Bangladesh set to be a nuclear power using country

A convoy of vehicles carries uranium under special guard to the Rooppur project area
Hasan Mahmud

With the establishment of the Rooppur nuclear power plant, Bangladesh will become the 33rd nuclear power-using country in the world. The uranium to be used to fuel the power plant arrived in Bangladesh by special flight on Thursday. On Friday it was transported under heavy guard to Rooppur.

The official handover of the uranium is supposed to take place at an event on 5 October. This will be inaugurated by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and Russia's President Vladimir Putin. They both are likely to join the event online.

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Also, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Rafael Grossi is scheduled to come to join the event. However, it has been learnt that he too may join the event virtually. Likely to be present at Rooppur are minister for science and technology Yeafesh Osman and Russian state-run atomic energy company Rosatom's director general Alexei Likhachev.

The uranium that has been brought to Bangladesh will not be used now, but stored at Rooppur. The Rooppur authorities want to start test transmission to the national grid from the power plant's first unit next year. They hope to start commercial transmission of power the same year.

Divisional head of Rooppur nuclear power plant project Alok Chakrabarty, speaking to Prothom Alo, said through the handover event to be joined by the prime minister and the Russian president, Bangladesh will become the 33rd among countries of the world using nuclear power for peaceful purposes.

According to the World Nuclear Association website, the countries using nuclear energy include the US, China, France, Russia, South Korea, Canada, Ukraine, Germany, Japan, Spain Sweden, Belgium, UK, India, Czech Republic, Finland, Switzerland, Bulgaria, Pakistan, Hungary, Slovakia, Brazil, South Africa, Mexico, Romania, Argentina, United Arab Emirates, Belarus, Slovenia, the Netherlands, Iran and Armenia.

Rooppur nuclear power plant
File Photo

Largest project of the country

The Rooppur nuclear power plant is the country's largest single project. Its construction costs are USD 13.5 billion (USD 1350 crore), which at present market value is equivalent to Tk 1 lakh 48 thousand 500 crore (at Tk 110 per dollar). Russia is providing 80 per cent of this cost as credit.

The Atomic Energy Commission, under the science and technology ministry, is implementing the Rooppur nuclear power plant project. The Russian contractor Atomstroyexport is constructing two 1200 MW units under this project. The nuclear fuel is being produced by Rosatom's associate company TVEL Fuel. Various countries around the world purchase nuclear fuel from them.

According to the website of the science and technology ministry, initiative was first taken for the Rooppur nuclear power plant back in 1961. Since then on, at various times, preparatory work had been taken up on the project. Then in 2013, during prime minister Sheikh Hasina's visit to Russia, a loan agreement for the Rooppur nuclear power project was signed. On the same year, the first phase of the Rooppur nuclear power plant was taken up. Work on the project was officially inaugurated on 2 October 2013. The power plants is being inaugurated in the village Rooppur of Pakshi union of Ishwardi upazila, Pabna. Work on the Rooppur nuclear power plant is nearing completion. Of the two units, one is ready to go into power generation.

Earlier, in November last year a crisis emerged over a Russian vessel arriving at Bangladesh with machinery parts for Rooppur. The vessel, Ursa Major, was under US sanctions. The name of the vessel has merely been changed and came to Bangladesh under a different name. Bangladesh didn't allow the vessel to berth at the port. Complications have also cropped up on the repayment of installments on the Rooppur loan due to western sanctions on Russian banks. It still has not been finalised how the installments will be repaid and in what currency.

Uranium in the country

Sources of the science and technology ministry and the Rooppur nuclear power plants say that the first consignment of uranium arrived on Thursday afternoon by special flight from Russia at the Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport in Dhaka. A convoy of vehicles under heavy guard started off on Friday morning, carrying the uranium to Rooppur. The convoy passed through Gazipur, Tangail and over Bangabandhu bridge, then crossed Sirajganj and went along the Banpara-Hatukumrul road to arrive at Rooppur. Other transport on the road was halted at the time.

The convoy of vehicles carrying the uranium arrived at Rooppur at 1:18 in the afternoon on Friday. The project staff, including Russian nationals, cheered the arrival of the uranium. Speaking to journalists, project director of the Rooppur nuclear power plant project Shawkat Akbar said, the arrival of the uranium establishes the project as a nuclear installation.

The Rooppur authorities say that once the uranium arrived at the airport, it became the responsibility of Bangladesh. The ownership is also of Bangladesh. There is no precedence of any accident in the transportation of uranium. That is why high costs were avoided by not insuring the transportation of the substance. It was given sovereign guarantee.

Uranium is an extremely high risk metal. IEAE permission was required along with maintaining the Russian Federation's export regulations, to import, transport and store the uranium.

On 4 May this year, at a meeting of delegations from the two countries, a readiness certificate was signed regarding the production of nuclear fuel. After that, Russia began production of nuclear fuel for the Rooppur power plant. The first phase of fuel production ended last month.

Divisional head of the Rooppur nuclear power plant project Alok Chakrabarty told Prothom Alo that several IAEA teams came to Bangladesh and gave a positive evaluation of nuclear fuel usage capacity. So such certificates were already collected from IAEA from beforehand.

As the conditions of IAEA guidelines had been fulfilled, the Bangladesh Atomic Energy Control Authority on 13 July issued a licence to Bangladesh Atomic Energy Commission (BAEC) for the import and storage of nuclear fuel. The Russian company Barrus Projects LCC was given approval for the transportation of nuclear fuel, ensuring its security. According to the agreement, no payment will be required for the fuel for the first three years of the Rooppur nuclear power plant project.

If power can be generated with all safety ensured, nuclear power is cost-effective and environment-friendly. He said, nuclear power is actually more political than technical.
Shafiqul Islam, Professor, Department of Nuclear Engineering, Dhaka University

Sources of the Rooppur nuclear power plants project said that once the nuclear fuel is loaded in the power plant's reactors, power can be produced for one year. After that, fuel will have to be reloaded in the reactor.

In October 2021, Rooppur unit-1 was almost completed, with the placement of the reactor within in the unit's structure. It has to be set up in accordance to IAEA standards.

The reactor is the main component of nuclear power plant. Uranium is loaded in the reactor. The second unit's reactor was set up in October last year.

Professor of Dhaka University's nuclear engineering department, Shafiqul Islam, told Prothom Alo, the arrival of uranium in Bangladesh has been a milestone for the Rooppur project. But it is not that electricity will be available very soon. Power generation will begin only after various tests and preparations are untertaken. He said, if power can be generated with all safety ensured, nuclear power is cost-effective and environment-friendly. He said, nuclear power is actually more political than technical.

(The Prothom Alo Pabna correspondent assisted in this report by providing information)