Analysis: Polish nuclear project faces further delays

WARSAW (Reuters) - Legal hurdles, funding problems and a lack of skilled workers will likely push Poland’s plans to build the country’s first nuclear power plant beyond 2022, further delaying the some 18-billion euro project.

The European Union’s largest ex-communist state is pursuing nuclear energy to wean its economy from highly-polluting coal -- a source that currently generates more than 90 percent of the country’s power needs.

“Poland’s nuclear target sounds a little bit tough to me as there are few financing opportunities out there right now,” Kaan Nazli, Director for Emerging Europe at the U.S.-based Medley Global Advisors, told Reuters.

The government, which is also seeking ways to ease the future impact of strict EU environmental regulations limiting carbon emissions, has tapped Poland’s domiant utility PGE to lead the project.

Poland, which plans to build two nuclear plants with a total installed capacity of 6,000 megawatts, in August pushed back its original deadline for the first bloc to 2022 from 2020 due to technology constraints that surfaced after talks with three potential suppliers.

Officials at Areva, which is one of three companies seeking to help build the plant, told local media this week the original 2020 deadline was possible but analysts suggest even the 2022 target is likely overambitious.

“If you look around the region at the ongoing nuclear projects all of them suffer from delays, we are not going to be an exception,” an energy market analyst at international consultancy said.

Other countries in the coal-reliant region are also turning to atomic power to address future energy needs ahead of EU rules that countries must cut emissions by 20 percent by 2020.

Czech Republic’s CEZ has opened a tender to build three more units at its Temelin power plant near the Austrian border. Hungary, Bulgaria, and Lithuania are eyeing either new plants or adding new units to existing ones.

But Poland, which has no serious experience with nuclear power outside of small scientific research, may well encounter tougher hurdles than some of its neighbors.

For one, lawmakers will need to to rewrite the country’s energy regulations and other laws to create a framework for operating a nuclear plant.

The legal framework to allow PGE to officially start tenders for technology suppliers is scheduled for 2011 but whether politicians can agree on time is questionable.

“We will do everything to be ready with necessary legislation by mid-2011, but it is true that parliamentary elections and EU presidency make our task harder,” said Deputy Economy Minister Hanna Trojanowska, the official in charge of Poland’s nuclear program.

Some analysts question whether the center-right coalition government and lawmakers will be focus on short-term issues and an election in 2011 or passing bills to keep the nuclear programme on track.

Further slowing the project is finding and then training workers with skills needed to design, build and one day operate a nuclear power plant.

“We are short of properly skilled workers at all levels, and this is not just the problem of ministry but also PGE,” Trojanowska says.

Safety concerns in a region where many people associate nuclear power with the 1986 Chernobyl accident which contaminated vast areas of Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia could also slow the project.

Polish Atomic Agency head Michal Waligorski, who will be responsible for safety oversight during construction, pointed to Finland where restrictive safety policies contributed to a more than three-year delay.

“We should not attempt to meet the deadline at any cost but rather focus on preparing well and building a safe plant,” Waligorski said.

(Additional reporting by Kuba Jaworowski and Gabriela Baczynska)

Editing by Michael Kahn and