By Samuel Harcourt
WARSAW (Reuters) - Unease is growing among Poles living near the probable site of their country's first nuclear power plant after Japan's disaster but the Polish government is adamant that nuclear power is safe and remains the best option.
Poland, dependent on polluting coal for more than 90 percent of its energy needs, is one of many countries aiming to harness nuclear power as it seeks ways to diversify from fossil fuels.
Prime Minister Donald Tusk's center-right government hopes the first of two nuclear blocks producing electricity could be in operation by 2020. It has yet to choose a final location but Zarnowiec near the Baltic coast is seen as the most likely site.
Reacting to the explosions at Japan's Fukushima plant after a huge earthquake and tsunami, Tusk has stressed that Poland is not in a seismically active region and that security will be his top priority. But not all are convinced.
"There is a fear that what happened in Japan could happen here. We would be closest to it so we would have the problems," said Paulina Krypina, a young mother and resident of Zarnowiec.
"I would prefer a normal power plant than a nuclear one here. There are situations in which you can lose your life and everything," said another woman who gave her name as Ewa.
Ironically, Zarnowiec was chosen in communist times as the site for a nuclear power plant but work was suspended after protests sparked by the 1986 Chernobyl disaster in neighboring Ukraine. The abandoned half-built structure still stands.
An opinion poll conducted by the SMG/KRC pollster after the first explosion at the Fukushima plant showed Poles almost evenly divided over the construction of a nuclear facility in Poland, with 47 percent in favor and 46 percent opposed.
Tusk, who faces elections this year, argues that Poland has to pursue the nuclear option to meet its growing energy needs while reducing its carbon dioxide emissions in line with commitments made to the European Union.
"I urge people to approach this issue with sound reasoning. Yes we are tormented by emotions when we see the dramatic pictures from Japan but I do not want these dramatic emotions... to disrupt our sound reasoning," he said.
PGE, the state-owned Polish company named to implement the nuclear project, estimates the total cost of the plant at some 18 billion to 21 billion euros. It is meant to provide about 16 percent of Poland's annual energy production by 2030.
Iwo Los of Greenpeace in Poland said it was disappointing that it had taken a potential disaster on the scale of Japan's Fukushima plant to bring nuclear energy back into the arena of public debate in Poland.
"The government wants to build such a (plant) in Poland although different countries around Poland, for instance Germany and Austria... said they have to rethink the future of nuclear energy," said Los.
Germany announced this week the immediate closure at least until June of seven nuclear power stations which started operating before 1980. It also suspended an unpopular decision to grant operational lifetime extensions to nuclear plants.
The head of Germany's Brandenburg region which borders Poland, Matthias Platzeck, was quoted by Polish media as urging Warsaw to scrap the plans to build a nuclear plant in the wake of the Japanese disaster.
But Poles are unlikely to take advice on the issue from Germany, which still has 10 nuclear plants in operation after the temporary closure of seven.
"There are so many of those power plants (in Germany). If just one explodes it will affect us, so I think this one (at Zarnowiec) will not do any harm," said shop worker Aneta Wild.
(Writing by Gareth Jones, Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)