The BSPC Working Group on Climate Change and Biodiversity met for the final time in Gdańsk, Poland, to complete its intensive three-year-long work. Once more, the group listened to and discussed three expert presentations, two on nuclear power as part of the Polish strategy of transitioning away from fossil fuels and towards low-carbon energy systems and one on the Slovinski National Park and Biosphere Reserve. Afterwards, a lively discussion ensued to put together the group’s calls to action to the governments of the Baltic Sea region. The calls found unanimous approval in the end, underlining the excellent status of Baltic Sea parliamentary cooperation. About 25 participants from the Åland Islands, the Baltic Assembly, Denmark, the German Bundestag, Hamburg, Latvia, Lithuania, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Norway, Poland and Sweden attended the deliberations.
Working Group chairman Philipp da Cunha welcomed the members to their eighth and final meeting in Gdańsk, highlighting the city’s long and varied history and merits in Baltic Sea cooperation. Working Group vice-chairman Jarosław Wałęsa, member of the hosting Polish parliament, also underlined his hometown’s tradition of jointly finding solutions but pointed out the new geopolitical reality demanding that the Baltic Sea countries pave the way towards the future together. The sustainable transition also had to be viewed within the social dimensions. United in solidarity, the Baltic Sea region could provide a strong example to the world in these measures. Mr Kacper Płażyński, also member of the hosting Polish parliament and member of the Working Group, introducing the experts, noted the importance of nuclear power plants, particularly for the Polish strategy of transitioning away from fossil fuels and towards low-carbon energy systems.
Professor Dagmara Strumińska-Parulska, PhD, Assoc. Prof., Faculty of Chemistry, Laboratory of Toxicology and Radiation Protection, University of Gdańsk, spoke about natural radioactivity and radioactive contamination, which should be treated differently. She took the Polish point of view, mentioning that it equally applied to Europe. Poland’s energy policy until 2040 had three pillars: fair transition, zero-emission energy – including offshore wind energy and nuclear power –, and good air quality. The plan called for 25 % of the country’s future energy supply to come from six nuclear reactors. Despite some concerns, the population’s support for nuclear power was increasing and was already the highest in Europe. She insisted that nobody had died in the accident at the Fukushima power plant in Japan but only in the causing earthquake and tsunami. As for the planned Polish power plant near Gdańsk, Prof Strumińska-Parulska noted that her university was uniquely suited to overseeing the environmental effects. She explained the radiation dose limits set by Polish law, allowing 20 mSv for employees but only 1 mSv for other persons. These applied to natural radiation. Much lower legal limits were used for nuclear power plants, permitting 0.3 mSv per year.
The professor addressed the Chernobyl nuclear accident, noting that its fallout had mostly avoided Poland, despite the proximity, and that recent studies had shown its impact to be much lower than initially expected. She cited that the impact of plutonium and caesium in, e.g., fish or mushrooms was very low. Furthermore, she pointed out that natural radiation was often forgotten in the discussion, reminding the audience that it was always present, e.g., in water or food. About half the radiation absorbed by a typical person in the UK originates from natural radon gas. Nuclear medicine accounted for 16 % and growing. The impact from other manmade radionuclides was very small, she said. Prof Strumińska-Parulska stressed that natural radiation accounted for the vast majority of the impact, listing as sources air, water, food, supplements, and cigarettes. She repeated that natural radiation in everyday food and drink was not mentioned in the debate about nuclear power. Listing several foodstuffs or supplements that her department had tested – such as algae or calcium pills –, she concluded that these carried much higher doses from natural sources, although she still described these as safe. Going back to radon gas, this was by far the greatest radiation source, as it was also emitted from walls. Moreover, it could concentrate in buildings, increasing human intake. Thus, the Euratom guideline limited indoor intake to 300 Bq/m3.
The natural radiation made it difficult to calculate the dose absorbed by an individual, harkening back to the legal limits mentioned before. While the background radiation was comparatively low in Poland, in Iran, for instance, it amounted to 200 mSv. These had to be removed from the equation to determine the manmade effect. The problem in general here was that regulations targeted artificial radionuclides but did not measure the naturally occurring ones, even though they had a huge impact on humans and other biota. This led to a knowledge gap in science and also lacking awareness of the natural radioactivity in materials used in industry.
