India-Bangladesh Nuclear Cooperation

Whether or not the world is experiencing the nuclear renaissance, the Asian region is indeed witnessing its ‘nuclear power moment’. With an immense growth potential for nuclear power, the region may become home to some of the debutants such as Bangladesh, Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand, Philippines and Malaysia. Due to rapidly increasing electricity demand along with an aim to diversify the energy sources, many countries in the region are likely to include nuclear in their energy mix.

Bangladesh heralding new era with Nuclear Power

While nuclear energy projects in countries like Vietnam, Indonesia and Thailand are yet to take off, in South Asia – Bangladesh would kick start the construction of the Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant (RNPP) in Pabna on November 30, when the pouring of the first concrete in the foundations of the nuclear reactor would happen. The RNNP would be built with Russian and Indian collaboration. It is reported that Russia will provide all the required assistance in the setting up of the power plant, ranging from supplying the fuel and shipping back the spent fuel. It is noteworthy that Bangladesh bears approximately 10 per cent of the cost while Russia provides the rest of the construction cost as a loan to Bangladesh.

After the operationalization of the RNNP, Bangladesh would become the third country to embrace nuclear power in South Asia after India and Pakistan. While India and Pakistan had experienced nuclear energy within a decade and half post their independence, during mid-1950s and 1960s, it took Bangladesh almost five and half decades to realise its dream of nuclear power.

It is for this reason too, the recent announcement of going ahead with embracing nuclear power remains significant. More so, if viewed in the context of the fact that even today roughly over four million households in Bangladesh remains without electricity that makes it 20 percent of the whole population. Thus, nuclear power indeed holds many promises for Bangladesh. In fact, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina had remarked: “I believe it fulfils the nation’s dream, as after decades of speculation, the RNNP is going to be a reality heralding a new era for Bangladesh”.

The RNPP remains as one of the most expensive projects in the country’s history. However, it is also true that, when completed, the investment would be worthy as it will accelerate economic growth of the country.

The RNPP is expected to get operational by the year 2024-2025 with a capacity of 2,400 MWe from its two VVER-1200 light-water reactors. Additionally, Bangladesh has also shortlisted various sites for its next nuclear power plant such as Khottae Char, Nidrar Char, Tengar Char, Alisar Mor (Barguna) etc, as the country seeks to generate approximately 60,000 MW of electricity from nuclear by 2041. According to Minister for Science and Technology Yafes Osman, RNNP will be in operation for 60 years with an additional extended duration for another 20 years. In the backdrop of rapidly rising electricity demand in the country, the government plans to connect 2.7 million more household to electricity by the year 2021, wherein nuclear power from the RNNP is sure to play a role.

India: A friend in need

The development of the RNNP also marks India first ever nuclear venture in the neighborhood. This is a good news for India too as the recent nuclear deal is the culmination of a peaceful nuclear cooperation agreement between the two countries signed way back in 1973, soon after Bangladesh became independent. The agreement, however, could not come to fruition after the assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Thus, after almost 13 years both the countries have come together to expand their civilian nuclear energy basket.

This year India-Bangladesh formally established civilian nuclear relations as both the countries inked their nuclear pact on April 8, 2017. The Civilian Nuclear Cooperation was one of the 22 agreements that were signed between India and Bangladesh during the recent visit of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to India. All of this was discussed two years ago in 2015 when a delegation from Bangladesh, headed by the country’s Minister of Science and Technology Architect Yeafesh Osman, met its Indian counterpart and had discussed issues related to cooperation in the field of nuclear technology, as well as scientific research in biotechnology and genetic engineering.

According to the text of the agreement signed recently, both the countries will collaborate for the exchange of technical information and cooperate in the regulation of nuclear safety. India would assist Bangladesh in training and capacity building for nuclear energy development through an inter-agency channel between both the countries. Since the RNNP is a turnkey project, Russia’s Rosatom State Atomic Energy Corporation will build and maintain the plant for the first year of operation, subsequently handing it over to Bangladesh Atomic Energy Commission (BAEC). India through its Global Centre for Nuclear Energy Partnership (GCNEP) would act as the consultant for the construction and operation of the RNNP.

According to the recent news reports, India will train professionals for various aspects of the nuclear power plant and provide technical cooperation, besides sharing information in the field of nuclear safety and radiation protection.

The India-Bangladesh nuclear cooperation can be viewed as the sign of growing partnership between the two countries. Nuclear cooperation agreements are usually symbolic of a paradigm shift between the two countries, unless there is mutual trust and shared long term interest, countries do not opt for bilateral civilian nuclear cooperation. It is in this respect the recent agreement could be viewed as cementing the existing relationship. This tenor resonated well in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s statement to media during Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s visit, where he stated: “We want to build cooperation in new areas, especially some high-technology areas that have a deeper connect with the youth in both our societies.” India and Bangladesh can set a new example of cooperation in nuclear energy for peaceful purposes in South Asia.

(Hina Pandey is a research scholar working on nuclear related issues. She is currently working as an Associate Fellow with Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS), her present project titled, “Iran’s Nuclear Programme: From Proliferation Crisis to Non-Proliferation Promise” attempts to analyse various facets of the landmark P5+1 & Iranian Nuclear Deal from the non-proliferation perspective. She holds an M. Phil from the American Studies Division.)