Rooppur nuclear power project (RNPP) was conceived more than fifty years ago. With time, only the size of the plant expanded and volumes of feasibility reports piled up while the nuclear reactors remained on the drawing board. At present, another feasibility report is under preparation to build two 1000 MWe nuclear reactors with Russian assistance at the same site that was selected for a 50 MWe nuclear reactor.
Natural gas which once generated more than 80% of our electricity has been depleting rapidly. The remaining gas reserves are likely to be exhausted in 10 to 15 years. Due to indecisions, our coal reserves, lying deep underground, are not being mined except in Barapukuria. Consequently, we are becoming increasingly dependent on imported liquid fuel and coal to meet our power demand.
Under such circumstances, Bangladesh and Russia signed a memorandum of understanding in May 2009 and later several agreements were signed for construction two VVER-1000 nuclear reactors at Rooppur. The deals with Russia showed a ray of hope for construction of the first nuclear power plant of the country.
Bangladesh Atomic Energy Regulatory Act was passed in 2012 and a regulatory authority (BAERA) was formed by the middle of 2013. In January 2013, Bangladesh and Russia signed a $500 million loan agreement to cover the costs of a feasibility study, plant design, infrastructure development and training of the plant's personnel.
On April 02, 2013, the Executive Committee of the ECNEC approved the first phase of the project at a cost of Tk 5,242 crore without specifying the total cost of the project. Bangladesh Atomic Energy Commission (BAEC) signed an agreement with NIAEP-ASE to conduct a feasibility study and an environment impact assessment (EIA) study for the project at a cost of $45.9 million. A second deal, worth $265 million, was signed in September 2013 with the Russian State Atomic Energy Commission (Rosatom) for the first phase of the work even though no construction at site before the feasibility study is permissible according to the IAEA guidelines. Moreover, any construction at site without a construction permit violates the Bangladesh Atomic Energy Regulatory Act, 2012.
From the signing of series of agreements in quick succession, it is clear that the government has been trying to go ahead with the nuclear project on a fast track even though there are serious concerns about the project for lack of properly trained manpower, total cost of the project, suitability of the Rooppur site, safety of the VVER-1000 nuclear reactors, poor project management and, last but not the least, the expenditure of $310.9 million (Tk2,487 crore) before completion of the feasibility study, as already mentioned.
Soon after independence, Bangladesh inherited a corps of very highly qualified nuclear scientists and nuclear engineers, some of whom built, commissioned and operated the Karachi Nuclear Power Plant. They either left or retired from the Commission without being replaced. A few of those who had left built nuclear power reactors in Argentina, South Korea and Romania. Most of the engineers now working with the BAEC were trained either for operation of the research reactor at the Atomic Energy Research Establishment (AERE) at Savar or for maintenance of the BAEC's establishments. They hardly have any experience of construction or operation of any large unit like a nuclear or a conventional power plant. Even the DG of the IAEA, Yukiya Amano, admitted that “Bangladesh lacks in manpower.” Although negotiations with the Russians started four years ago, there were no serious attempts by BAEC to recruit and train engineers either for the management of the project or for application of nuclear regulations.
Contrary to standard practices, Russia granted a loan of US$ 500 million (Tk4, 000 crores) to Bangladesh and the Executive Committee of the National Economic Council (ECNEC) approved the first phase of the nuclear power project at a cost of Tk 5,242 crores without knowing the total cost of the project and before completion of the feasibility study.
The cost of a 1,000 MWe nuclear power reactor is estimated by the government to be US$ 1.5-2.0 billion (Tk 12,000- 16,000 cores) even though, according to the market price, it should cost about US$ 4.0 billion (Tk 32,000 crores) each.
The site conditions at Rooppur have changed during the last fifty years. The flow of water in the Ganges have decreased significantly due to the Farakka Barrage. The population around the site has also doubled. A re-evaluation of the Rooppur site is, therefore, essential to ensure the availability of cooling water, transportation of heavy equipment to the site, safety of the plant and evacuation of an estimated three million people to a safe zone in case of a nuclear accident.
Concerns have also been expressed about the safety of the VVER-1000 reactors. Contracts for 11 VVER-1000 reactors in Eastern Europe were cancelled for failure to meet the European safety standards. Some of the countries are now planning to build VVER-1200 reactors which produce 1200 MWe power and have enhanced safety features like a core damage frequency (CDF) of 1×10-7. VVER-1200 reactors are designed to meet the safety standards of both USNRC and European Utilities' Requirements (EUR). With the projected peak power demand of over 20,000 MW, it may be possible to integrate 1200 MWe reactors into the grid of Bangladesh by 2022/23. It is, therefore, strongly recommended that we consider VVER-1200 reactors, instead of VVER-1000 reactors, for Rooppur for improved safety.
From the above discussions, it is evident that neither the Rooppur project is being managed professionally nor the government being advised properly. It is, therefore, essential that the management of the project is handed over to a professional body like a nuclear power corporation that will own, build and operate all nuclear power plants in Bangladesh, like in India and many other countries. We also need a strong and independent nuclear regulatory authority and a competent operation and maintenance (O&M) team. All such bodies should be manned by engineers with experience of construction and/or operation of nuclear/conventional power plants but trained in nuclear reactor technology.
Additionally, we should not rush to build a nuclear power plant until we are fully prepared with the required manpower and infrastructure. If our engineers could build and operate nuclear power reactors abroad, they can certainly do so at home provided we train our manpower properly, buy the safest available nuclear reactors and religiously apply the nuclear safety regulations.
The writer is former Chief Engineer, Bangladesh Atomic Energy Commission, and author of “Rooppur and the Power Crisis.”