Russia-funded Rooppur nuclear power plant in Bangladesh: Wise move or potential catastrophe?

Though Russia has agreed to accept spent fuel, it is unclear how safe the procedures for removing it from reactors and transporting it from Bangladesh will be, writes Aashish Kiphayet for South Asia Monitor

Aashish Kiphayet May 06, 2022
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Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant

Due to Bangladesh’s rapidly increasing power demands, the country decided to go nuclear. With the Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant (R-NPP), the country's most ambitious development project ever, it hopes to join the elite "nuclear club" of 31 nations. Bangladesh commenced construction on its first nuclear power reactor at the R-NPP site in November 2017. The unit is expected to be operational in 2023. The construction of the second nuclear power reactor in R-NPP site began in July 2018. The second unit is expected to be operational in 2024.   

The invasion of Ukraine by Russia, however, may delay the building of the first nuclear power plant. Any delays will leave a substantial gap in Bangladesh's power sector development. R-NPP is part of Bangladesh's plan to wean itself off coal and other fossil fuels.  Aside from concerns about the project's completion being delayed, many other questions about Bangladesh's first nuclear power plant remain unresolved.

Despite the Director-General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) expressing his satisfaction with Bangladesh's safeguards, experts oppose the nuclear plan, citing concerns about a potential economic disaster, energy costs, environmental issues, management and safety. Some have called this initiative a "white elephant" and "premature" while others dub it a "grand fantasy."   

Safety concerns  

Critics say this plant has the potential to cause Bangladesh untold suffering. True, the electricity industry needs to improve dramatically in order to satisfy the country's power needs, but this development should not come at the expense of energy independence, safety and security.   

It must be understood why, despite having innovation and capacity, Japan failed to prevent the Fukushima nuclear power plant accident in 2011. Why did Germany decide to phase out nuclear power by 2022? Why did Australia decide not to build any nuclear power plant despite having the world's largest uranium reserve?

Dhaka promotes this plant as the safest while it has already passed an indemnity law to legally shield and exonerate itself from any future accident or economic damage. The nuclear business relies on misinformation and government support to stay afloat. Propaganda about IAEA standards is being used to legitimize the R-NPP project.  
 

One example of propaganda is that at the R-NPP site an 800m radius around the nuclear reactor is designated as an exclusion zone, with the message that day-to-day activities are safe outside of this 800m radius. However, any nuclear reactor is surrounded by two zones, according to the IAEA safety standard regulation. The first is the precautionary action zone, which encompasses a 5-km radius and requires an evacuation facility and preparation for any emergency event requiring evacuation within 15 minutes.   

Government failures  

The second zone is the urgent protective action planning zone, which covers a 30-km radius and requires the ability to evacuate the area within one hour in an emergency. It has been reported that the administration has failed to notify or train those residing in the risk zone about the immediate evacuation.

The risk of a nuclear power plant explosion is not the only danger. The industry is accompanied by a collection of exploitative technologies that have an impact on ecology, environment, economy and human health. The R-NPP will not be a means of energy diversity as publicized but rather a trap of energy dependency. The government is attempting to rationalize the project's high initial cost in order to reap future benefits.   

Without following the correct procedure or consulting the public, the government is not only building the 2.4 GW R-NPP site, but also planning to build 4.8 GW more capacity nuclear power plants across the country by 2041, which is a dictatorial vision. Further, while other kinds of energy generation such as renewable energy follow a downward spiral pattern in terms of cost, nuclear power is following the opposite trend.   

Every new feature in nuclear power comes at an additional cost. And when new technology emerges, it becomes vital to accept it in order to make nuclear power more safe and secure. The additional budget of BDT 18,000 crore for the R-NPP site, which was approved before work began, shows that we are preparing to accept the project's financial drain.

Indian role 
 

In addition, energy expert Mahmudul Hasan raised concerns regarding Bangladesh, India and Russia. Hasan, based in New York, is worried that Russia will just provide fuel/uranium for the project while India will provide the reactor, turbine, site operation and control, training and other components. India will either use its own resources or rely on a third party to power the nuclear facility.   

At the R-NPP site, India will serve as a subcontractor. On the other side, India does not manufacture nuclear reactors. It imports reactors from other countries for its own nuclear power plants. As a result of India's engagement with the Rooppur facility, concerns about the plant's safety have been raised.   

According to reports, there is a misunderstanding about Russia's and India's roles. India is claimed to be operating as a subcontractor for Russia. Hasan is also concerned that India, not a signatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, is transferring nuclear technology to Bangladesh, which is unfamiliar with the technology. It poses a variety of serious risks and has far-reaching implications for the region. The lack of regulated safety and security processes limits India's nuclear status.   

On purely political considerations, the site at Rooppur, near the Padma river, was chosen by the then Pakistani dictatorship more than 50 years ago (in 1961) for a 10MW prototype nuclear power plant. Despite the lack of a site selection process or an environmental impact study, the present government plans to construct two massive units on the site. 

The river Padma has been heavily silted as a result of India withdrawing up to 75 percent of its water during the dry summer months via the Farakka Barrage, which is only 40 km upstream of the proposed site. The remaining water is insufficient to meet even a single unit plant's cooling requirement. This could increase the risk of a nuclear disaster.

Nuclear waste 
 

When it comes to spent fuel management at the R-NPP site, technical concerns about the storage, transportation and disposal of radioactive material and radioactive waste appear to have been disregarded. Though Russia has agreed to accept the spent fuel, it is unclear how safe the procedures for removing it from reactors and transporting it from Bangladesh to Russia will be, given Dhaka’s lack of transportation infrastructure for high-level radioactive waste.   

In addition, wasted fuel will be kept for a long time on site in a properly planned fuel pond. Given the tiny size of the R-NPP site, the question arises as to whether it has the capacity to store spent fuel for the duration until it is taken to Russia.

The legal status of the contract between Bangladesh and Russia stipulates that in the event the plant is mothballed, cancelled or accidentally destroyed, Dhaka must repay the loan with interest. In this case, it is impossible to dispute that the risk is large, and the contract is harmful to Bangladesh. 

The unpleasant reality is that man-made disasters rarely result in compensation litigation in the 'Third World'. In order to guide future energy production in a safe manner, Bangladesh needs a comprehensive law on nuclear power generation. The government should develop clear rules for dealing with the repercussions of nuclear safety regulations and liability limitations.

(The author is a New York-based South Asian geopolitical analyst. Views are personal. He can be contacted at kiphayet@gmail.com)

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