Poland’s nuclear response

23 January 2018

Minji Park and Kya Palomaki analyse the Polish statues for nuclear power development, taking into consideration proliferation issues and their geopolitical implications

The current geopolitical and environmental situation in Poland has prompted the government there to introduce plans to phase out coal power plants and replace them with nuclear plants. This transition is not without its issues, however, and Poland and the international community must work together to curb illicit proliferation.

Poland, situated in Eastern Europe and encompassing the largest economy of the former Soviet Bloc, depends heavily on coal; it represents 50% of the total primary energy supply and is mostly supplied by domestic coal mines. But Poland is highly dependent on imports for its oil and gas – mostly from Russia, which provides 66% of Poland’s natural gas and all of its oil.

Poland plans to start construction of its first nuclear reactor soon after 2020, with capacity of 3000MWe. The reactor type and site are not determined yet, but Russian technology is not under consideration. Poland already has a 30MWt multi-purpose research reactor, MARIA, which was commissioned in 1974 and is still in operation. It is primarily used for the production of radioisotopes, testing of fuel and structural materials for nuclear power engineering, neutron radiography, neutron activation analysis, neutron transmutation doping, research in neutron and condensed matter physics.

In a recent poll, the National Atomic Energy Agency found that 60% of the Polish general public supports the construction of nuclear power plants.

Motivations for nuclear

Poland has expressed a keen interest in maintaining its own energy security. The Polish Ministry of Economy said this meant “assuring long-term security of electricity supply” and “maintaining electricity prices at levels acceptable by the national economy and the society.”

The Polish government “is conscious of the inherent risks of being dependent on limited sources of oil” and gas from Russia, and actively seeks to loosen what it perceives as a Russian “energy noose” on the European market and a projection of Russian soft power via the energy industry. This soft power can be used by Russia to extend its influence over the states that depend on it for energy. In the past, Russia has used its position as an energy giant to leverage power over neighbouring states by charging them different prices for gas. It also shut off gas to Ukraine and Belarus, most notably in the winters of 2009 and 2015.

Another motive derives from Poland’s high coal usage, which precludes it from reaching EU environmental standards now and in the future. According to EU standards, the bloc’s CO2 emissions must fall by 40% by 2030 and by 80% by 2050, compared with 1990 levels. Nuclear plants are expected to replace coal to supply the baseload for Polish electricity demand, as Poland regards nuclear power as more reliable and it is more energy-dense than renewable energy sources.


What is the current nuclear status of Poland, and how would a Polish nuclear power programme look in the future?

An analysis was carried out to measure Polish nuclear technology against that of eleven other major countries based on 2015 data. The evaluation covers overall area, from political measurement to future nuclear R&D systems. After normalisation and weight- averaging, Poland ranked at eleven out of twelve (see Table, below). 

The USA ranked the most technically advanced country among the countries evaluated, and Ukraine was the last. After the Fukushima accident, Japan dramatically cut down nuclear energy usage, which lowered its status. Compared with strong nuclear countries, Poland still has a long way to develop. However, it showed a positive indication in the Nuclear Safety Index. This indicates that it is unlikely that Poland would undermine non-proliferation activities.

A key finding in developing a nuclear technology is that non-proliferation planning and support are essential from the outset of the Polish nuclear power programme. It is vital to understand that developing non- proliferation measures alongside nuclear technology is essential. Keeping nuclear for civil use is vital because Poland has just begun to adapt to nuclear, and has unlimited potential to grow its industry.

The threat of nuclear material theft is a problem felt acutely among the states of the former Soviet Union and its satellite countries, which are notorious for lightly guarded medical facilities and research institutes with radioactive materials. The horror of nuclear theft has, so far, not been experienced by Poland’s MARIA research reactor, which is globally recognised for its security efforts.

With the help of the US-based National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), Poland has completed an effort to switch from highly enriched uranium (HEU) to low-enriched uranium (LEU) fuel in order to prevent spent or stolen fuel from being used in bomb making.

However, if Poland introduces nuclear power plants into its domestic power mix, it runs the risk of nuclear material theft.
The volume of fuel needed to produce nuclear power and the larger amount of spent fuel that will be produced will offer opportunities for nuclear smuggling, and Poland is situated in a region that is a global hotspot for such activities. When the Cold War ended, a security vacuum in the states of the former Soviet Union allowed organised crime groups to more easily engage in transnational criminal activity, and permitted the consolidation of existing criminal groups, the rise of new organisations, and the diversification of criminal activity.

While Poland is already versed in security with regard to its existing research reactor, once there is a nuclear plant it will have to manage more employees, who could pose potential insider threats. Insider threats may include: low-tech attacks, such as modifying or stealing confidential or sensitive information for personal gain; theft of trade secrets or customer information to be used for business advantage or to give to a foreign government or organisation; and technically sophisticated crimes that sabotage an organisation’s data, systems or network. Human error and failure is often associated with this category of risk, as innocent mistakes can aid malicious actors in their criminal deeds.

Insiders are all those with access to nuclear sites, and include civilian employees, military personnel and security guards. Sometimes, organised crime or terrorist groups simply bribe an unscrupulous employee to smuggle out fissile material, or nuclear amateurs who mistakenly believe that anything radioactive can be sold on the black market as nuclear technology try and supplement their paychecks in that way.

