Development at what cost?
Phil Humphreys Weekend

Weekend Tribune: Phil Humphreys writes about the implications of going nuclear

  • Symbolic picture for Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant 
    Photo- Wikimedia

On the first Wednesday of next month, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is due to lay the foundation stone of the country's first nuclear power plant at Rooppur. With the contracts signed in Dhaka and the bulldozers moving into position in Pabna, it is too late to ask after the alternatives. Like it or not, Bangladesh should become a member of the nuclear club inside the next ten years.

Does such a prospect provide a reason to celebrate, like the Indians with their space programme? Or does this great technological leap forward give us serious cause for concern, like North Korea and its rockets?

The inconvenient truth

At a government-organised seminar on nuclear power on May 29, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina conceded the geography of Bangladesh and climate change “have been compelling the country to face frequent climatic events.” Commonly, these include widespread flooding during the June to September monsoon season, tropical cyclones, and earthquakes.

Bangladesh is unique in this respect and the three-pronged threat this poses to a nuclear reactor cannot be ignored. Three-quarters of the country lies less than 10m above sea level and 80% on a flood plain, and over the last two centuries it has suffered a major storm on average once every three years and seven major tremors of a magnitude of 7.0 or higher (though the most recent of these was in 1950). Extreme high temperatures are also posing problems worldwide for the cooling of nuclear reactors.

The prime minister appeared acutely aware of the environmental hazards during the May seminar: “We are focusing on these issues and (we will) make sure the full proof safety of the nuclear power plant,” she said in her introductory speech, “We will never compromise on safety issues.”

Reassuring words, indeed, but how much control will she really have?

The builders

If the proper finances are put in place, construction of the 2,000 MegaWatt (MW) facility at Rooppur is due to start in earnest in 2016 with connection to the grid expected not earlier than 2021. As recent as 2008, the Bangladesh government was iterating its intention to work with China, who first offered funding. South Korea also showed an interest but when a formal proposal was tabled by Russia in March 2009, the government's head was turned. An agreement with the Russian state atomic energy giant, RosAtom, followed in February 2011 and two VVER reactors were ordered for the Bangladesh Atomic Energy Commission (BAEC).

Surely neither China, South Korea, nor Russia were acting solely in the best interests of Bangladesh, or, as Sheikh Hasina said of Russia on her January 15 visit, as a “true friend.” If the Kremlin really places such a high value on its relations with Bangladesh, then why was Hasina's meeting with President Vladimir Putin the first high-level visit from Dhaka to Moscow in over 40 years?

Note that, as part of the same delegation, Foreign Minister Dipu Moni announced $1bn of defence purchase deals, reportedly including Russian-built MiG fighter jets, helicopters, anti-tank missiles and automatic grenade launchers. Little wonder that in outlining its position on the Syrian crisis in a statement released late last month, the Bangladesh foreign ministry said nothing that could offend the Assad regime's principal ally. Indeed, in choosing to emphasise “the centrality of the United Nations in resolving the Syrian crisis,” Bangladesh has tacitly fallen in behind Russia, which will surely veto any future Security Council resolution calling for a military intervention.

The bankrollers

On the face of it, however, this looks a good deal for Bangladesh. Russia is financing Tk40bn of the Tk52bn build cost ($515m of $670m) through a hard loan and the World Nuclear Association observes that RosAtom will also manage wastes and decommissioning, including the return of used fuel to Russia “in line with standard Russian practice.”

But, according to Professor Quamrul Haider of the Department of Physics & Engineering Physics at Fordham University, New York, the construction of nuclear power plants is frequently beset with spiralling costs and delays, and “the RosAtom numbers simply do not add up.”

He told Weekend Tribune that the cost for building a 1000 MW nuclear facility at Kudankulam in India by the Russians jumped from under $2bn in the original 2002 budget to around $3bn now, and that this is also the latest figure for their construction of a VVER reactor near Monakovo in central Russia.The total bill for the Rooppur plant has been estimated at between $1.5bn and $2bn.

He asks:“Why, then, is the cost of a similar reactor thousands of miles away so small when technical manpower and equipment have to be airlifted or ferried across oceans?”

The middlemen

The issue of finances looks set to dog the Rooppur build and there is the potential - and precedent - for corruption to run either way along the supply chain. Both partner countries have a disreputable track record in the execution of large infrastructure projects.

In June last year, the World Bank withdrew funding for the Padma Bridge, citing corruption concerns and the “unsatisfactory” response of the Awami League government. The $1.2bn committed to the project by the bank would have paid for building the Rooppur nuclear plant twice over.

Bangladesh has not chosen the purest of bedfellows, either. According to the Bellona Foundation, an international environmental NGO based in Oslo, the Russian nuclear power industry operates in a landscape “beset by corruption.”

