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
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
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
"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
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.
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