Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant in Bangladesh - heralding new era in atomic energy cooperation

At a time when various countries are shying away from embracing Nuclear Power, Bangladesh will see the first concrete pouring into the reactor building foundation of its Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant on November, 30. This will mark the construction of Bangladesh’s first nuclear reactor. Experts see this as a positive sign both for encouraging nuclear energy in the region and the ensuring international cooperation in the field.

The eighth largest country in the world in terms of population and one of the densely populated country with nearly 19,500 people living in one square mile, Bangladesh has pinned its hope on atom for peace to feed its energy-starved population and industry. As per World Nuclear Association statistics, Bangladesh’s demand for energy is increasing at around 9 per cent per year and a sizeable population equal to that of Australia remains without electricity either from grid or local solar installations.

To change this, the Bangladesh government has aimed for 24 GWe of new capacity by 2021, including the first nuclear contribution. The planned energy matrix is to derive 30 per cent power from domestic coal, 20 per cent from imported coal, 25 per cent from natural gas (including LNG), 5 per cent from liquid fuel; and 20 per cent from nuclear, renewable energy and power imports.

Calling it a “laudable development”, Emeritus Professor of School of Physical Sciences at Jawaharlal Nehru University (Delhi) Ramamurti Rajaraman said: “Bangladesh is expected to be seriously affected in the long run by Global warming and Climate Change. It is believed by experts that the coastline of Bangladesh will be one of the first places to go under water due to rise in sea levels, perhaps by the end of the century or even earlier. Therefore, it is important for Bangladesh to set an example by setting up carbon free sources of energy, especially nuclear reactors, which have almost zero carbon emission.”

With its first nuclear power plant at Rooppur, Bangladesh will become third Asian country – after India and Pakistan – to harness the power of atom. The two units built by Russia will have a cumulative capacity of 2400 MW.

Bangladesh – inspiration for others

Indian experts see Bangladesh benefiting tremendously from the nuclear power plant, as so far the country has been dependent on its natural gas resources and energy imported from India. Dr. Mohan Guruswamy, Chairman of Centre for Policy Alternatives Society, applauded Bangladesh for its economic growth that has almost kept pace with India’s and whose Human Development Index achievements must cause Indians to envy.

Speaking to Nuclear Asia Dr Guruswamy said: “With only 48 per cent of its population at present having access to electricity, Bangladesh would need to generate far more electricity, and also not burn up its gas reserves while doing so. It can harness its Gas for more value added purposes like Fertilisers, Plastics and other materials. Nuclear is great option.”

Rajaraman also sees the nuclear reactor accruing great benefits for Bangladesh as it is a key to expertise in other areas like nuclear engineering and related technologies. “Setting up a nuclear power plant will also help strengthen Bangladesh’s expertise in nuclear engineering and associated areas of mechanical engineering and metallurgy. This will be especially true if Bangladesh universities open departments and nuclear engineering courses in coordination with the building of the Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant.” India and Russia will be providing training to Bangladesh manpower and experts, who will be operating the nuclear reactor in the long run.

The Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant has emerged as a rare example of collaboration in the field of nuclear energy. Result of a trilateral agreement between Russia-Bangladesh-India, the project would cement the relation of the two South Asian countries further. Some of the watchers of the nuclear energy sector also see this as not only beneficial for the Indian nuclear energy industry but also inspiring for other countries in the region like Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam.

“Other countries in the region such as Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam also could benefit from developing nuclear energy, along with renewable energy to minimize carbon emissions. In these countries as also Bangladesh, other uses of nuclear energy in healthcare, industry and food preservation are also beneficial,” said Malur Ramaswamy Srinivasan, Founder-Chairman (Retd.) of Nuclear Power Corporation of India (NPCIL). He added that to sustain its large population where agriculture, industry and business are constantly demanding power, Bangladesh needs to utilise nuclear energy along with other renewables to make its carbon emission control programme work.

Last year, Vietnam had scrapped a multi-billion nuclear reactor project to be built with the help of Russia and Japan owing to cost and safety concerns. Vietnam’s dropping of the project after preparatory work came as a jolt for the nuclear industry that has been talking of global ‘nuclear renaissance’ for the last decade. Bangladesh’s first nuclear power reactor would now make it 32nd country to opt for nuclear energy.

India to gain experience in trade in nuclear energy sector

The project, which is a milestone for Bangladesh, is also the first nuclear energy project for India on foreign soil. India is yet to become a member of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) – a 48-member regulatory group- that controls the trade of nuclear materials, equipment and technology. However, India’s agreements with Bangladesh in April 2017 and with Russia in 2014 pave the way for supply and manufacture of equipment and material for nuclear power plant.

Dr Guruswamy avers that it is great opportunity for India to gain experience in exporting nuclear expertise. “Even though India has not been admitted to the NSG due to China’s obduracy, working overseas with the Russians will allow our nuclear engineering and technological expertise to be exported,” he opined.

The cooperation agreement with Russia has cleared the route for sourcing of material for the Rooppur nuclear reactor from the Indian Industry. The cooperation is powered by the December 2014 “Strategic Vision for Strengthening Cooperation in Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy” between India and Russia in which the two sides agreed “to explore opportunities for sourcing materials, equipment and services from Indian industry for the construction of the Russian- designed nuclear power plants in third countries.”

This has also made Indian industry hopeful. “India can hope to benefit with Rooppur as the plants will be identical to the Kudankulam 5 and 6 units where Indian engineering companies will be supplying equipment and parts. These manufacturing and designing capacities can be productively used in Rooppur and also reduce overall costs somewhat for Bangladesh,” Dr Guruswamy added.

Senior Fellow of Observer Research Foundation’s (ORF) Lydia Powell also concurred with his opinion. “I think India has built up industrial capability in the nuclear sector that is unique. Smaller developing countries that are embarking on nuclear energy will benefit from India’s capabilities. It meets the highest standards and yet it is competitive compared to suppliers based in western countries. This is a good opportunity for India to emerge as a supplier of nuclear energy capabilities to small developing countries around the world,” Powell told Nuclear Asia.

The agreement for cooperation in the field of civil nuclear energy between the two countries was inked during Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s visit to India earlier this year. The agreement provides for extensive cooperation and covers all aspects of generation of civil nuclear energy, cooperation in putting up nuclear plants, issues relating to safety, security—all of that is covered under this. Ministry of External Affairs’ Joint Secretary of the Bangladesh-Myanmar division Supriya Ranganathan said ahead of Sheikh Hasina’s visit: “It (the civil nuclear energy agreement) also has the aspect of capacity building because what we have to offer is the expertise that we have built up over time.”

Bangladesh is already doing survey at eight sites for setting up more nuclear power plants and could benefit from India’s expertise. On this Rajaraman added: “There is some agreement that the Indian Department of Atomic Energy, with its long experience, will help train some Bangladeshi scientists in reactor engineering and management that would also help cement India-Bangladesh relations further.”

The speed with which the project has been executed after the signing of the agreement between India and Bangladesh and earlier with Russia, has been indicative of the political will in the three countries to make nuclear energy work for Dhaka.