“What unites Russia and Bangladesh besides this newly-forged nuclear cooperation is that both countries are found at the very bottom of Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index,” says the foundation, “Experience shows this is just the kind of seedy neighbourhood RosAtom tends to scour as it looks for potential customers to peddle its nuclear power plant projects.”

The managers

Russia’s customer, in this instance, will need more than bricks, mortar, and rods of uranium. The prime minister has admitted that Bangladesh will need help to develop local competency in all areas, and she urged home-grown nuclear engineers “to improve their management efficiency and update their knowledge.”

“You will have to take the total responsibility of the Rooppur nuclear power plant one day,” she forewarned.

Bangladesh, however, just does not have the necessary human infrastructure to run a reactor, believes Professor Haider: “Great scientists, geniuses, yes, but you have to get your hands dirty to run a nuclear reactor. You cannot do it from behind a desk. How long will Russia do it (for us)?”

Currently, none of the universities in Bangladesh has a functional department of nuclear engineering.

The webpage of the Department of Nuclear Engineering at Dhaka University offers a three semester full-time MS course, but it will not be operational untilthe 2013-2014 session. Of the specialist higher education institutions, BUET announced in June that it will open a Nuclear Engineering Department with Russian assistance, pending the signing of a MoU with the National Research University in Moscow. But there was no indication of when that might be, or when admissions might begin.

Professor Haider said: “A nuclear power plant in a country without a nuclear engineering degree-granting institution is unthinkable.”.

If the first batch of nuclear engineers graduate from DU in the summer of 2015, they will at most have a year of experience before the RNPP build is due to begin in earnest. Until then and far beyond, Bangladesh will be heavily dependent on Russian skills and expertise.

The running costs

The TK40bn question now is: are the costs fixed? For if Russia is lending support and processing the waste, what will the ongoing cost of this be to Bangladesh? Is it fixed or indexed for the lifetime of the plant?

Russia has form here. On New Year's Day in 2009, it cut gas supplies through eastern Europe after Ukraine could not agree on a price that it should pay Gazprom, the former state energy giant which controls around a third of all global gas reserves. Gazprom said it would pump only enough gas for EU customers further down the pipeline, leading to extreme shortages in the former Soviet bloc. Under the terms of the deal struck to resolve the crisis, Kiev saw the price it paid to Gazprom more than double.

Could Bangladesh suffer a similar fate? Relations between Dhaka and Moscow are stable enough now, but what if Bangladesh foreign policy diverges from that of Russia on a key issue or two? RosAtom might suddenly seek to renegotiate terms or, worse, renege on the deal and refuse to return the waste.

Brief history of nuclear energy

1895: the scientific study of atomic radiation, atomic change and nuclear fission begins when Wilhelm Rontgen accidently discovers X-rays

1905: Albert Einstein, at the age of 26, proposes his theory of relativity (E=mc2)

1938: Nuclear fission is discovered when Otto Han and Fritz Strassman realise the lighter by-products of neutron bombardment on Uranium also release energy, so proving E=mc2 albeit 33 years after Einstein. Work begins on developing nuclear fission programmes, both for energy and for bombs

August 6, 1945: a Uranium bomb, Little Boy, is dropped on Hiroshima in Japan.

August 9, 1945: a Plutonium bomb, Fat Man, is dropped on Nagasaki. Soon after, Japan surrenders, ending World War II

1953: President Eisenhower proposes his “Atoms for Peace” programme, which reorients significant research effort towards electricity generation and sets the course for civil nuclear energy development in the US

June 1954: The USSR steals America’s thunder as the world's first nuclear powered electricity generator begins operation at the FEI in Obninsk

April 26, 1986: a catastrophic explosion at the Chernobyl reactor in Ukraine (then still part of USSR);

two plant workers die instantly and a further 28 people within a few weeks as a result of acute radiation poisoning

March 11, 2011: Pacific Ocean earthquake triggers a 15-metre tsunami which inundates northeast Japan, disables the power supply and cooling of three reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. There are no reported deaths or cases of radiation sickness from the nuclear accident, but over 100,000 people are evacuated


What happens if the worst happens?

It would be churlish to suggest that a nuclear power plant will be constructed in Pabna with the same scant regard for building regulations and safety as an eight-storey factory complex in Savar. But there are obvious concerns; everything is deemed safe, until it breaks. With a nuclear power plant, the stakes could not be any higher.

The prime minister said: “I requested Mr Vladimir Putin to provide us the safest and the latest reactors. He assured me in this regard.”.

Not necessarily so, according to Professor Haider: “VVER1000 reactors are old and unsafe. They operate mostly in CIS countries (of the former USSR).” Other scientists have also questioned the Russian reactors, including their capacity to continue functioning if cooling systems fail, and the hazards of hydrogen explosions.

