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Bangladesh Can we afford nuclear power plant?

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Source: The Daily Star (Dhaka) , 29 June 2001

Sharif Atiqur Rahman
Last year in March, I wrote in The Daily Starquestioning the feasibility of the billion-dollar Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant project in technologically backward and poverty-stricken Bangladesh. Since then some new developments have taken place. In October 2000, Bangladesh and America signed an agreement in Washington for cooperation on the peaceful use of nuclear power under which the former will receive financial and technical assistance for its Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant.

Earlier Dhaka had planned to include the issue in the Hasina-Clinton talks during Clinton's visit in March 2000. Bangladesh, to gain Washington's confidence about the peaceful use of the nuclear power plant, had also signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and also ratified the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) just the visit. But Washington had requested that the issue be dropped from the agenda, citing the nuclear tests conducted by India and Pakistan in May 1998.

A report published in an English daily last week quoted Prime Minister Hasina that the government has finalised preparations to start installation of the proposed nuclear power plant. The report also stated that the Bangladesh Atomic Energy Commission (BAEC) has already completed the pre-implementation phase activities for the project and the site-report has also been updated. There were also reports on a high-powered team from the International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA) visiting the project site a few days back. Earlier in December 1997, another IAEA team came to Dhaka to discuss with experts and government officials details of the power plant and to determine a time-bound action plan. That team visited the site of the plant and conducted a 10-week pre-implementation training programme joined by 32 participants in 1998 in Dhaka.

The concept of the Rooppur project, about 180 kilometres from Dhaka in the district of Iswardi, was developed in 1961 by the then Pakistani government and was approved initially for 70 Megawatt (MW) of electricity generation. But it was virtually stalled due to lack of interest by previous Bangladeshi governments as well as a shortage of funds and technical assistance. The current plan is to have a much larger plant of 600 MW capacity, which is estimated to cost about $1 billion.

 Nuclear power plants are justified to the naive general public on the grounds of attractive cost-efficiency, safety and environment-friendly aspects, whereas, the underneath complex web of issues burdened with potential risk factors remains undetected.
Now, is nuclear power plant safe for Bangladesh?

Operating a nuclear power plant is quite different from the operation of any other kind of power-generating plant. This is because of the devastating consequences the population may face if an accident occurs during the operation of a plant. Before I proceed further, some historical facts can be cited.
1952 - December 12, Chalk River, near Ottawa, Canada: a partial meltdown of the reactor's uranium fuel core resulted after the accidental removal of four control rods. Although millions of gallons of radioactive water accumulated inside the reactor, there were no injuries.

1957 -October 7, Windscale Pile No. 1, north of Liverpool, England: fire in a graphite-cooled reactor spewed radiation over the countryside, contaminating a 200-sq-mi area.
South Ural Mountains: explosion of radioactive wastes at Soviet nuclear weapons factory 12 miles from city of Kyshtym forced the evacuation of over 10,000 people from a contaminated area. The Soviet officials reported no casualties.
1976 - near Greifswald, East Germany: radioactive core of reactor in the Lubmin nuclear power plant nearly melted down due to the failure of safety systems during a fire.
1979 - March 28, Three Mile Island, near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, USA: one of two reactors lost its coolant, which caused the radioactive fuel to overheat and caused a partial meltdown. Some radioactive material was released.
1986 - April 26, Chernobyl, near Kiev, former USSR: explosion and fire in the graphite core of one of four reactors released radioactive material that spread over part of the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, Scandinavia, and later Western Europe. 31 claimed dead. Total casualties are unknown and estimates run into the thousands. Worst such accident to date.
1999 - September 30, Tokyo, Japan: workers added seven times the required amount. Radiation was released to the surrounding areas. The three workers performing the operation were exposed to high levels of radiation and were treated. Thirty-nine workers were exposed in total.
The alarming point of the above incidents is that all the major accidents in nuclear power plants have taken place in technologically advanced countries. The highly sophisticated technical knowhow or the specialised expertise failed to prevent accidents in those plants. For a country like Bangladesh where the typically installed gas or coal-based power plants are tripping down regularly only due to faulty installation and lack of proper maintenance, how safe will be a sophisticated nuclear power plant is certainly questionable. Besides, Bangladesh lacks in the economic strength to compensate or to recover from the liabilities arising from any such accident that may happen in any nuclear power plant. The economic cost of cleanup, evacuation and medical treatment from the Chernobyl accident is estimated to be more than $100 billion so far. The cost of merely closing down the plant itself is estimated to be $4 billion.