When considering the threat of an outside group illegally obtaining nuclear materials, there is normally some element of insider assistance, due to the controlled nature of nuclear facilities. Terrorist groups have long sought to build their own illicit nuclear weapons, a frightening possibility which must be mitigated by Polish authorities.

Possiblity of a state-sponsored weapons programme

Although it is unlikely, one scenario stemming from Poland’s nuclear programme could be a Polish state-sponsored nuclear weapons programme.

Poland has a tense relationship with Russia and an increasingly distrustful relationship with the EU; combined, these relationships have resulted in a Poland that feels as though it may be the subject of Russian aggression with no help or recourse from the EU. It would also mean that Poland no longer feels that it can rely on NATO troops, or on the US extended deterrent. Poland may come to decide that the deterrent power of nuclear latency as a side benefit of the nuclear power programme is not enough, and only a declared nuclear weapons programme can guarantee its security.

If Poland embarked upon this route, it would have to dissolve its signatory status to the Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT), a move that would cause political upheaval that would reverberate around the globe. States are within their rights to leave the NPT; Article X provides a right to withdraw from the treaty if the withdrawing party “decides that extraordinary events, related to the subject matter of this [t]reaty, have jeopardized the supreme interests of its country.” Today, the only state which has exercised its Article X rights is North Korea. This means that any other country choosing to leave the treaty will join a club of dubious prestige.

By leaving the treaty, Poland would incur the wrath of the EU, which, in May 2017, made a public declaration of its continued commitment to the NPT. Such a move would also alienate the USA, which responded to the departure of North Korea from the NPT with heavy, persistent sanctions and multiple rounds of high-level negotiations. International organisations such as the IAEA condemned North Korea’s departure; the IAEA quickly drafted a resolution which [deplored] North Korea’s action “in the strongest terms” and [called] on Pyongyang to meet “immediately, as a first step” with IAEA officials.

Russia would also have a very strong reaction to a Polish nuclear weapons programme; having a pro-US, nuclear-armed adversary so close would heighten Russia’s feelings of insecurity, and could cause any number of bilateral tensions and skirmishes. Although Poland does not represent the same threat to global security as North Korea, its departure from the NPT would surely be met with strongly-worded condemnations of its action and its relations with other states and regions would likely cool considerably. This could affect Poland’s regional trade, national economy and global standing.

Another possible consequence of Poland leaving the NPT and starting its own nuclear weapons programme is a domino effect of other states abandoning the NPT in favour of developing their own weapons programmes. States on the Russian periphery would observe Poland leaving the NPT due to concerns about Russian aggression and EU impotence and wonder if they, too, are vulnerable. If they decided that they were, it might be rational to seek out a nuclear weapons programme of their own. This would be extremely destabilising, regionally and globally, and has the potential to change the face of international politics. Although it is unlikely that a former signatory of the NPT would be as insular and volatile as North Korea, it would not bode well for international peace for multiple states to abandon their commitments under the NPT.

Non-proliferation suggestions

Technical measures can be used to reduce concerns over proliferation or nuclear material going astray. Current reprocessing methods allow plutonium to be extracted alone, or do not measure how much plutonium or uranium is extracted at the final stage. They should be further developed to cope with potential proliferation issues.

Innovative research and development for electromagnetic or gas diffusion enrichment methods to lessen power requirements are possible sectors that Poland could explore. Also, global co-operation on weapons-test or on tracking uranium and plutonium paths is needed for non-proliferation.

On the political front the USA, NATO and the EU should maintain their commitments to Poland that they will stand up to Russia in times of crisis, which will help easing Polish tensions with Russia. The USA should pull back from its “America First” strategy and maintain pressure or incentives on Poland to maintain its commitment to the NPT.

Expanding that commitment on issues of nuclear security and safety from Poland’s existing nuclear research reactor is vital.

A commitment to safety and strong safety culture must run through the programme, from employee vetting to mimicking construction and accident safeguard techniques. An export control regime, such as UNSC Resolution 1540, will also be required.

To summarise, Poland’s complex security environment presents challenges to its fledgling nuclear programme, and may be fuelling Poland’s pursuit of nuclear power. The myriad technical and geopolitical challenges encountered by Poland have the potential to lead to proliferation, either licitly or illicitly, and the international community should be aware of the reasons why Poland might wish to proliferate and the methods to prevent it from doing so. 

About the authors: Minji Park ([email protected]), College of Engineering, Seoul National University and Kya Palomaki ([email protected]), The Elliott School of International Affairs, George Washington University. This work was supported by 2017 NEREC Summer Fellows Program, Nuclear Nonproliferation Education and Research Center (NEREC) at KAIST. 

Poland Maria president – Polish president Andrzej Duda visits the MARIA reactor (Credit: NCBJ)
Poland The grounds of the former Zarnowiec nuclear plant construction site in Pomeranian region, Poland
Poland Poland’s MARIA research reactor started operating in 1974 (Credit NCBJ)
Poland Poland’s MARIA research reactor started operating in 1974 (Credit NCBJ)
Poland Poland’s MARIA research reactor started operating in 1974 (Credit NCBJ)
Poland Poland is considering construction of a U-Battery high-temperature reactor at the NCBJ site

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