Without effectual resistance, Bangladesh is poised to join the ranks of 31 other nuclear nations of the world with the construction of the Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant. The Government of Bangladesh asks that people be proud of this fact. Yafes Osman, minister of science and technology has stated that this is a historical moment for Bangladesh. Whatever support the government has thus far garnered in favour of this project has happened through capitalising on the development rhetoric.
However, there is a band of activists, researchers, scientists, and engineers who are alarmed at the many ways this project jeopardises the country’s security and sovereignty. These concerned citizens, who represent the people’s interest, have long been proposing alternatives for cheaper electricity and safer technology. They have raised concerns over various aspects of this project, e.g. radioactive waste management, cost of its construction and maintenance, the extreme aftermath in case of an accident, etc. It would do well for us to pay heed to these concerns—before it’s too late.
It was in Japan that the world witnessed for the first time what nuclear energy could do. That giant nuclear mushroom cloud over Hiroshima is an ominous image that will continue to haunt not only Japan, but the people of the world for centuries. The US, however, continued to expand its nuclear venture for civilian purposes along with its macho experimentation in the development and testing of nuclear weaponry. In 1951, the US generated electricity from nuclear energy for the first time through Experimental Breeder Reactor I. Today, there are about 450 nuclear power reactors in the world that provide about 11 percent of the world's electricity. In addition, 50 countries also use nuclear energy in about 225 research reactors for research, medical and other purposes, according to the World Nuclear Association.
Rooppur, Bangladesh’s first nuclear power plant, is expected to go critical by 2023. In November 2017, Bangladesh started the construction work on the banks of the Padma. At the very beginning, Russia was the only other party in the scene. Russian company Rosatom will build this Rooppur power park which consists of two pressurised water reactor units of 1,200MW each. However, Indian companies are going to be involved in the project as well now that Bangladesh, India and Russia have signed a MoU in Moscow. This deal allows Indian companies’ involvement in construction and installation work, and supply of materials and equipment of non-critical category related to the project. It is also the first Indian atomic venture abroad. Initially, India will be responsible for providing training to professionals involved in the project, sharing information related to safety and protection from radiation.
This is not the first time that construction of a nuclear power plant in Bangladesh has been attempted. The very first initiative dates back to 1961 when the Pakistan government began talking about a possible nuclear power plant. After two years, the Pakistan government decided to build a 70MW nuclear power plant in Rooppur—in the same site where the present nuclear power plant is under construction. Then in 1969, the government decided to increase the capacity of the nuclear plant to 200MW. The project remained dormant in file cabinets after independence but was revived in the ’80s. In 1986-87 the government did a follow-up study to assess the feasibility of a nuclear power plant. This study indicated that Bangladesh was totally capable at that time to run a nuclear power plant and it recommended the government of Bangladesh to build two 300MW nuclear power plants. Finally, in 2009, the possibility of a nuclear power plant was rekindled which brings us where we are today.
Bangladesh is already eager to build a second nuclear power plant. Already, Chinese state-owned company DEC wants to construct the second plant. Bangladesh government has a list of eight selected suitable sites for the next nuclear power plant. In the said list, four sites are in Khulna, close to the Sundarbans.
When it comes to nuclear safety, propaganda is resorted to very often. In Japan, nuclear power was propagated as “absolutely safe” and “for the benefit of the local economy.” Reassurances such as “an accident could never happen” weren’t unheard of. Then, when disaster struck Fukushima in 2011, the same people who made big claims about safety suddenly felt that these accidents were “unforeseen” and they, unsurprisingly, evaded responsibility. After the Fukushima disaster, Japanese anti-nuclear activism gained intense momentum. Fukushima Beacon, a Japanese organisation, published a booklet titled “10 Lessons from Fukushima—Reducing Risks and Protecting Communities from Nuclear Disasters”. According to this booklet, the first lesson to learn is: “Do not be fooled by the safety myth”. After the disaster, public relations staff continued to promote their business in Fukushima, even after evacuating their own families from the city. The maximum permissible limit of radiation exposure went up 20 times! The Fukushima prefecture was hit hard on every level. Local business, agriculture, schools, community life, and ecology were in a state of total devastation. Millions of people had to be evacuated from the city. Families were displaced and some even became estranged. The human toll of the Fukushima disaster is also reflected in the number of “indirect deaths”, including numerous cases of suicide.
