Run up to Rooppur nuclear plant: Bangladesh to plug gaps in nuclear education

The Roppur nuclear power plant project has widened the window for nuclear research and education in Bangladesh.


As Bangladesh readies for it first nuclear power plant at Rooppur, the field of nuclear education have been found to be wanting. The country is looking for solutions to overcome the lack of highly qualified teachers and other drawbacks to train manpower that will operate its nuclear power plant. Initiatives are also being taken to raise the quality of its research institutes to international standards.

In an interview with the Nuclear Asia, Chairman of Nuclear Engineering Department of Dhaka University Dr. Md. Shafiqul Islam talks about the challenges faced by the country in the field of nuclear research and education; and the achievements so far.

– The Bangladesh Atomic Energy Commission was formed after the independence of the country, how far the commission progressed so far?

 Right after the independence of the country’s leader Bangabandhu Sheikh Muzibur Rahman formed the Bangladesh Atomic Energy Commission (BAEC) by President’s Order No. 15 of 1973 for peaceful use of atomic energy and eventually establishing Rooppur nuclear power plant. The primary work of the Atomic Energy Commission was to establish large research institutes like Pakistan Institute of Nuclear Science and Technology (PINSTECH) or UK’s Atomic Energy Research Establishment (AERE) for conducting research and development in different areas of nuclear science and technology. He sanctioned 265 acre land in Ganakbari for setting up this facility. The research facility was developed later and in 1986 a 3 MW TRIGA Mark-II nuclear research reactor was installed at that facility. Since then, the facility has been conducting research in the field of nuclear science and technology.

Nuclear scientists and engineers have contributed remarkably in the sectors like health, industry, medicine, food technology, agriculture, environment and human resource development. However, it has not been possible to reach the expected destination because of finite resources and infrastructural limitations.

– What initiatives are being taken to augment the research activities now as the country plans to meet a significant portion of its energy demands from nuclear power?

Yes, the Atomic Energy Research Establishment (AERE) of Savar will now be pushing the envelope further to extend its area of research. So far the facility has been working to build sustainable nuclear technology for the country and now it will be contributing in developing skilled manpower for the Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant (RNPP) and other proposed nuclear facilities. The Dhaka University has also established the Department of Nuclear Engineering in 2012, with the purpose of training manpower with knowledge, understanding and experience in nuclear technology and engineering. The department currently offers courses both at graduate and post graduate levels.

Today education and research in the fields of power generation, agriculture, medical treatment, environmental protection, water desalination, treatment of waste water, and production of hydrogen fuel through nuclear technology is a demand of time. Although there are many challenges, I think with proper attention and patronage of the government young talented individuals will not hesitate to come forward.

– What are the challenges in achieving academic excellence in the sector of nuclear research and education?

– The subjects of nuclear science, technology and engineering are complicated, sensitive; and require professionalism. Mastering the technology also requires time and perseverance. A nuclear power plant is highly sophisticated and technologically extensive; and thus the requirement of technically skilled professionals. There is no room for any mistake. Even a small mistake could have catastrophic repercussions. Quality really matters.

Bangladesh needs some time to develop its own skilled manpower in this field. I see a dearth of well-qualified teachers in this particular field. There is also acute shortage of manpower in atomic energy commission, Rooppur nuclear power project team and Atomic Energy Regulatory Authority. To run a 1200MW power plant, 500-600 professional engineers are required and to run two units, about 1,200 skilled professionals will be needed. About 250 personnel are required in Atomic Energy Regulatory Authority.

It is not possible to create this manpower by night. It requires planned human resources development involving related stakeholders. Without adequate manpower, running and maintenance of the nuclear power plant would be difficult. Russian authority might be required to operate the RNPP if the country is lacking in enough skilled manpower.

A nuclear power plant operated by Bangladesh would give fillip to its international image.

– How has the RNPP project given impetus to nuclear research and education in the country?

 The RNPP project has widened the window for nuclear research and education in Bangladesh. Prior to the RNPP project, there were no institutions to impart education in the field of nuclear energy. The most meritorious students of the country are now studying this subject and are graduating with in-depth knowledge of the field.

Many considerations goes into the construction of the maiden nuclear power plant of the country – site selection, design, construction, project management, operation and maintenance of nuclear reactors, fuel cycle, waste management, nuclear security and nuclear non-proliferation. All of them are equally important and these topics are now being taught at university level.

– What have been the achievements of nuclear research and education in Bangladesh so far?

 Bangladesh has been working in the field of nuclear science and technology with assistance from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Bangladesh has already accomplished 138 national projects with the technical assistance from IAEA and 111 local projects under the national and local assistance agreement. Bangladesh has progressed much in the field of nuclear education and research, food security, health-care development, application of isotope in water techniques, environmental protection, non-destructive testing, crops and livestock development, and insecticide and pest control with the technical assistance from IAEA.

–  Nuclear technology being used in Bangladesh has already become outdated in the developed world. Is this a concern from the point of view of nuclear safety and proliferation?

The nuclear accidents of Three-Mile Island (1979), Chernobyl (1986), and Fukushima (2011) have sparked concerns pertaining to nuclear safety. But still, nuclear energy remains a reliable option.

New generation nuclear reactors are being developed with modern technology and enhanced safety features. The future looks promising as scientists are developing reactors which do not produce long-lived radioactive waste and hence preclude the possibility of radioactivity causing environmental damage in case of major accident. A new kind of nuclear fuel rod is being developed from the used one which will definitely reduce the proliferation risks.

R&D is being carried out by the technologically advanced nuclear countries to develop the revolutionary design Generation-IV reactors to solve the global energy crisis with minimal environmental effect.

–  Bangladesh is committed to the peaceful use of nuclear technology. Could you enlist some of these?

Of course. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has recently participated in the IAEA Technical Cooperation Program at Vienna to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the organization promoting peaceful use of nuclear energy. There the Prime Minister reiterated the country’s commitment to the peaceful use of nuclear energy. The Sheikh Hasina-led government intends to generate 2,400 MW electricity from RNPP by 2023 and the nuclear power generation capacity would be augmented by an additional 2,000 MW by 2030.

Bangladesh Atomic Energy Regulatory Authority Act was passed at the Jatiya Sangsad on June 19, 2012. According to the Act, the Authority will be responsible for establishing nuclear power plants and ensuring their safety.

Bangladesh had signed Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty on August 31, 1979. Bangladesh has very good nuclear safety track record.

–  How do you see the future of nuclear research and education in Bangladesh?

 The sector of nuclear science and technology is a fast moving sector, as new, safer, more sustainable and cheaper technologies and ideas are emerging frequently. I hope, one day Bangladeshi students and experts will also contribute to the advancement of the research of the nuclear science and technology. If the new generation would come to know the country’s successful use of radioisotopes in medicines, agricultures and industries for over four decades; and its thirty years long experience in the operation and maintenance of nuclear research reactor, motivated students in science would become interested in pursuing higher education in nuclear science and engineering.

– Do you have any overall suggestion regarding the nuke sector of Bangladesh?

 The safety and security measures suggested by the IAEA should be considered as the top most priority while setting up the nuclear power plant of Rooppur and other sites as well. We need to be more attentive and to build national nuclear infrastructure. New locations should be selected for installing future nuclear power plants in the southern part of the country to solve the country’s energy crisis with minimal environmental degradation.

The standard of the research and education of the Nuclear Engineering Department of Dhaka University and Institute for Nuclear Power Engineering of BUET needs to be raised to an international level with the cooperation of various stakeholders.