Originally posted in The Business Standard on 26 January 2022
The nuclear power plant is visible today due to the government’s political foresight, successful foreign policy and competent and prudent leadership
With the promise of abundant energy supply using the power of nuclear technology, the Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant is going to be a game-changer in the country’s socio-economic development journey.
The country’s dream for nuclear energy has a long history and the first steps of realising that dream were taken by Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Later, it has been taken forward by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.
The nuclear power plant, which has been constructed with the technical and financial help of Russia, is already visible as the first unit of the Reactor Pressure Vessel was installed on 10 October 2021.
The dream comes true
We should not only consider the Rooppur project as the largest project in the country only in financial terms, the technical and technological issues should also be considered. In that respect, this state-of-the-art project is not only the largest in the country, it also factors in fuelling the socio-economic development and the formation of a science-based nation in Bangladesh.
The implementation of this project is a long-cherished dream of the nation. Besides technical and financial obstacles, the geopolitical situation was also a big challenge for the implementation of the project. The first initiative to implement it was taken in 1961. For this purpose, about 260 acres of land was acquired for the project area and 32 acres for the residential area at Rooppur in Pabna. During that time, the authorities developed the land, constructed offices, rest houses and electrical sub-stations. The construction work of 72 residential units was also partially completed.
The financial and technical aspects of setting up a nuclear power plant were examined through various feasibility studies and the then government of Pakistan approved the construction of 70 MW, 140 MW and 200 MW nuclear power plants in 1963, 1966 and 1969 respectively. The construction of a 200 MW power plant of PWR class was finalised in 1969 with the help of Belgium.
However, the ruling class tried to build a nuclear power plant in West Pakistan, ignoring the implementation of the Rooppur project. Due to this hostile policy of West Pakistan, the implementation of the Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant was not possible at that time.
Bangabandhu tried to implement the project. On 9 October 1969, he (Bangabandhu) addressed a workers’ rally in Lalmonirhat and demanded immediate implementation of the Rooppur project.
He told a public meeting that industrialisation in the northern districts of the country was also being severely hampered due to a shortage of power supply. At a public meeting in Pabna on 8 March 1970, Bangabandhu called upon the government of Pakistan to implement the Rooppur nuclear plant project without delay. He said that this project would help in the industrialisation of the northern areas. He said at the meeting, “No specific decision has been taken yet about the Rooppur project. But even though the Karachi nuclear project was undertaken much later, its work has already been completed.”
After independence, Bangabandhu decided to implement the Rooppur project. He formed the Atomic Energy Commission to implement the nuclear power project in the country. Bangladesh also became a member of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) under the leadership of Bangabandhu. This expanded the scope of IAEA assistance in implementing the project. The first five-year development plan of the country (1973-1978) emphasised the development of the power sector. Plans were made to use coal, natural gas and nuclear energy for power generation.
The necessary technical survey was initiated for the implementation of the Rooppur Nuclear Power Project. It is to be noted that every time the project has been studied and its feasibility has been verified since its inception, its rationality has been proved from the technical, financial and economic point of view.
Bangabandhu undertook various training programmes and allocated Tk16.2 crore to create local skilled and specialised manpower to reduce the dependence on foreign experts and consultants for the development of the power sector including nuclear power generation. The Bangabandhu government also emphasised establishing training institutes in the country for a significant number of scientists and engineers. Due to Bangabandhu’s foreign policy, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) at that time started surveying the market price of nuclear power in developing countries, which included Bangladesh.
Because of the effective steps taken by the Bangabandhu government for the implementation of the project, a news report was published in ‘Dainik Bangla’ on 22 May 1972 under the headline “Work on Rooppur Atomic Power Project will be undertaken as soon as possible.” Bangabandhu also appointed a committee to advise on comparative analysis of the benefits of the project and instructed to re-engage with all the pre-independence technology suppliers who were interested in implementing the project. But the tragedy of 1975, the assassination of Bangabandhu, postponed the possibility of the Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant for a long period.
Bangabandhu always believed that there was no alternative to the use of nuclear energy in the overall power generation system and sustainable power generation for the long term. To that end, Bangabandhu took a policy decision with Russia to set up a 200-megawatt nuclear reactor. During Bangabandhu’s visit to the then Soviet Union on 15 March 1972, he discussed the development of the country’s power sector, including infrastructure development, and cooperation in the implementation of the Rooppur nuclear power project with the Secretary-General of the Communist Party of Soviet Union Leonid I Brezhnev.
Bangabandhu signed a bilateral agreement between Bangladesh and India on 27 August 1973 to receive technical assistance from India for the development of nuclear infrastructure including human resource development. The agreement created opportunities for Bangladeshi scientists and researchers to conduct research and higher training on nuclear technology in various Indian laboratories. However, all the dreams were shattered with the assassination of Bangabandhu in 1975.
During the period 1996-2001, the government of Sheikh Hasina, daughter of Bangabandhu, took strong steps to implement the Rooppur project. It was recommended for implementation in the National Energy Policy-1997 formulated and approved by the government at that time. The decision to implement the project was taken at a high-level meeting chaired by the Prime Minister on 16 October 1998. In light of the recommendations of the IAEA, a development project was undertaken for the pre-implementation phase of the Rooppur Nuclear Power Project, especially for the preparation of a site safety report and human resources development.
