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Russia’s rush to sell nuclear reactors to Bangladesh may not succeed

text nuclear hypeFalse nuclear hope, HIMAL South Asian  BY M V RAMANA AND ZIA MIAN14 AUGUST 2016   Plans to construct Bangladesh’s first nuclear power plant are moving forward fast. On 26 July 2016, Mohammad Mejbahuddin, Senior Secretary of the Economic Relations Department of Bangladesh, and Russia’s deputy finance minister, Sergei Anatolievich Storchak, signed an inter-governmental agreement in Moscow for the construction and commissioning of two 1200 megawatt (MW) VVER-1200 nuclear reactors at Rooppur (also spelt Ruppur) at an estimated cost of USD 12.65 billion, with Russia committing to loan 90 percent of the costs to Bangladesh. Earlier, in December 2015, when the two government Cabinet committees approved the proposal, the Bangladeshi Minister for Science and Technology Yeafesh Osman said, “I believe USD 12.65 billion is a good bargain”. But the question is:  For whom?

Bangladesh’s first nuclear power plant is not a good way to meet its energy needs. A brief history

The idea of building nuclear reactors at Rooppur is very old. It goes back to a 1963 plan by the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission to build one reactor in West Pakistan and one in East Pakistan. This fifty-year quest for constructing a reactor is blind to what has been learned over the same period about nuclear energy. This history suggests there are now good reasons to believe the people of Bangladesh will end up waiting a long time for nuclear electricity from Rooppur, be stuck with big bills, and be forced to live with the constant worry of a nuclear plant accident.

The main player in this quest to build a nuclear plant is the Bangladesh Atomic Energy Commission (BAEC), which was created in 1973. As spelt out by a senior official in the organisation, “BAEC has, since then, been trying to do the needful so as to make the country embark on NP [Nuclear Power] program”. Successive Bangladeshi governments have been attracted to the idea of a nuclear plant as a modern technological solution to energy shortages in the country, with officials thinking of the possession of a nuclear plant as an exclusive privilege. As Finance Minister Abdul Muhit put it in December 2015, “Now, we are on the verge of entering the elite club of the countries who have nuclear power plants.” Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina even termed Rooppur “the nation’s dream”.

Encouraging the BAEC in this quest are the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), whose mandate calls for the agency to “seek to accelerate and enlarge the contribution of atomic energy to peace, health and prosperity throughout the world”, and various nuclear reactor vendors who hope to profit from the sales of nuclear power plants. The IAEA began work in Bangladesh a while back. It carried out a planning study in 1974-75 and projected between approximately1200 and 3000 MW of nuclear capacity in Bangladesh by 1995, with nuclear power constituting 47 percent of the country’s electricity capacity; a high projection that emphasised nuclear power as single biggest source to meet energy needs.

Finally, there are countries like the US, Germany, France and China which have, over the decades, supported their nuclear industries’ efforts to sell reactors. France, for example, signed an agreement with Bangladesh for the “peaceful use of nuclear energy” in 1980 and offered to sell 125 and 300 MW reactors in the 1980s. But in the last few years, Russia has taken the lead, edging out other countries that could have sold Bangladesh a reactor.

Misleading promises

What can we expect for the Russian reactors coming to Rooppur? The pace of contract signing and government approvals should not mislead one into thinking that the reactors will be ready anytime soon. At the time of signing of the general contract between the two countries in December 2015, the claim was that the two Rooppur reactors would start generating electricity within five or six years, by 2021 and 2022. Evidence suggests that it could be twice as long before the reactors actually start producing electricity.

Establishing nuclear power plants is a slow process. In developing countries that have just one or two reactors, the average construction time – between the first pouring of concrete and the reactor starting commercial operation – were 19, 16, 8.5, and 38 years respectively in the cases of Brazil, Mexico, South Africa, and Iran, as can be calculated from the dates given in the IAEA’s Power Reactor Information System (PRIS). These time periods do not include the lengthy preparation period before the actual commencement of construction…….

A better alternative

The purported reason for Bangladesh to embark on this project is to meet its increasing energy demand. But a sustainable strategy for meeting the energy demand would prioritise economical sources of electricity generation that can be brought online quickly. Renewable sources such as solar energy meet the twin goals of lower cost and timeliness far better than nuclear power. Globally, there is already little doubt that solar energy and wind energy are more attractive investments than nuclear power plants. As the 2016 World Nuclear Industry Status Report points out, “global investment decisions on new nuclear power plants remained an order of magnitude below investments in renewables.”…….

Finally, unlike nuclear power plants, solar energy installations can be commissioned relatively quickly, in typically one to two years. This means that by choosing to put money into solar power, Bangladesh could start getting electricity many years earlier than if it built the Rooppur plant.  Bangladesh is beginning the process of significant investment in renewables, setting a target of 3168 MW of electricity from renewable energy sources by 2021. The technical potential of solar energy in Bangladesh has been estimated at 50,174 MW…..http://himalmag.com/false-nuclear-hope-bangladesh-russia/

August 14, 2016 - Posted by | ASIA, marketing, Russia

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