try to learn from the experience of Russia, which most probably reflects not only the current negative perception of it from the Ukraine crisis, but more generally shows scepticism towards the politicised character of Russia’s energy deals with its European partners.
Significant support expressed by Polish society towards nuclear energy is shaped by the current international context, i.e., the permeating feeling of anxiety caused by the events in Ukraine. As public opinion is aware of Poland’s strong reliance on fossil fuels imported from Russia, it is strongly in favour of efforts aimed at increasing the former’s energy independence, such as through the development of renewable energy sources and nuclear power capacity. From this perspective, the construction of a nuclear power plant is seen, above all, as a strategic investment to reinforce Poland’s sovereignty, and only secondarily as an economically viable undertaking.
Thus, it appears reasonable to assume that if the conflict in eastern Ukraine de-escalates and Russia ceases to confront Europe, the high support for nuclear power plant construction among Polish society cannot be guaranteed. For actors, both domestic and foreign, who are involved in the future of nuclear energy in Poland, this points to the necessity of refocusing the public debate towards broader issues relating to the economic aspects of nuclear energy. Those elements, which are currently lacking, can serve to provide roots to the existing opinions and make them more stable and less context-dependent. The issues that should be spelled out relate, among others, to investment costs and financing possibilities, as well as potential economic benefits linked to the construction and functioning of a nuclear power plant. Designing a successful informational campaign would require the simultaneous and well-coordinated engagement of numerous actors, including central and local governments, as well as representatives of the business community, NGOs and expert associations.
Jarosław Ćwiek-Karpowicz is the Head of Research Office at the Polish Institute of International Affairs (PISM). This article was first published in a slightly different from in the Bulletin of PISM of 25 August 2014 and is republished here with permission.