 The so-called cost efficiency
It is argued that although the initial cost of a nuclear plant is double that of a conventional gas-burned plant, the fuel cost is much lower than that of a coal or oil-burned plant. Newly designed power plants of current times promise cost efficiency. But still the initial cost is exorbitantly high International Energy Agency (IEA) produced analysis on "Nuclear Power in OECD", published in 2001, showed that the capital cost for today's nuclear designs runs at about $2,000 per kilowatt, against about $1,200 per kilowatt for coal and just $500 per kilowatt for a combined-cycle gas plant. When considering the full life-cycle costs of a new project in today's money, some 60-75% of a nuclear plant's costs may be front-loaded; for a gas plant, about a quarter. History also suggests that not everything goes as planned when turning clever paper designs into real-life nuclear plants. The Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant in the USA designed to generate 2200 MW, was planned in the early '70s and was estimated to cost around $500 million. The final cost ballooned to about $8 billion before the plant started producing electricity 10 years behind schedule due to errors in design and construction process, improper quality control, inadequate documentation, etc.
With the continuous pressure on the foreign currency reserves, Bangladesh cannot ignore such a huge capital cost to install a nuclear power plant even if it finishes without any technical fault and within the scheduled timeframe (which is most unlikely).
Bangladesh will have to approach to the donor countries to arrange the fund. In case of foreign debts, we need to consider the interest accrued during construction, which, over many years it takes to build nuclear plants. We have to bear in mind that it took 40 long years for us to come to the implementation phase from the planning phase. Besides, Bangladesh will largely depend on foreign consultants to ensure safety of the plant as well as design and supply of plant parts and equipment.

Environmental disasters
True that nuclear energy does not produce carbon dioxide, the chief accused behind man-made global warming, but the other potential risk factors prevent nuclear power from emerging as a clear winter. Radiation is a threat to human health at every stage of the process, from uranium mining to plant operation (even in those new ultra-safe plants) to waste disposal. In operating a nuclear plant, a major problem is the disposal and storage of the radioactive waste material produced by the plant. No country has yet built a 'permanent' waste-disposal site. Disposal of nuclear waste will be an addition to the existing environmental hazards like high level of lead particle in the atmosphere or contamination of arsenic in ground water.
The distance from a nuclear power plant also has a direct affect on things such as breast cancer. In an extensive study it was found that, women living near a nuclear reactor had an average of 26-28 deaths from breast cancer per 100,000 women. Women living far from one averaged 22-23 deaths per 100,000. It was observed that the breast cancer mortality rate in the localities where the seven oldest US Department of Energy nuclear reactors were situated rose by 37% during the period 1950-54 to 1985-89 period, whereas a corresponding rate for the entire US population rose by only 1%.
In addition to this, there are numerous examples of evasive actions and cover-ups by both commercial and government owned nuclear plant authorities regarding the extent of malfunctions, accidents and consequent release of radioactive materials. It is always easy to hide behind "national security" and "sensitive information" to withhold information from the public

Since the accident in the Three Mile Islands, USA in 1979, no new plants have been built in the United States. A referendum in Sweden in 1980, demanding an end of nuclear power was initiated by the Three Mile Islands incident. The 1986 Chernobyl incident seemed to put the nail in the coffin of nuclear power in Europe. Following Sweden, a number of countries campaigned for a ban. Germany and Belgium have decided to ban new nuclear plants. Even pro-nuclear France seemed to lose its enthusiasm for new plants. In recent months the new government in Taiwan, once a big fan of nuclear power, has tried to reverse the course. The Japanese government has quietly scaled back its plans for 20 new plants. When the enthusiasm for nuclear power plants is on he reverse gear for some genuine reasons, why we shall choose to swim against the stream ignoring all the exposed menaces of nuclear power plants.

Due to economical, geographical and demographical facts existing in Bangladesh, any accident in the Rooppur power plant has the potential to adversely impact the lives of every citizen of Bangladesh and of future generations. Hence, the viability of a nuclear power plant in Bangladesh needs to be rethought and recalculated. It is true that nuclear power has far lower routine emissions than energy from burning fossil fuels and Bangladesh is in a crying need of electricity. But whether nuclear power plant is the perfect solution is arguable. It has been reported many a times that the existing power plants in Bangladesh, if in production with its full capacity, can supply the required amount of electricity. But due to technical faults, lack of maintenance and notably, dishonesty from some part of the concerned officials, have given the country's power sector a gloomy look. Besides proper maintenance of the existing power plants and vigilance against misuse and 'system loss' of electricity, the huge amount of natural gas reserves can be a more suitable source of electricity than nuclear power considering the grave risk factors associated with nuclear power plants. Natural gas can be complemented by renewable energy sources such as solar energy, biomass fuels (renewably produced and used), and wind energy.

Atiq is a researcher and a writer. Views expressed here are of the author's own.


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