Mr Płażyński inquired about the Chernobyl radiation and at what point it became dangerous for human health. Prof Strumińska-Parulska said the exclusion zone around the Chernobyl reactor was 30 kilometres. While humans were not supposed to live there, animals did – yet they did not suffer from cancer or other diseases connected with radiation. She further said that the Chernobyl accident had been connected to the experiment rather than the proper operating facility. In the case of the Fukushima accident, there had been less harmful agents involved and contamination had been contained. Prof Jānis Vucāns noted a visit of the BSPC Standing Committee to a nuclear facility in Belarus in 2016 and a Minsk hospital for children suffering from Chernobyl-caused diseases. Given that the wind had spread radiation, he wondered about analyses of wind directions for the planned Polish power plants and what countries would be affected. Prof Strumińska-Parulska conceded that this was part of the discussions with neighbouring countries before stating that the new plant would be very different from Chernobyl, precluding a similar accident to an extremely high probability. Even if such an accident occurred, the effects would be local only. Ms Claudia Müller noted that the Chernobyl effects might have avoided Poland but had affected vast swaths of other countries where e.g., mushrooms were still not allowed to be eaten. Prof Strumińska-Parulska said that they could be safely eaten. Ms Müller further pointed out that the Fukushima plant had been built to withstand earthquakes yet had suffered the accident. Moreover, there were higher cancer rates in the region than typical. Prof Strumińska-Parulska remarked that humans had evolved within average radiation and had accommodated that. As for cancer cases, she said there were many possible sources, such as toxic substances. It was very difficult to determine what was the actual cause. Moreover, she reiterated that the natural radiation was much higher. Prof Gudowski interjected to note that there were regulations for the safe construction of nuclear power plants which would be followed, provided an explanation for the sick children in Belarus, and assured Ms Müller that mushrooms were safe to eat. Ms Emma Nohrén pointed to the problems in Sweden with cooling water for the power plant and the expected warming of the water. Prof Strumińska-Parulska said that this had been taken into account in the planning.
Prof Dr hab. Wacław Gudowski, National Centre for Nuclear Research – Świerk and Royal Institute of Technology – KTH, Stockholm, Senior Advisor to Orlen Synthos Green Energy – OSGE, spoke about small nuclear reactors (SMRs) which he explained were a worthy investment. The discussion of nuclear energy was biased towards the negative – due to Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and other incidents – but ignored the benefits. Medium-sized energy plants dominated Poland’s energy system, but most of these units were already forty-plus years old and would have to be shut down for age anyway. Gas had been seen as the solution before the war in Ukraine, yet it had been known since the early 1990s that leakage of natural gas of more than 7 % was more damaging to the environment than coal or oil. He pointed out that Russia’s leakage was double that. So, gas was a poor environmental choice, to begin with.
The question was with what to replace the ageing energy infrastructure, specifically how to provide a base level of stable energy rather than the uncertain renewables. Even with the large nuclear programme of the state, there was a gap of 10 gigawatts, though, which would have to be filled. He noted the excellent district heating system of the country, although the same system was releasing large volumes of particle matter into the atmosphere. The choice of nuclear power instead of fossil fuel sources was evident to Prof Gudowski because it was highly efficient in its chain reaction. As for waste products, he noted that plutonium could be reused. 95 % of this material could be easily recycled. A few grams of uranium produced the same energy as one tonne of coal, corresponding to the needs of one person per year and creating just as little waste. That radioactive waste was kept under control all the time. He said that nuclear energy was the only low-emission energy source, even lower than geothermal or hydro power. In addition, small nuclear reactors in particular required less real estate to provide equivalent power than all other energy sources. Regarding the waste, he spoke about intermediate storage but insisted that most of the material that would go into a final storage was still recyclable. He further said that an area the size of two Olympic-size pools was enough to store all the nuclear waste from forty years of production in Sweden for up to 200 years in intermediate storage.
Prof Gudowski spoke about the succeeding generations of nuclear power types, leading up to the generation four which he had been involved in devising. This should ensure the recycling of most fuel and be sustainable. Normal light water reactors employed uranium enriched up to 5 %. Waste was currently not being recycled. In the 2000s, interest in nuclear energy picked up enormously, producing several new designs that would be smaller and more efficient. Looking at the current needs of the country, Poland decided that the VWRX 300 model was the best choice, fitting the grid and being a mature design. The OECD had also rated this model as the most mature technology. Deploying small nuclear reactors of this type would save a great deal of CO2 equivalent. Prof Gudowski highlighted the safety mechanism which did not require pumps and could easily shut down the reactor in case of a most serious accident. Furthermore, they did not require a lot of space, just about the size of a football pitch. Equally, construction time was a great deal shorter. As for costs, estimates ranged from 1 to 1.5 billion US dollars until starting energy production. This, though, applied to the first unit. Economies of scale and serial production would bring costs down to about half of that for the final power plants. He underlined that the deployment process was in full swing, including discussions with the licensing bodies, the government, the research community and the potential industrial customers. Site selection had been based on safety, environment, and economics.
