Safeguarding our interests in Rooppur | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, November 26, 2017 / LAST MODIFIED: 01:23 PM, November 26, 2017

Safeguarding our interests in Rooppur

As an engineer who joined the Atomic Energy Commission in the early sixties in the hope of operating the Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant (NPP), it gives me great pleasure to note that the dream is finally coming true. Setting up a NPP anywhere has become a mammoth and expensive task due to the ever-increasing demands in nuclear safety.

The Rooppur NPP is the largest ever project undertaken in the history of our country. It is therefore imperative that the contracts that are being drawn up safeguard our national interest.

Within budget, on-time

The two-unit 2,400 MWe Rooppur NPP being built by Rosatom, Russia is expected to cost USD 13.5 billion with the first unit to go into production in 2022 and the second in 2023. How firm is the current estimate of USD 13.5 billion? Is this a fixed priced contract? What happens if both cost and time exceed estimates due to the supplier's fault? What penalty clauses have been incorporated in the contract?

Even the famous company Westinghouse recently had to file for bankruptcy as the cost of several of its projects went way beyond their estimated budget and greatly exceeded the targeted project completion periods. For example, the VC Summer units 2 and 3 project (2,500 MWe total) in South Carolina has been halted after USD 9 billion was spent in construction work (about 67 percent complete). Originally estimated to cost USD 9.8 billion for the two units, it is now estimated to cost an additional USD 16-23 billion if revived, while being years behind schedule. It is our sincere hope that no such calamity befalls the Rooppur project.

No evacuation required?

In a presentation to the IAEA in Vienna in November 2013, the designer of VVER-1200 (the type being installed in Rooppur) claimed that evacuation of people living near the NPP would not be required in the case of a serious accident. Under normal circumstances the thick concrete dome over the reactor protects it from external threats like an aircraft crash, hurricanes, etc., and prevents leakage of radioactive substances to the outside in case of nuclear accidents. However, as Murphy's law states, “If something can go wrong, it will.” Nobody can say for sure how the next nuclear accident would be initiated.

As this claim (no evacuation required) is crucial for the safety of the surrounding regions of Rooppur and its emergency response plan, I would urge the government to request an IAEA expert to review (probable risk assessment) this claim and set up the Emergency Response Action Plan accordingly. Russia should welcome the IAEA vetting of their design.

One needs to remember that Rooppur and its surroundings no longer consist only of remote villages like it did in the sixties when the location was first selected. Safety of the people living nearby and the environment must come first.

Builder's responsibility for design

When India opened up its nuclear market to foreign investment, a lot of countries entered into bilateral agreements to share a piece of the lucrative pie. However, western nuclear vendors balked when faced with India's demand (prompted by the tragic Bhopal industrial disaster) that reactor designer/supplier share the mitigation costs in case of a nuclear accident.

Rosatom, interestingly, has signed up to set up two more VVER 1,000 MWe units for the Kudankulam 5 and 6 units at Tamil Nadu, India, in June this year, aside from the first four units at the site that are already operating or under construction. It would be of interest to know from the Indian authorities as to what provisions have been incorporated in the contracts to hold the reactor designer/supplier responsible for any design fault and incorporate the same in the Rooppur contracts.

This should not be a problem as we already have a bilateral agreement with India for cooperation in the nuclear field. Rooppur is only 50km from the Indian border. So it would also be in India's interest for the plant designer/supplier to bear a part of the accident mitigation cost, keeping in mind that radioactive clouds do not respect international borders.

Plant performance

The completed plant needs to deliver the guaranteed net electrical power at the required efficiency level and demonstrate its ability to consistently operate for a predetermined number of hours on full load. Appropriate formulae need to be incorporated to hold the supplier accountable for any deficiency.

Transportation of heavy equipment

Heavy equipment has to be transported from Mongla and Chittagong via inland river routes to the Rooppur site. The government has drawn up a scheme to dredge the rivers to keep these routes navigable. Any hiccup in transportation of the heavy pieces (the largest weighing around 400 tonnes) will have a serious impact on the construction schedule. Responsibility for this job lies mainly with Bangladesh. I hope that the BAEC has studied the feasibility of this critical issue in collaboration with BIWTA and BIWTC. After all, it won't be a pretty sight to have a barge carrying a 400-tonne piece of equipment that is stuck in the middle of the river.

ABM Nurul Islam is a former BAEC and IAEA official.

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