It is too soon to hit the nuclear panic button, says Professor James Smith of the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences at University of Portsmouth in the UK. In the 60 years that the world has been generating nuclear energy, there have been only two serious “Level 7” accidents: at Chernobyl in the Ukraine in 1986, and at Fukushima in Japan in 2011.

”Chernobyl was an explosion in the reactor core which spread reactor fuel around the site, and the resulting fire spread it through the air,” Professor Smith told the Weekend Tribune, “Fukushima, on the other hand, was a meltdown and explosion of hydrogen gas which built up. Nobody got a high dose of radiation.”

The prime minister has said emergency preparedness for any accidents is “imperative to nuclear power production.” But in a country with such a high population density, is there a viable plan to contain the damage and the exposure, and to evacuate millions of people to a safer area?

“With Chernobyl,” says Professor Smith, “It was the economic consequences of relocating so many people. There was a significant mental health impact due to a lack of information and more cases of depression as people worried more about the effects of radiation, rather than suffering those effects.”

Radiation is not just confined to nuclear power plants. “Natural radiation is everywhere,” explains Professor Smith, “Everybody gets a dose. Radon gas is the most important. It comes from uranium found in the bedrock of the earth.”

According to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the global yearly average dose of radon is 1.3 millisieverts (mSv), but Professor Smith says in high radon gas areas - such as the American Midwest or Cornwall in southwest UK- the levels can be many times larger: “Only 2-3 millisieverts a year in theory gives us a 1 in 10,000 chance of getting cancer. But people who smoke are at a greater risk than that.”

Public knowledge deficit

The government convened the ambitiously-titled May seminar Nuclear Power: A Chance of Successful Economic and Socio-political Development to try to plug the information gap. Even then, Nazarov Anatoly of the Public Council of RosAtom conceded that in Bangladesh, “A lot is left to be done in explaining strategies for setting up a plant.” RosAtom's Communication Director Sergey Novokov said also that people fear nuclear plants: “not having (had) experience of the facilities.”

Belatedly, the corporation is establishing a Nuclear Industry Information Centre in Dhaka which the prime minister hopes will “create an opportunity for our people to be acquainted with the different aspects of nuclear power,” though she could say only that she hoped RosAtom “will be able to start the activities of the centre soon.”

For Professor Haider, this is too little, too late.

“The entire process of building the Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant is shrouded in a veil of secrecy,” he says, “There has been no discourse in public fora where the citizens were given a chance to express their concerns or support for the project. It is surprising that members of the civil society did not engage the government in an informed debate on the wisdom of building a nuclear power plant in Bangladesh.”


From next Wednesday and for the next fifty years, that wisdom will be tested like never before.

“None of the competing suppliers were acting solely in the interests of Bangladesh. In contracting RosAtom, the government has unwittingly placed the country in Russia's back pocket, potentially for the lifetime of the Rooppur plant”

“The Bangladesh government's agreement with RosAtom was signed two weeks before the Japanese tsunami which triggered the Fukushima meltdown. Would the deal have even gone through had the earthquake struck a fortnight earlier? In most countries, this would have been unthinkable. But in Bangladesh, how many people even knew?”

In July 2010, searing summer heat in north Alabama forced the Browns Ferry plant to run at only half of its regular power for eight weeks. With river water so warm, the world's largest nuclear plant on opening in 1974 could not draw in enough water to cool the facility's three reactors. Though there was never a risk of an explosion, leak or meltdown, the discharge of hotter than normal coolant water posed a serious ecological threat. The Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant (RNPP) will be entirely dependent on the Padma River for its cooling water, and similarly susceptible to extreme heat.


Pressurised Water Reactor (PWR)

This is the most common type, with over 230 in use for power generation and several hundred more employed for naval propulsion. The design of PWRs originated as a submarine power plant. PWRs use ordinary water as both coolant and moderator. The design is distinguished by having a primary cooling circuit that flows through the core of the reactor under very high pressure, and a secondary circuit in which steam is generated to drive the turbine.  In Russia these are known as VVER types - water-moderated and - cooled

A PWR has fuel assemblies of 200-300 rods each, arranged vertically in the core, and a large reactor would have about 150-250 fuel assemblies with 80-100 tonnes of Uranium.

Water in the reactor core reaches about 325°C, hence it must be kept under about 150 times atmospheric pressure to prevent it boiling. Pressure is maintained by steam in a pressuriser (see diagram). In the primary cooling circuit the water is also the moderator, and if any of it turned to steam the fission reaction would slow down. This negative feedback effect is one of the safety features of the type. The secondary shutdown system involves adding Boron to the primary circuit.

The secondary circuit is under less pressure and the water here boils in the heat exchangers, which are thus steam generators. The steam drives the turbine to produce electricity and is then condensed and returned to the heat exchangers in contact with the primary circuit

Phil Humphreys

Phil Humphreys is a former journalist currently working as a development consultant in northern Bangladesh.

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