He concluded by asking whether nuclear energy was safe. The death rate per unit of production was 0.03, much lower than fossil fuel. He further underlined that nuclear power was not expensive at all.
Ms Lene Westgaard-Halle noted that in her home country of Norway, hydro power dominated so that a nuclear plant had recently been decommissioned at a cost of 2.5 billion Euros. In line with that, she wondered about Prof Gudowski saying nuclear waste was easy to dispose of. Regarding SMRs she was interested in the maturation timeline. Prof Wacław Gudowski believed his chosen model would be ready to be built in 2030. As for the costs, he noted that Sweden had started a decommissioning fund when building the reactors, decades ahead of time, so that was already covered. Furthermore, money earned during operations should be set aside to take care of dismantling costs. Mr Simon Påvals asked whether the CO2 costs of nuclear power included the mining of uranium. Prof Gudowski explained that his data were taken from the International Panel of Climate Change, including the whole lifecycle analysis. To a second question about storage, the professor explained that geological storage would be needed for nuclear ashes, but he expected recycling capabilities for uranium and plutonium. Ms Claudia Müller deepened the topic of the economic viability of SMRs and the necessary protection of nuclear sites from terrorism and theft. Prof Gudowski said that the stakeholders should not be the deciding factors. Conceding that security was needed, he put the responsibility first on the political level, second on the building level. Furthermore, SMRs distributed any risk from a single strike disrupting the energy supply. Prof Jānis Vucāns wished for clarification on the economy of scale which would be of greater importance to the Baltic states. Prof Gudowski answered that the solution had to be tailored to the needs of the customer, adding that costs had come down in other countries for large-scale reactors. Mr Philipp da Cunha wondered if nuclear energy would curtail renewable power in Poland. Prof Gudowski noted that renewable energy was prioritised in Poland as well, but he saw the future as hydrogen storing excess energy, despite the current over-enthusiasm among politicians.
Mr Grzegorz Kupczak, Slovinski National Park (Słowiński Park Narodowy), explained that the park had the status of a biosphere reserve. One of the oldest reserves in Poland since 1997, the park had to fulfil three basic tasks: protection, development, and logistical support. As only the protective function had been fully met, the park had had to reinforce the other two in order to maintain its status as a biosphere reserve. Essentially building up a reserve from the ground up in-between 2015 and 2017, they had called on the help from stakeholders and set up a steering committee to pool resources and efforts.
Located in the middle of Pomerania, the reserve had originally covered only the area of the national park itself and its buffer zone. As part of the agreement with stakeholders, that area had been considerably enlarged. Currently, they were still seeking to establish a buffer zone in the Baltic Sea. He underlined that the biosphere did not represent a nature protection zone – that was restricted to the national park itself. Instead, the biosphere reserve coordinated all kinds of land use, allowing both settlement and development to varying degrees.
He next spoke about the name which originated in the ethnic group of Slovinski, i.e., the Slovenian people in the area who spoke their own dialect of the North-Polish Kashub language. Still, they had been treated as Germans after World War II, many of them forced to emigrate to Germany. Now Poland recognised their heritage and culture. Cultural heritage, Mr Kupczak underlined, was an important part of biosphere reserves and was reflected in an open-air museum in Kluki.
Slovinski was part of the cooperation Biosphere for Baltic which had been launched in 2017 and included, among others, reserves in Germany, Denmark, Sweden, and Estonia. The network was raising awareness of sustainability challenges in the Baltic Sea, highlighting the interconnectedness of land and sea as well as serving as pilot implementations of the sustainable development goals. The focus was on two broad themes: Source to Sea concerned the effects of human activities across rivers and deltas into the Baltic Sea, while Ocean Literacy promoted a better understanding of the ocean and its interaction with people. Biosphere for Baltic had set itself the goals of increasing the reserves’ dialogue, raising awareness among the stakeholders as well as exchanging experiences, best practices and ideas. The cooperation was implemented through exchange events, workshops, a joint Interreg project about learning sites to combat eutrophication in the planning stage and celebrating the Day of the Baltic Sea. Together, they had published booklets about projects and sustainable products, in support of the local markets. This was a strong network, Mr Kupczak underlined, benefitting each other.
