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    South Asia
     Mar 16, 2011


Bangladesh signs up for nuclear power
By Syed Tashfin Chowdhury

DHAKA - Russia and Bangladesh, which suffers acute shortages of electricity generation, have signed an agreement to install the South Asian country's first nuclear power plant, at Rooppur in Pabna.

Russia's state-owned Rosatom will supply fuel for reactors, take back the spent fuel, and help in the decommissioning of the nuclear power plant. The construction cost is initially being put at between US$1.5 billion and $2 billion. The final agreement, to be signed some time this year, will include details of the funding mechanism to be offered by Russia.

The Rooppur nuclear power plant (RNPP) will eventually generate around 2,000 megawatts (MW) of electricity, with each of two

 
proposed reactors having a capacity to generate 1,000 MW.

"This is a welcome step as even if the nuclear reactor generates only 1,000 MW, it will curb the power scarcity significantly," Yusuf Haider, chairman of the physics department and a former pro vice chancellor of Dhaka University, told Asia Times Online.

The deal, signed on February 24, is intended to lead to completion of the plant by 2017-2018. In the shorter term, businessmen want more immediate steps to improve power generation, particularly during the summer months.

"If the RNPP is commissioned around 2017, how is that solving our immediate problems due to the crisis?” asked Abdus Salam Murshedi, president of the Bangladesh Garments Manufacturers and Exporters Association.

Annual demand for electricity in Bangladesh is increasing by 8% to 10% in a country where only 45% of the 155 million people are covered by the current power supply. In the May-October period last year, power outages occurred around eight to 12 hours per day, bringing life to a standstill and with factories being the worst affected.

On March 9 this year, there was a shortage of 1,304 MW, or nearly 25% of demand, with only around 3,796 MW of electricity generated against a total demand for 5,100 MW, according to the daily report of the Power Grid Company of Bangladesh. Shortages are higher during the summer, when demand can reach 6,000-6,300 MW.

The Dhaka Chamber of Commerce and Industries has urged the government to allocate 100 billion takas (US$1.4 billion), or 10% of the total budget for the 2010-11 fiscal year, to new power plants. The government proposed 43 billion takas for the purpose before agreeing to 61.15 billion takas for development of the power and energy sector.

On March 9, an increasingly concerned Federation of Bangladesh Chambers of Commerce and Industry requested World Bank investment in the power and communications sectors in the form of public-private partnerships, a newly devised development paradigm being followed worldwide.

Murshedi, of the Bangladesh Garments Manufacturer and Exporters Association, said that when power outages occur most industries run on generators, driving up operating costs.

"Also, as power outages occur mostly during peak periods, we have to work overtime, which further increases production costs," he said. "The recent government move to increase the bulk tariff rate for electricity has further burdened us."

The electricity tariff rate was increased from 2.37 takas per unit cost of power to 2.63 takas from February 1. The cost will again increase, to 2.80 takas, from August 1 this year.

The retail price was raised by 5%, with exceptions for those who use as little as 100 units of electricity a month, irrigation facilities, religious organizations and some other groups.

The government said the increases were to offset rising costs to the government for purchases of electricity from private power producers, which generate 41% of the country's total power.

"The government should plan and take further steps to ensure the sustainable growth of the industries sector, although we do realize that the resources are limited as the price of oil is high, gas supply is low, and with the coal policy draft yet to be implemented," said Murshedi.

Without a coal policy, the government cannot initiate coal mining on a number of potential sites due to differences between environmentalists, bureaucrats and energy corporations.

However, experts in the power sector argue that despite the time taken to develop nuclear power plants, they are the only viable solution.

"There was no option for Bangladesh but to go for nuclear power as this will facilitate fuel diversification," B D Rahmatullah, former director general of Power Cell, a power ministry unit, told Asia Times Online. "Not much uranium is required in a nuclear power plant, and the price of uranium does not fluctuate at the same rate as oil, gas or coal prices."

"However, whether the concerned authorities in Bangladesh have the ability to maintain and operate a nuclear power plant is another concern," he said.

Dhaka University's Yusuf Haider, talking before earthquakes and a tsunami led to explosions in nuclear power plants in Japan last week, also pointed to safety concerns.

"During the operations, fission fragments are given out, which can be very risky if not properly maintained. The operation and shielding of the power plant and radiation monitoring is also necessary as the health hazards to workers need to be evaluated beforehand."

Rahmatullah said financing "is the main challenge confronting implementation of the Rooppur nuclear power plant", as pointed out on the Ministry of Science and Information and Communication Technology (MOSICT) website.

A senior official of the Nuclear Power and Energy Division of the Bangladesh Atomic Energy Commission (BAEC) told Asia Times Online, "As Bangladesh has the capacity to contribute to 25% to 30% of the RNPP implementation, I believe the government will involve its own funds as this is an extremely profitable sector."

In June 2007, the International Atomic Energy Agency approved a "Technical Assistant Project" for the RNPP while also assuring support on the project.

France, South Korea, Russia, China and Pakistan expressed interest in offering assistance for developing the RNPP, with the Bangladesh government eventually opting for Russia and Rosatom, the Russian state-owned nuclear energy corporation. Rosatom claims to be " ... the first in the world [for] simultaneous nuclear build abroad, second in uranium reserves, fifth in uranium mining and fourth in nuclear electricity generation around the world".

The BAEC official said, "As far as maintenance is concerned, Rosatom will be entitled to train Bangladeshi staff and workers on the operation, safety hazards, management, maintenance and other aspects," he said. Rosatom will ship out the fuel wastes. "All these aspects will be clearly detailed in the bilateral agreement to be signed later this year."

When asked about the signing of the final agreement, MOSICT state minister Yeafesh Osman said this will be decided "through the joint communique between the foreign ministries of Russia and Bangladesh".

The agreement last month was signed by Nikolay Spasskiy, deputy director general of Rosatom, the Russian State Nuclear Company, and MOSICT secretary Md Abdur Rob Howlader on behalf of their countries at the Bangladesh Atomic Energy Commission in Dhaka.

MOSICT will act as the competent authority of the government, while the Bangladesh Atomic Energy Commission will be the project's customer, with Rosatom acting as the competent authority to implement the project for Russia.

The agreement follows a five-year framework agreement that Bangladesh signed with Russia in May 2010 and a 2009 memorandum of understanding for building the Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina heads the committee supervising the project for Bangladesh.

The countries have agreed to set up a joint coordinating committee to be nominated by Rosatom and may include representatives of BAEC, MOSICT from Bangladesh and the Russian Ministry of Natural Resources and Ecology.

Syed Tashfin Chowdhury is a senior staff writer at New Age in Dhaka.

(Copyright 2011 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)


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