The Bangladesh government’s claims that there will not be any hazards or accidents in this nuclear power plant since international standards and guidelines will be maintained are hardly reassuring since there is little to back up such statements. Secondly, do we have the required personnel for the Rooppur project or are we planning to rely solely on foreign experts to handle our own nuclear power plant? Skilled local manpower is mandatory for the reliability of this kind of a power plant. Energy production is, after all, a matter of national security, and it has to be controlled by skilled Bangladeshis. Not even nuclear energy experts are qualified to work in a nuclear reactor plant because totally distinctive skill sets are required when it comes to operating, constructing and regulating nuclear reactors. Dr Abdul Matin, former chief engineer of the Bangladesh Atomic Energy Commission, says, “Do we have enough people for project management, nuclear regulation, and the operation and maintenance of the plant, who satisfy the qualifications and experience specified by the IAEA guidebook? The answer is ‘no’. Even the director-general of the IAEA, Yukiya Amano, said in an interview, ‘Bangladesh lacks in manpower’.”
If we do a stocktaking of the present conditions of other important issues like waste management and project costs, we would realise that they do not support the feasibility of this nuclear power plant. The law of the Russian Federation prohibits any disposal of foreign nuclear waste in Russia—which means that all of the waste will have to be absorbed by Bangladesh. Furthermore, existing protocol does not hold Russia or India responsible. If any accident similar to Fukushima or Chernobyl occurs, Bangladesh has to assume all responsibility.
Another vital concern is the water bodies of Bangladesh. Farakka Dam is only 40km away from Rooppur. In the dry season, as India extracts almost 75 percent of the water of Padma, there is a huge possibility that the nuclear power plant may not have enough water at its disposal to meet the plant-cooling requirements. In case of an accident, the radioactive waste would contaminate the water not only from Hardinge Bridge to the Bay of Bengal but all water bodies of Bangladesh because of the structure of riverine interconnectivity throughout the country. The whole ecology would be totally destroyed. Moreover, in the case of an emergency, this kind of a nuclear power plant would need extra water. Does the Padma have enough water in the dry season? This power plant will rely on the Padma river to meet its requirement of 720,000 gallons of water to cool the reactor and dump the hot water back into the Padma.
It is common to not have a “fixed cost” model in a nuclear power plant. It is apparent in the US, France and other developed countries. In the US, the cost jumped 300 percent on average for every nuclear power plant they built between 1966-76. Rooppur nuclear power plant is not an exception—the cost has already increased. About USD 13.08 billion (BDT 11,100 crore) is going be allocated in the 2018-19 Annual Development Programme—BDT 964 crore (USD 1.1 billion) more than the previous year. The previous cost estimate was USD 12.65 billion. Russia is going to loan USD 11.38 billion, which is 90 percent of the estimated cost. Bangladesh has to repay the loan within 28 years with a 10-year grace period. The interest is 1.75 percent plus Libor rate (London interbank offered rate), and this interest rate will not go above 4 percent. Even if the cost does not go up, it would cost us no less than USD 20 billion. And, obviously, this cost will be higher when other costs like decommissioning are taken into account. For instance, in 2017, Ecnec approved a project of BDT 956 crore for river dredging in the Padma for the nuclear power plant’s transportation related purposes. Once everything is added up, it is not cheap at all.
The “development model” that the Bangladesh government harps on about accommodates nothing but more and more growth, leaving out the people. Human life and ecology are disregarded for the sake of increased production. This model necessitates macho showmanship and chauvinism. It drives the government to desperately implement imprudent projects, even when the risks are well-documented and safer alternatives are available. A project of this kind and scale demands public participation. There must be space for debate and dialogue among experts and the common people. But when the obligatory task of public disclosure of the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) has not even been fulfilled, asking for space to debate seems unrealistic.
We need to go back to the lessons from the Fukushima disaster. Why are we risking our land, water bodies, and future with radioactive contamination? At what cost? Even if we experience a miracle where the plant is operated flawlessly, any natural calamity could still result in a disaster in the magnitude of Fukushima. The double blow of being densely populated and severely limited in land area could lead to unimaginable consequences for Bangladesh. India too ought to be concerned because radioactive pollution does not recognise borders.
Mohymeen Layes is assistant coordinator of Center for Bangladesh Studies.