BSPC Secretary General Bodo Bahr referred to recent international agreements on maritime protection; he wondered if Poland was planning to expand its biosphere reserves. Mr Kupczak conceded that he did not know the answer. Almost all of the eleven reserves in Poland were connected to the national park. Expansion was planned for then national park, but these efforts were difficult because local communities were wary of the perceived limitations within reserves, although he was still hopeful. Since the biosphere reserves were not enshrined in Polish law, they were voluntary in nature. Ms Beate Schlupp asked how many private owners had joined this cooperation, noting that biosphere reserves did mean limitations in Germany. Mr Kupczak praised the German reserves before noting the differences between countries. His organisation did not have a private partner, but they were cooperating with their stakeholders and providing benefits, such as e.g., promoting their products. Mr Alexander Mohrenberg was curious about how to protect wandering sand dunes. Mr Kupczak explained that the 300 hectares of moving dunes in Slovinski national park were strictly protected, adding that they were shifting by ten to twelve metres per year. Tourist trails led through the dunes, along with education infrastructure.
Chairman da Cunha noted that this day’s presentations would be featured in the final report, as were all the expert presentations from the working group’s three years.
Working Group Calls for Action
Chaired by Philipp da Cunha and Jarosław Wałęsa, the Working Group discussed the calls for action in the 32nd Resolution of the BSPC at the Berlin Conference. The draft was based on the expert presentations, discussions, and input during the three years of the working group’s existence. Mr Kacper Płażyński, Ms Claudia Müller, Ms Lene Westgaard-Halle, Chairman Philipp da Cunha, Prof Jānis Vucāns, Mr Jarosław Wałęsa, Secretary General Bodo Bahr, Ms Emma Nohrén, Mr Simon Påvals and Mr Alexander Mohrenberg contributed to the discussion about the wording of the various calls.
In particular, Mr Płażyński favoured a diversification of supplies in technology and resources, not to rely on challenging countries. Regarding the proposed inclusion of nuclear power in the calls, there were differing opinions from the various BSPC delegations, respective to their countries’ political approaches. Mr Bahr suggested a phrasing in line with e.g., the notes of the EU Commission during the CBSS offshore wind conference the week before in Berlin and the result of the working groups discussion one year before in Mariehamn to reflect the nations’ diverging energy strategies. This found the working group’s unanimous approval.
Another point of discussion was how to involve the local level as a crucial aspect of climate change and biodiversity efforts. The call concerning carbon sequestration concerning forests also drew some discussion and the desire to mention various other areas, such as peatlands or mangroves. The issue of land degradation and forest management was also discussed to sharpen the call and create consensus. Finally, the working group considered the lack of transparency about actions and behaviour of the Russian Federation in the Baltic Sea which might hinder the goal of a clean and sustainable ocean to be taken into account by the BSPC Standing Committee for the 32nd resolution.
After further discussion, the Working Group unanimously agreed on 25 calls for action to the governments for inclusion in the 32nd BSPC resolution and adoption by the Annual Conference. These recommendations also considered the proposals of the previous Baltic Sea Parliamentary Youth Forum, in line with the results of the earlier consultations (recommendations here).
Chairman Philipp da Cunha noted that the governments’ answers to the working group’s survey had been detailed and informative, including the subsequent question regarding the policy changes due to the war in Ukraine. These statements were published on the BSPC website. The same applied to the working group’s previous calls for action to the governments incorporated in the 31st BSPC Resolution. Prof Jānis Vucāns explained that Estonia, after its recent elections, was still forming its BSPC delegation so that there was a small delay with that government’s reaction. The working group agreed to include all the governmental statements received in the final report. In addition, the report would follow the format of previous versions and would also include the results of the present meeting. The working group agreed on the procedure to complete the final report for its presentation to the BSPC Annual Conference in Berlin. Furthermore, the working group agreed to attach an executive summary of the final report.
The chairman further informed the group that the fourth session of the Berlin Conference would be devoted to the working group’s topic of climate change and biodiversity. This was when the final report would be presented.