Bangladeshi engineering student Noyon Ali, 22, serves ice cream and fruit juice to Russian customers on a hot and dusty roadside with a menu translated by an online application.
He crossed the Padma River to Rooppur to take advantage of the arrival of the Russians to build Bangladesh’s first nuclear power plant in the northern center, locally known as “Russpur” (Russian town).
“Many restaurants, beauty salons, and commercial establishments have sprung up in this place to cope with the influx of Russians and people working on the nuclear power project from all over Bangladesh,” Ali said.
The Rooppur nuclear power plant, with a planned power generation capacity of 2,400 megawatts (MW), adding Bangladesh to the list of more than 30 countries with operational reactors.
Bangladesh has been struggling since the summer with blackouts linked to rising fuel prices around the world, and some experts see nuclear power as a possible way out.
Ijaz Hossain, professor and dean of engineering at the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET), said the nuclear power plant could help alleviate the country’s electricity problems and increase the use of low-carbon energy.
But construction delays, cost concerns, and general fears about nuclear safety cloud the prospects for the new facility.
Bangladesh’s power generation capacity currently exceeds demand, but the fuel needed to run existing plants is partly dependent on imports, including a quarter of natural gas, and prices are set to rise sharply this year following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Fuel and electricity prices are expected to rise, however, as the government considers removing subsidies to reduce costs.
Hossain said that nuclear energy can not only improve Bangladesh’s energy security but also help meet commitments under the Paris Agreement to limit global warming emissions by reducing the use of fossil fuels.
In the coming years, Bangladesh plans to rely less on natural gas, which currently accounts for about half of electricity generation, although it will increase its use of coal power in the near future.
Last year, the Ministry of Electricity announced an ambitious goal of obtaining 40 percent of the country’s electricity from renewable energy sources by 2041.
Until now, renewable energy sources accounted for approximately 950 MW of the 25,700 power capacity.
However, considering nuclear energy as a renewable or green energy source is still controversial worldwide because spent nuclear fuel left over from power generation is not fully recoverable and nuclear waste is dangerous.
The share of nuclear energy in the world’s electricity production has fallen below 10% in 2021, although interest has risen due to the recent energy crisis caused by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The goal of developing
Nuclear power plants in Bangladesh date back to the 1960s, but plans approved by successive governments over the decades have not materialized due to a lack of funding and skilled engineers.
In 2011, an agreement was signed with Russia to build a nuclear power plant, and in 2017, construction began on two nuclear power plants, each capable of producing 1,200 MW, at Rooppur, 87 miles (145 km) west of Dhaka.
The plant is being built by the Russian state nuclear power company Rosatom using Russian technology, with 90 percent of the project financed by an $11.38 billion Russian loan that will be repaid over two decades starting in 2027.
Construction work is in full swing, said Aleksei Deriy, deputy CEO of the Rooppur nuclear power plant project, run by Russian engineering firm JSC Atomstroyexport (ASE), owned by Rosatom.
Last October, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina inaugurated the installation of a Russian container that will house the reactor of the second unit of the power plant.
But the government has made it clear that the completion of the power plant, which was originally scheduled to start operating in 2022-2023, will be delayed, meaning it may not be able to help alleviate power shortages in the near term.
Ministers and project officials said last month that construction of the transmission infrastructure for the plant was taking longer than planned due to the COVID-19 pandemic and problems procuring parts for its substation.
They now expect the plant to start supplying power in mid-2022 instead of late 2023, local media reported.Government officials, including the Rooppur project director, did not respond to requests for comment.
Meanwhile, a Russian ship carrying materials for the nuclear plant was blocked from entering a Bangladeshi port in December after the United States said the vessel was under sanctions in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Deriy said Atomstroyexport is “doing everything” to have the Rooppur plant ready to deliver the first batch of nuclear fuel this year, adding that the power supply “depends on many factors, not all of which are under our control.”
Due to the late start and the confidentiality of the financial data of the project, the affordability of the electricity from the new nuclear power plant is unclear, according to experts.
Deriy said the initial cost of building a nuclear power plant is high, but the electricity is cheaper over its 60-year life and more reliable than renewables because it produces electricity 24/7 and produces less waste than solar or wind energy.
Md. Shafiqul Islam, a visiting professor of nuclear science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), said that in the absence of official estimates, his calculations show that nuclear power at Rooppur is commercially competitive compared to the use of imported fossil fuels and renewables.
But shipping costs and implementation delays could make the project more expensive than estimated, he added.
A study by Denmark’s Aarhus University found that cost overruns have affected more than 97 percent of nuclear power projects worldwide since the 1950s.
Jobs for locals
Many residents of Rooppur believe that the construction of the nuclear power plant will take longer than the original schedule.
Masud Rana(45), who cooks Russian food in a small roadside restaurant, said the construction could take a few more years.
“It’s not a bad thing because many local people make a living from the opportunities this project offers,” he added. Rickshaw driver Saidul Islam (50) is happy that his son got a job.
Rana said that local people need to quickly acquire skills and knowledge so that they can work at the nuclear power plant after the start-up and not be dependent on the Russians for years.
According to ASE Deriy, Rosatom has trained more than 660 Bangladeshi experts to work on the project since 2018, for a total of about 1,120 operational personnel and 305 reserve personnel.
Safety IssuesIn turn, some experts and citizens are worried about safety after the 1986 Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine and the 2011 Fukushima nuclear reactor crisis in Japan.
“I don’t want to imagine what could happen in the unlikely event of an accident,” said Md. Milon, a 30-year-old waiter in a restaurant opposite the Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant. BUET’s Hossain said. Bangladesh’s ability to manage a major nuclear disaster is limited.
But MIT’s Islam said the risk of a Fukushima-like crisis was low because the third-generation reactors at Rooppur could contain nuclear meltdowns. He explained that they have several layers of protection that should prevent radioactivity from entering the environment.
ASE representative Deriy said that the advanced technical and economic characteristics of the reactors ensure “absolute operational safety and fully comply with the International Atomic Energy Agency’s post-Fukushima safety standards.”
Bangladesh’s vulnerability to the effects of climate change is another consideration, as the facility is located in a zone prone to extreme weather events such as flooding.
Islam, also a professor at Dhaka University, said there is no public information on whether and how climate-related risks are taken into account when designing a nuclear power plant.
Even before Rooppur is finished, the government is considering the possibility of building another nuclear power plant, and countries like South Korea and China have shown interest.
Islam, however, advised against rushing into another large-scale project, saying that it would be better to learn from the operation of the first plant for several years.
“We should also look forward to future, next-generation nuclear technologies that are safer, domestically funded, and controlled,” he said.
Source: Thomson Reuters