Nuclear Power or Not: A Dilemma for Bangladesh

by Barrister Harun ur Rashid | September 22, 2013 10:51 pm

Barrister Harun ur Rashid

Former Bangladesh Ambassador to the UN

The Prime Minister will lay the foundation stone of the Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant in the first week of October. The government maintains that the proposed plant “would continue to be as one of the most prioritised projects of the country regardless of which government comes to power next.”

The site at Rooppur Plant (Iswardi upazila of Pabna district)-200 kilometre north of Dhaka- for a nuclear plant was selected in 1961 but it could not proceed because of many factors including non-availability of adequate finance and safety concerns in a densely populated country of Bangladesh.

It is reported that on November 3, 2011, Bangladesh and Russia signed an agreement for installation of a 2,000 megawatt nuclear power plant at Rooppur in Pabna. .

Bangladesh plans to produce 1000MW of electricity from one plant by June 2020 and 1000MW from another plant by 2023. Power production from nuclear plants is proposed to be increased to 4000MW by 2030. The tenure of the plant will be 60 years and may be extended for another 20 years.

Russia reportedly agreed to undertake the following:

· Design, construction and operation of two nuclear power and research reactors;

· Nuclear fuel supply, taking back the spent nuclear fuel and nuclear waste management;

· Personnel training and capacity building for operation and maintenance of plants;

· Research, education and training of personnel in the Russian Federation in the field of the use of nuclear energy;

The agreement paves the way for cooperation with Russia to build safe nuclear plants. The estimated cost of the each proposed plant is reportedly set to $1.5-2bn. It is also reported that Russia may provide state loan with interest to Bangladesh to build the plants.

It is reported that the reactor series in question is, apparently, the VVER-1000 of the pressurized water reactor type, a design developed in the 1970s that Rosatom typically offers for construction abroad – such as at Iran’s Bushehr, Bulgaria’s Belene[1], and India’s Kudankulam[2].

The government says it is working as per the guidelines of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). An independent nuclear regulatory authority, Bangladesh Atomic Energy Regulatory Authority, has been formed to work closely with Russia’s ROSATOM and IAEA.

During the visit of the Prime Minister to Russia this January, Russia announced a $500 million loan to Dhaka for the construction of the country’s first nuclear power plant. The government recently signed a $45.90m-contract with ATOMSTROYEXPORT, a Russian consultancy firm, for the pre-construction work that involves 63 tests, 26 of which will be conducted by Bangladesh. Later a master plan of the project reactor design will be finalised within 2015.

The Bangladesh Atomic Energy Commission (BAEC) will be implementing the plant project and plans to recruit 1,660 people, including some 500 scientists.

On 22nd July a high-level 12-member Russian delegation reportedly visited the proposed site for Rooppur Nuclear Power to gather for themselves information about sorting out suitable place for preliminary development work, identifying existing establishments and fence mounting. While talking to reporters after the visit, the delegation members said a 200-member specialist team will start the field level work this year.

Problems with nuclear power:

Japan, Taiwan and South Korea are all debating their domestic nuclear-power programs, which are endangered by natural disaster and leaks from the plants.

Start with Japan, Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant which was crippled in March 2011 because of an earthquake and tsunami was leaking 300 tons of radioactive water into the Pacific Ocean every day for two-and-a-half years. Finally on 15th September, Japan temporarily switched off the last nuclear reactor that was powering the country. Industry projections for a restart vary from December this year to mid-2014. It’s not clear when the 12 Japanese reactors currently seeking permission to restart might receive it, with some of the stations also approaching the end of their recommended 40-year lifespans.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe supports nuclear power, which used to supply around 30 percent of Japan’s energy, but public opposition to atomic energy is strong after the 2011 Fukushima meltdown.

Meanwhile, in Taiwan it is reported recently by a government watchdog which revealed that for three years a nuclear plant has leaked small amounts of toxic water. Officials claim the leak is contained inside the plant, but this hurts the government’s push to open the island’s fourth nuclear reactor, which is more than 90% complete but is tied up in political controversy.

It is reported that South Korea is also going through problems with six of its 23 nuclear plants offline, leading the energy minister to warn that Seoul may have to initiate rolling blackouts. To conserve energy, government agencies have reportedly shut off their own air conditioning, put subway trains on a reduced schedule and encouraged businesses and households to stagger daytime consumption.

South Korea’s problems relate to a scandal from last November when Seoul shut down two reactors found to contain thousands of parts installed with forged safety certificates. Authorities took two more reactors offline in May after finding more evidence of forgeries and bribes to officials who looked the other way at the state-financed Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power Company.

South Korea’s goal has been to build 16 new reactors by 2030, increasing the share of nuclear powered national electricity generation from 35% to 59%. South Korean confidence in domestic nuclear energy was then 71%, according to a January 2010 government survey. By this January, it was below 35%.

The big problem is that wind, solar and geothermal would not be able to make up the difference if Japan dropped its 30% reliance on nuclear. Same goes for Taiwan’s 18% nuclear share and South Korea’s 35%.

The only alternative is increased oil and gas imports—meaning higher energy prices and greater vulnerability to supply shocks. To make up for their idling nuclear plants, the Japanese last year spent an additional 0.7% of gross domestic product on imported fuel.

Given the above problems in Japan, Taiwan and South Korea, nuclear experts in Bangladesh argue the following:

· Feasibility study should have been preferably carried out by independent consulting body and not by the Russian consultancy firm. Whether nuclear plants are to be built in a densely populated country such as Bangladesh (three million people reportedly live within a radius of 30km of the site) with a huge loan.

· Russian law covers only import of waste for reprocessing. Interestingly, Russia lacks the technical capability to reprocess waste generated by VVER-1000 reactors, to be built and supplied to Rooppur. Then, how Bangladesh, a flood-prone country will dispose of the dangerous and radioactive waste material which lasts thousands of years?

· Many experts argue shrinking of water in the Padma River near Rooppur plant is a cause for concern for inadequate supply of cooling water for even one 1,000MWe plant, let alone two. Installation of cooling plants would be required with additional costs.

· The loan comprising the capital and interest will have to be paid back whether the plant operates or not, whether the plant suffers an accident and consequently shuts down or not, the loan has to be paid back.

· Decommissioning of nuclear plants after their fixed tenure involves huge costs and risks.

· Pulls money away from investments in renewable energy

Experts argue the design of a nuclear reactor is location specific. The thickness and the height of their walls are planned considering the area where a plant is set up.

Let us wait for the report from Russian experts whether construction of two nuclear plants in Rooppur is possible or not.

  1. Bulgaria’s Belene:
  2. India’s Kudankulam:

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