Absence of strong political will and a sense of uncertainty about winning political mileage have kept successive governments away from implementing Bangladesh’s lone nuclear power project, conceived nearly five decades ago, say nuclear scientists.
Bureaucratic tangles also stand in the way of implementing the project, proved to be viable for the electricity-starved country whose gas reserves are shrinking fast while the demand for power is rapidly spiralling, they say.
The then Pakistan government undertook the nuclear power project in 1961 at Rooppur in Pabna(in Bangladesh) and the land was acquired in 1963 even before France had its first nuclear power plant in 1964.
France now gets 77 per cent of its total electricity from 55 nuclear plants, while Bangladesh’s lone project area turned into a cattle grazing field although successive governments had no dearth of pledges to generate more power and explore new energy resources.
The issue came up for discussion during each regime since then and soon fizzled out, allowing the project to roll from one government to another.
The concerns that who will laugh the last matter most in leading the project to success as development of a nuclear electricity plant takes at least seven years — longer than the five-year tenure of an elected government, and return to power for the second term in a row is not guaranteed as evident in election results since 1991.
‘Unless the head of the government interferes properly, the project will not get momentum,’ said CS Karim, a former chairman of Bangladesh Atomic Energy Commission.
He pointed out that there had been no major opposition from any quarter to Bangladesh’s strides in installing nuclear reactors for power generation.
The immediate-past BAEC chairman Shafiqul Islam Bhuiyan said lack of political will and bureaucratic tangles held back the project for decades.
‘Bureaucrats are not directly involved in the process of research of nuclear science. They are not well equipped with information. Even then the scientists are to concede to their decisions,’ said another nuclear scientist.
Almost every government endorsed the experts’ suggestion that early implementation of nuclear power project would add more value to national development as at least 30 countries are now considering nuclear power as a viable option for energy security.
India and Pakistan generate 2 per cent of their electricity from nuclear reactors, while South Korea gets 29 per cent of its electricity from nuclear plants, Japan 25, United States 20, Russia 17 and United Kingdom 14 per cent.
The present ruling coalition took an ambitious target of producing 20,000MW of electricity by 2021 with no guaranteed fuel sources in sight for the plan. Existing reserve of natural gas, which propels 80 per cent of the country’s electricity plants, is drying fast with maritime boundary rows with neighbours limiting gas exploration in the sea and coalmining methods still being a debated issue.
The governments conducted a number of feasibility studies and identified nuclear power generation appropriate and viable for Bangladesh both technically and economically.
Meanwhile, the country obtained green signal from the International Atomic Energy Commission, apart from assurances of technical supports from a number of countries including France, Russia, USA, South Korea and China over the decades.
In 1980, a 125MW plant was approved after a study that suggested for two units of 300MW nuclear plants.
It was followed by another ‘action plan’ by the previous Awami League government to set up two 600MW reactors between 1999 and 2003. While the plan remained in hibernation for more than five years, the following BNP government in 2006 formed a cabinet committee headed by the prime minister and sought finance from China for Rooppur plant.
The immediate-past army-backed government also moved ahead with the project and the present Awami League-led alliance government, which took office amid a dismal power scenario, attached high importance to nuclear energy.
Pre-implementation phase activities for construction of the units on Rooppur site were done over the years by the BAEC with supports from the IAEA and other national organisations.
Now the government hopes to get 1,100MW from nuclear reactors by 2015 to meet the growing power demands, though the work is yet to get desired pace.
‘Bangladesh has signed all the treaties, protocols and conventions for required for developing nuclear energy and the IAEA has given green signal to go ahead with the project,’ said CS Karim.
The nuclear scientist, who was an adviser to the 2007-2008 interim administration, said Bangladesh would need further preparations for the project as it involved a lot of matters ranging from environmental aspects to reactors’ safety.
‘It may seem difficult, but not impossible.’
Though the Rooppur site now looked ready, but it may take seven years to implement the project once the government signs contact with any reactor suppliers, he said adding that Bangladesh has signed agreements with a few countries for cooperation for peaceful use of nuclear energy.
Russia is the last country with which Bangladesh signed an MoU earlier this year.
Asked whether Bangladesh would be able to begin project work by 2010, a joint secretary at the science and information technology ministry, MM Neazuddin, who deals with the present negotiation with Russian authorities, expressed optimism.
He said a minister-led delegation is expected to visit Russia later this month to follow up the previous meeting held in Dhaka in April this year.
The immediate-past BAEC chief Shafiqul Islam Bhuiyan told that the site safety report by the international authorities for the proposed Rooppur plant was finalised early this decade and some additional investigation into hydrology, morphological analysis, subsoil investigation, seismic studies and radiological dispersion were also carried out.
The safety report was also updated, he said.
About reactor’s safety and probability of accidents, he said that the third generation reactor has the highest safety mechanism with probability of one accident in a million year.
For nuclear waste disposal, Bangladesh stands in a position for pursuing ‘take back option,’ meaning that the reactor suppliers will take the high-level radioactive wastes back.
Moreover, these substances are now being recycled to produce metal oxide fuel, which are considered commercial commodity nowadays.
About the cost involvement in nuclear power plant, the former BAEC boss said its initial cost is higher, but experiences in other countries say electricity production is cost effective in comparison to other natural resources.