In 2009, after the grand alliance government led by Sheikh Hasina came to power, the development of the energy and power sector was given top priority. The goal of energy production from nuclear sources was set as part of the country’s sustainable development plan. Following this, a resolution was passed in the parliament on 9 December 2010 regarding the implementation of the nuclear power programme. A cabinet committee was formed on 9 June 2010 under the chairmanship of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and a technical committee was formed under the chairmanship of the State Minister for Science and Information and Communication Technology for the implementation of the Rooppur project.
At the first meeting of the national committee chaired by the Prime Minister, instructions were given to take initiative to implement the project with the financial and technical assistance of the friendly countries. The political foresight of the government, successful foreign policy and competent and prudent leadership resulted in the implementation of the Rooppur Nuclear Power Project with the help of Russia under easy conditions and a long-term loan repayment arrangement. On 14 January 2013, during her visit to Russia, the Prime Minister sat for a bilateral meeting with the Russian President Vladimir Putin which paved the way to remove the complexity of funding required for the implementation of the project.
The project is being implemented under the direction and strict monitoring of the Prime Minister. A Memorandum of Understanding on the peaceful use of nuclear energy was signed between Bangladesh and the Russian Federation on 13 May 2009 and a framework agreement was signed between the two governments on 21 May 2010. On 2 November 2011, the two countries signed an international cooperation agreement on the establishment of the Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant. The signing of this agreement ensured the financial and technical assistance of the Russian Federation for the project.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina inaugurated the first phase of the construction work of the project on 2 October 2013. On 30 November 2017, the first concrete casting work of the first unit was also inaugurated by her. Through this, Bangladesh achieved many milestones in the construction of a nuclear power plant and entered the world nuclear club as the 34th country. The construction work of the project started after going through a long historical process. A special bulletin was issued by the IAEA on that day and the organisation pledged its full support for the smooth implementation of the project. The Prime Minister inaugurated the first concrete casting work of the second unit on 14 July 2018. On 10 October 2021, the first unit of the Reactor Pressure Vessel was installed.
The Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant is visible today due to the government’s political foresight, successful foreign policy and competent and prudent leadership.
The construction of a nuclear power plant is a complex process that requires extensive preparation. Funding for nuclear power plants, selection of suitable technology and technology suppliers are the biggest challenges at the early stages. We have already overcome these challenges. The Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant is visible today.
Proper implementation of a nuclear power project depends on a proper nuclear programme that determines the suitable nuclear infrastructures. The most important infrastructure in a nuclear power programme lies in nuclear safety-related infrastructure. The major challenge is to build the appropriate nuclear infrastructure to meet the IAEA requirements for managing the construction of nuclear power plants. The Bangladesh Atomic Energy Regulatory Authority is responsible for establishing these infrastructures.
Nuclear power plants have to be licensed step by step. Another major challenge is obtaining licenses from the authorities in line with the work plan for the construction of power plants by meeting the requirements of technical standards as per national and international guidelines. In addition, other essential infrastructures for operation and maintenance of nuclear power plants are – the establishment of appropriate nuclear regulatory infrastructure in the country, the establishment of physical security system in power plants, timely development of power generation from nuclear power plants to connect to the national grid, establishing a suitable grid system for nuclear power plants during normal operation and in case of any disaster.
Various institutions of the country are involved in establishing these infrastructures. In addition to the construction of nuclear power plants, it is essential to establish the necessary infrastructure through the implementation of projects adopted by various organisations. During the construction of the nuclear power plant and before the loading of nuclear energy, much preparatory monitoring will be conducted in Bangladesh at the international level including the International Atomic Energy Agency.
All these missions will monitor the progress of the construction work of the Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant as well as various infrastructures related to it. The success of these missions would depend on the successful implementation of the project as per schedule. In this case, the implementation of the construction work of the project alone is not the last word. The successful implementation of the largest project in the country is largely dependent on the concerned institutions at the national level to implement their mandated tasks.
The project’s role in the socio-economic development of Bangladesh
The successful implementation of the project will play a significant role in meeting the electricity demand of the whole country, especially in the northern districts. The Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant will help us achieve several SDGs by 2030. The government has set up an export processing zone at Ishwardi and foreign investors will be encouraged to set up industries here as enough power will be available from the Rooppur project.
Not only power generation, but the project will also establish Bangladesh at a different height in the list of countries that use advanced technology. The project is expected to have a far-reaching impact on the overall economic development of the country and the establishment of a science-based society. It will generate employment in the area, develop various advanced technologies and create skilled manpower.
The uninterrupted power generation from the nuclear power plant at an affordable cost will contribute to ensuring the energy security of the country. Besides, it will play a positive role in improving the living standards of the people. It will also create new jobs and revolutionise the establishment of industries. It will make the wheel of the country’s economy roll more active and stronger. It will help protect people from environmental pollution and will play a positive role in implementing the vision of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina as the Chairperson of the Climate Vulnerable Forum at the international level to protect the countries affected by climate change. At the same time, the dream of Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman will be fulfilled and the ‘Vision-2041-Developed Bangladesh’ of the Prime Minister will be realised.
The benefits that future nuclear projects of the country would get from the experience of Rooppur
The major challenges of establishing a nuclear power plant are operation and maintenance, the establishment of proper legal infrastructure, the establishment of physical protection system in power plants, establishment of suitable electrical infrastructure to connect power generated from nuclear power plants to the national grid within the stipulated time, human resource development etc. The construction of the country’s first nuclear power plant has to overcome all of these challenges. However, the successful implementation of the first project makes it easier for the next projects to complete these steps. Therefore, the successful implementation of the Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant construction project will play a very helpful role in the adoption of new projects later.
The author is Project Director of Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant