The state of nuclear in Bangladesh

20 August 2009

Authorities in Bangladesh continue to plan and prepare to introduce nuclear power, but deny they have reached terms with Russia's Rosatom atomic energy corporation to build the reactor.


Mohammed Muzammel Haque, chief engineer at the Bangladesh Atomic Energy Commission (BAEC), claims Bangladesh has opted to build a 1100 MWe plant. But neither the time frame for completion nor the technology supplier for the long-planned plant at Rooppur, western Bangladesh plant have been decided. 


"We are still exploring all the options as regards reactor technology," he told World Nuclear News. This appears to contradict suggestions from Russia's Rosatom that it had secured the order to supply reactors to the plant. After a meeting in Dhaka in May, visiting Rosatom deputy director general Nikolay Spasskiy said the Bangladesh government had decided on Rosatom technology, with only payment scheduling left to be negotiated.


Russia is the latest of several countries – the others being China, France, India and USA - with whom Dhaka has signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) on nuclear cooperation ahead of the hoped-for power plant, which could in theory break ground in just a few years. The year 2010 has been previously suggested by Yeafesh Osman, state minister at the Bangladesh Ministry of Science, Information & Communications Technology, speaking at an April conference in Beijing, China.


Much debate has swelled around the technical specifications for a plant at Rooppur, which was first conceived in 1963, with current costs estimated by Osman at $2 billion. But the pressure is now on the Bangladeshi government: candle stubs on the footpaths and staircases of Dhaka's business district Mohtijheel hint at the dire power shortages which have been blamed with losing this country $1 billion a year in GDP. Electricity demand is rising by 6% a year in Bangladesh.


Given that alternatives are limited - apart from limited reserves of natural gas and hard-to-mine coal - there appears to be popular and political support for the Rooppur nuclear station. Current prime minister Sheikh Hasina's late husband was a nuclear scientist and leading proponent of Rooppur during his stint as chairman of the BAEC.


A government white paper published this summer however also suggests her administration has been exploring alternatives to nuclear energy: the extraction of local coal supplies – long environmentally sensitive – is included in a Ministry of Energy & Mineral Resources plan to have 7000 MWe generation capacity in place by 2014. Smaller coal power stations would contribute 2000 MWe of that.


Raising money for a Rooppur plant also remains a worry. Local economists have suggested privatisation of the country's power sector would attract sufficient investment from overseas venture capital and pension funds to complete the nuclear plant. Others point to soft loans from Bangladesh's chief regional patron, China: Dhaka recently requested $2 billion from Beijing for major infrastructure projects, among which was listed a $150 million request for Rooppur.


The government's various nuclear diplomacy gambits seem designed to create the kind of pool of expertise that Bangladesh will need to build and run a nuclear plant. A $67,000 International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) grant has been secured to train 40 personnel.