“The nuclear dream comes true”
What is the present status of the Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant (RNPP) project?
I would like to begin by saying that Rooppur nuclear power programme is a long-cherished dream of the people of Bangladesh. The idea of building a nuclear power plant was first conceived in 1961. At that time, Rooppur area of Pabna was chosen as the project site. After years of procrastination, the then Pakistan government shifted the project to Karachi. This is another factor that contributed to a sense of deprivation among the Bengalee population.
After independence, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman took up the project again and decided to set up a 200MW nuclear power plant at Rooppur. A feasibility study was conducted by the French company M/S Sofratome. After the brutal killing of Bangabandhu, the project faced a huge setback and until his daughter Sheikh Hasina came to power, it could not make much headway. Sheikh Hasina took up the project very seriously and asked me to contact Russia about the project since the country has vast experience in nuclear power programmes. There's also the fact that they played a key role in support of our Liberation War.
Long story short, on May 13, 2009 Bangladesh Atomic Energy Commission (BAEC) and Russian State Energy Commission, ROSATOM signed a MoU on cooperation in peaceful use of nuclear energy. After two years of groundwork, an inter-governmental agreement was signed between Bangladesh and Russia on November 2, 2011 to take forward the RNPP project and begin construction.
In all the discussions with Russia, we have always given the highest priority to the safety aspect of the project. Just to give an example, initially Russia put forward a proposal for a plant which, though technologically advanced, had not yet received international license. We did not go for it and chose the widely used VVER-1200 reactor technology.
There is also political commitment from the highest level in both Bangladesh and Russia to implement the project successfully. When our prime minister visited Russia, President Putin made a commitment to provide all kinds of support for the Rooppur project. This is a turn-key project which means that the contractor will complete the whole project and they will be liable for any problems that arise in the plant.
Our PM has a special interest in the project. She routinely inquires about the progress of the project. We also have full support from parliament which reflects public confidence in the Rooppur nuclear project.
We are closely working with International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). At every stage of construction of the nuclear plant, we adhere to IAEA's 'Milestones' approach to build a national infrastructure for nuclear power. This approach refers to 19 infrastructure issues that include nuclear safety, radiation protection, legislative framework, emergency planning, human resource development and so on.
We have hosted several missions from IAEA. Recently, the Director General of IAEA visited the Rooppur site. He expressed his satisfaction about the development of the project. He conveyed the message to our PM that he is fully convinced that the project will definitely be a safe and successful one. In the recently concluded IAEA Conference in Vienna, Bangladesh, for the first time, got a stall to showcase her nuclear programme. The DG of IAEA has also requested us to join the upcoming Abu Dhabi conference to present the Rooppur programme to a global audience.
Now coming to your question about the present status of the project, we have completed construction of the entire supporting infrastructure in the first phase. We are now preparing for the observation of the first “concrete-pouring day”. Hopefully, it will happen by the end of October or mid-November this year, after which the main construction work will begin. We hope we will be able to start commercial production of electricity from the Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant in 2022.
The plant will be the cheapest source of electricity for the country. It is estimated that the electricity generated from the plant will cost Tk 4 per unit. This plant will be in operation for 80 to 100 years. Hopefully, within 20 years we will be able to get back the construction cost.
What would be India's involvement in the project?
India has implemented similar nuclear projects with Russian assistance. So we want to learn from their experience. They will not interfere in any way in the construction of the project. Their role will just be that of an adviser. It will definitely boost our confidence. The three parties, Bangladesh, India and Russia, are now working to find a modality of cooperation.
After the Fukushima accident in March 2011, the safety of nuclear plants has become ever more prominent. What safety measures have been taken for this project?
I visited Fukushima soon after the accident. Its radiation exposure was limited within a relatively short area. The Japanese government evacuated individuals who were living within a 20km radius around the nuclear plant. The accident was not a result of ineptitude but rather a deadly tsunami which knocked out the power supply and cooling system of the nuclear plant. The diesel generators that had been cooling the plant were waterlogged. It resulted in leakage of nuclear waste. Thanks to the location of the Rooppur plant, there is very little probability of such massive natural disasters ever occurring. However, we have taken the highest safety measures for all kinds of natural and human-induced external events such as earthquakes, floods, fires, etc., as well as to control the radiological impact on the population on the territory during normal and accidental conditions.
Another safety concern is the management of nuclear waste, particularly spent fuel of nuclear power plant. Ninety percent of the used fuel can be recycled. I went to France to get a clear idea about the storage process of nuclear waste. They keep it 1500ft under ground and keep it sealed in a steel structure. As Bangladesh is a densely populated country, we are not taking any risk with the spent fuel. Russia will take away the spent fuel. The government has recently signed an agreement with Russia in this regard.
We know a large number of skilled professionals are required for the implementation, operation and maintenance of a nuclear power programme. What is your plan in this regard?
We have a contract with a Russian organisation under which they will train 1600 people for the implementation, operation and maintenance of the project. We have already sent 47 students to Russia who will work at the top level. These students have been selected by BUET through intensive tests. We have even scrutinised their background since this is a very sensitive project. This year, we will send 50 more people to Russia. We have also arranged training programmes with India, and under this arrangement 100 Bangladeshis have already been trained on the fundamentals of a nuclear power project. Soon we will send 100 more for training.
I want to conclude by saying that I am a freedom fighter. I own this country. My interest in the project is to achieve a milestone for my country. Through the successful implementation of the project we aspire to enter the prestigious nuclear club.