lnternational cooperation is essential for safe use of nuclear energy: Bangladesh envoy

In a telephone interview last week, Nuclear Asia spoke with the Bangladesh Ambassador to Austria and the country’s Permanent Representative to the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Muhammad Abdul Muhith, on how international cooperation in developing countries, including Bangladesh, can play an important role in the safe and sustainable use of nuclear technology. He spoke about the role of the IAEA in safe nuclear energy use, including on the use of nuclear energy in Bangladesh.

Excerpts from the interview:

As a developing economy venturing into the nuclear energy sector, why do you think international collaboration is important for Bangladesh in this field?

It is worth noting that 442 nuclear power reactors in 31 countries are currently producing 390 gigawatt (GW) electricity, that is, 10% of the global production, which is expected to be double by 2050, while 53 reactors are under construction in 19 countries, including in Bangladesh, for an additional 56 GW. Nuclear power continues to play a key role in the global low-carbon energy mix, and climate change mitigation remains a key driver for maintaining and expanding the use of nuclear power.

Advanced nuclear reactors and their applications are gaining momentum, as they are seen as nuclear energy systems able to contribute to the global transition towards more sustainable, affordable and reliable energy systems. Bangladesh is an embarking country in the field of nuclear energy. Hence, it is essential to be introduced well with the evolving new generation nuclear power plants (NPP) to address the technical challenges. The new-generation NPPs are well equipped with robust safety gears, such as passive and active safety systems. To be familiarized with such advanced NPP technology and possible transfer of technology for peaceful uses, international collaboration is essential for Bangladesh. Also, Bangladesh attaches great importance to the issue of safety, security and sustainability of nuclear technology and to ensure that, international cooperation will play a critical role in the coming days in terms of benefiting from the best practices.

Built with Russian support, Bangladesh’s first Nuclear Power Plant in Rooppur (RNPP) is scheduled to be operational by 2023. How do you see Bangladesh’s nuclear sector evolving in the coming decades?

I would like to mention here that when I had the opportunity to meet with the Director-General of the IAEA Rafael Mariano Grossi who mentioned that Bangladesh has been using state-of-the-art technology from Russia to install the RNPP, I found this very encouraging and reassuring. The RNPP will substantially contribute to fulfill our growing energy needs to maintain the upward trajectory of our industrial development. Energy is a critical factor for the lives and livelihood of our people. In this context, as a clean energy source, nuclear power retains a potential scope to contribute a lot for achieving such much expected energy sufficiency in a sustainable manner. In this context, to meet the growing demand of electricity, the Bangladesh government has decided on building the nuclear power plants as an important energy source to tackle the growing national energy demand, and at the same time, has envisaged 19% contribution from nuclear energy in the energy mix plan by 2030.

In addition to nuclear energy, does the country have any plans to venture into other nuclear sector -related activities such as nuclear medicine?

Nuclear medicine possesses high prospects for the radio-therapeutic and radiological diagnostic application in the health care sector. In this perspective, Bangladesh is presently processing some radioisotopes, such as Technitium-99m (Tc-99m) and Iodine-131 (I-131) for nuclear diagnostic applications, and wishes to commence the domestic production of some other radioisotopes, namely I-131, which is used for the thyroid therapy, and Fluorine-18 (F-18), which is the most frequently used radioisotope in positron emission tomography (PET) diagnosis. In this perspective, the Bangladesh government has a preliminary future plan to install a new high-flux research reactor for various applications, including production of the I-131 radioisotope. Regarding the production of the F-18 isotope, a project plan of installing three Cyclotron at Savar, Chattagram and Mymensingh is currently underway.

Here, I would also like to mention two recent developments in this field, from which Bangladesh is looking forward to benefitting. One is the ZODIAC (Zoonotic Disease Integrated Action) programme which IAEA has launched recently with a view to to strengthen global preparedness for future pandemics like COVID-19. The project is built on the IAEA’s experience in assisting countries in the use of nuclear and nuclear-derived techniques for the rapid detection of pathogens that cause transboundary animal diseases, including ones that spread to humans. As estimated by the IAEA, these zoonotic diseases kill around 2.7 million people every year. In just concluded 64th General Conference of the IAEA in Vienna, the project has received wide support and encouragement from the larger membership, including Bangladesh. We are optimistic that the ZODIAC project will be able to facilitate a global network to help national laboratories in monitoring, surveillance, early detection and control of animal and zoonotic diseases such as COVID-19, Ebola, avian influenza and Zika. ZODIAC is based on the technical, scientific and laboratory capacity of the IAEA and its partners and the Agency’s mechanisms to quickly deliver equipment and knowhow to countries.

The second one is a diagnostic technique called RT-PCR (Real Time Reverse Transcription–Polymerase Chain Reaction). The IAEA has already dispatched its first batch of equipment to more than 40 countries, including Bangladesh, to enable them to use the RT-PCR which can help detect and identify the COVID-19 accurately within hours in humans, as well as in animals that may also host it. The equipment is expected to be installed in the National Institute of Nuclear Medicine and Allied Sciences (NINMAS) in the Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University Campus in Dhaka.