Stop Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant (RNPP)
Dr. A. Rahman
28 May 2012
The saga of Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant (RNPP) had been going on for over five decades now. When Field Marshal Md. Ayub Khan, the then president of Pakistan, had declared in 1960 that a nuclear power plant would be built in Rooppur, Pabna, he deliberately created a white elephant in the then East Pakistani soil to shut out the clamour for democracy and equality between the East and West wings. The whole project was conceived out of political intrigues and it is even today in Bangladesh cloaked in political manipulation with little or no technical and financial considerations. Various Bangladeshi governments had on numerous occasions tried to revive the project, but after some deliberations discarded it as highly unworkable. Now the present government wants to go through the project without considerations of financial, technical and safety issues. Only consideration that is given is the political gain the present government will have from the froth of having nuclear power plant in Bangladesh.
The present Bangladeshi government’s claim that by setting up this nuclear power plant, the acute energy shortage can be met is totally misconceived. Various Ministers and Advisors as well as top Bangladesh Atomic Energy Commission (BAEC) officials had been claiming that within 6 to 8 years the plant will be up and running. This is in sharp contrast with the time scale of nuclear power generation in any country of the world. In an advanced country like Britain, with all the essential ingredients like finance, industrial infrastructure, technical expertise, skilled workforce, suitable site etc as well as regulatory and institutional framework readily available, it takes about 15 years or so to build a plant and get it running. How on earth a country like Bangladesh with none of the above mentioned items available can build a plant in half the time scale of the Western world?
Let us now examine the financial aspect of the RNPP. It is claimed by both the Chairman and the Director of the BAEC in charge of this project that to build this plant of 1000 MWe (which implies 3,500 MWth) output by the Russians will cost about $2,000 million. This claim is again in contrast with the statement of the Minister for Science and ICT and head of the technical committee who stated that the proposed nuclear plant of 1000 MWth output will cost $2,000 million. The Minister’s assertion is in keeping with the present day construction cost; whereas BAEC’s assertion is about 70% below market level. Are not the BAEC officials hyping up the project by fictitious claims for their own selfish interests – job security, opportunity for foreign trips etc?
Notwithstanding these baseless assertions, let us examine the whole of this RNNP project holistically. There are a number of critical questions which need to be answered affirmatively.
· Can RNPP meet the country’s energy need in the immediate future?
The answer is definitely NO. As stated above, it takes at least 15 years in an advanced country to go through the process of selection of the type of reactor for the plant, safety assessment, site selection, construction, commissioning and then start of the operation. In Bangladesh where the most essential ingredient of technical expertise is totally absent and the institutional and regulatory framework is lacking, the process may take well over 15 years - more like 20 to 25 years, if successive governments earnestly pursue the nuclear policy. A nuclear power plant can form the energy strategy over a longer time scale, but it is definitely not a short term energy fix.
· Is nuclear power the most cost effective source of energy?
The answer is again emphatic NO. No matter what the BAEC officials may claim (with zilch experience), it can be categorically said that nuclear energy has never been cost effective anywhere in the world when compared to other forms of energy such as coal, gas, oil etc. It is even more so when the cost of decommissioning and radioactive waste management are added to the construction and operation costs. The decommissioning and waste management costs are roughly equal to the initial construction cost. However, the BAEC officials claim that once the plant is operational, it will keep running generating electricity for the next 50 to 60 years! Such claims only reinforce the stupidity and sheer ignorance of the claimants. The fact is that every 12 to 18 months the plant is shut down for a period of two to three months for maintenance and refuelling, when defueling and refuelling are carried out, components and equipment are checked and replaced. Without such safety checks, the plant may well develop accident conditions.
· Does Bangladesh have the skill base required for nuclear power generation?
The answer is NO. Hardly any university in Bangladesh teaches reactor physics/reactor chemistry/thermal hydraulics etc. In addition, there are requirements for expertise in geology, hydro-geology, seismology, electrical and mechanical engineering, metallurgy, shielding, radiation protection etc as well as project management. Bangladesh education system should gear up to address these skill gaps now, so that in few years time there would be at least students with knowledge on these subjects.
· Is Rooppur a suitable site for a nuclear power plant?
The answer is NO. Most of the nuclear power plants are at coastal areas or very close to large sources of water. The reason is that nuclear power plants (whether PWR or BWR or gas-cooled etc) require large quantities of water to cool secondary or tertiary coolants. For example, Sizewell ‘B’ nuclear power plant of 3425 MWth output requires over 3 million litres of sea water every minute during operation and shutdown condition (until cold shutdown). If that amount of coolant becomes unavailable, a scenario like Fukushima may well develop. The tributary of Padma river which runs by Rooppur may not deliver that quantity of coolant during the lean summer months.
Another factor that is vital for nuclear power plant location is its remoteness from human population. Every plant needs to discharge some amount of radioactive waste in solid, liquid and gaseous forms. If there are human habitation nearby, then they will be exposed to such discharges and suffer adverse effects such as cancer, genetic disorder etc. There are large population sites within 5 to 10 mile radius from Rooppur and they are likely to be affected.
· Has there been any safety analysis or environmental impact assessment (EIA) carried out for the RNNP?
The answer is again NO. These techniques are unknown to Bangladeshi ‘experts’. Without such full blown analysis the levels of risk and their mitigation measures cannot be estimated. The first few years (between four to six years or even more) of project time is taken up by the safety analysis work. But before then the type of reactor, its desired output etc need to be specified. Bangladesh has not even taken this first step, but still claims that within six to eight years RNPP can be operational!
It can be seen from above considerations that Bangladesh fails to meet all of the crucial points. So why then Bangladesh government is keen to go ahead with this project?
The main benefit for the government is political. The government can flash it around that under this government a nuclear power plant is going to be set up and that is a major achievement. Already political leaders and BAEC officials are hyping it up by claiming that Bangladesh is on the verge of technological breakthrough.
The other advantage is financial for the individuals involved in this project. Already the Ministers, top civil servants, BAEC officials have made a number of official tours to Moscow, IAEA Vienna and other capitals over the last two and half years, supposedly pursuing this project. But hardly any concrete progress can be seen to have been made. The type of reactor has not been chosen, the power output has not been decided and the cost is unknown. The skill gap which is the first issue to be addressed remains unaddressed.
The whole saga of nuclear power in Bangladesh is ludicrous. A country which is locked in, after more than 40 years of independence as the Least Developed Country (LDC) in UN jargon, is thinking of embarking on a project which rich, developed countries such as Switzerland, Germany, Japan etc are shying away. On balance, these countries consider that the risk of nuclear power plant is too high to be acceptable and definitely not commensurate with the benefit it accrues. But Bangladesh rushes ahead regardless.
Is it not a case of FOOLS RUSH IN WHERE ANGELS FEAR TO TREAD?
Dr. A Rahman MSRP CRadP FNucI; author of the book ‘Decommissioning and Radioactive Waste Management’. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
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