How Long will Rooppur Remain Elusive?
DR. ABDUL MATIN recalls a power plant planned long ago as one way of mitigating our current power crisis.
Conceived in the early 1960s but not yet delivered! The name of the unborn baby is Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant (RNPP). For nearly 50 years, there has been so much talk about this plant, at home and abroad, that many people believe that the plant already exists! In fact, it survived only as a project with a sad history of an elusive nuclear power plant. Thanks to the initiative taken by the present government, there has been a renewed hope of implementation of the project recently.
A site for the first nuclear power plant in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), then a province in Pakistan, was selected in a remote village called Rooppur in Pabna district in the western zone. There was no natural gas or any other indigenous energy resource in that zone at that time. Two independent electric power grids were built in the two zones of the province without any interconnection between them. The site at Rooppur, downstream of the Hardinge Bridge over the Ganges (Padma), was thus a natural choice for a nuclear power plant. Approximately 105 ha of land were acquired for the plant and an additional 12 ha, close to the plant site, for residential purpose. A group of engineers and scientists were recruited by Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC) and sent abroad for higher studies and training to build and operate the plant.
Initial negotiations started in the early 1960s with a US supplier for a 50 MW nuclear power Plant at Rooppur. As time passed, the reactor vendors were changed, the size of the power plant was increased and some feasibility reports were prepared, but no contract was signed. The reason was very simple. The Government of Pakistan was not serious about this project. In the mean time, the contract for the construction of a 125 MW Pressurized Heavy Water Reactor
(CANDU) in Karachi in West Pakistan, was signed with Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. (AECL) without any feasibility study, even though there was a cabinet decision to build the first nuclear power plant in Pakistan at Rooppur. Several senior engineers and the Project Manager of the Rooppur Nuclear Power Project were transferred to the Karachi Nuclear Power Plant (KANUPP), thus crippling the Rooppur project.
In 1968, PAEC received a proposal from V/o Technopromexport of Moscow to supply a 400 MW nuclear power plant for Rooppur. While the Russian proposal was being evaluated, WENESE, a subsidiary of Westinghouse of USA based in Brussels, sent a proposal to supply a 200 MW nuclear power plant. This offer appeared to be more attractive than the Russian one in view of the small size of the grid in the western zone of East Pakistan and some unresolved safety issues of the Russian reactor. It may be mentioned here that the proposed Russian reactor did not have any containment building, an essential safety feature designed to contain any release of radioactivity to the atmosphere in case of a nuclear accident. All the terms and conditions of the supply, construction and erection of the nuclear power plant were finalised with WENESE and the contract was due to be signed in early 1971. A large group of fresh engineers were recruited, all from East Pakistan and trained at the Pakistan Institute of Nuclear Science and Technology (PINSTECH) in Islamabad to operate the nuclear plant.
As a general election became due in Pakistan at that time, the Belgians were waiting to see the outcome of the election. The political situation in East Pakistan changed rapidly soon after the general election, culminating in the war of liberation. Eventually Bangladesh emerged as an independent state after the surrender of the Pakistani forces on December 16, 1971.
The situation in the power sector changed rapidly in Bangladesh after independence. The power demand, instead of growing, initially fell due to the destruction of the industries and other physical infrastructures during the war. As a result, the power system had more than 60 percent reserve generating capacity in 1973. Addition of a nuclear power plant to the grid under such circumstances was out of the question. Consequently, the Belgians showed no further interest in the Rooppur project. I was later told by a retired Bangladeshi diplomat that the Belgian proposal was nothing but a ploy by USA to kill the Russian proposal in order to keep Pakistan away from probable Russian influence during the cold war era.
Most of the Bengali nuclear engineers and scientists who had become stranded in Pakistan during the war gradually started to return to Bangladesh, initially through Afghanistan and India and later through official repatriation. With no prospect of construction of a nuclear power plant in Bangladesh in the near future, most of the trained nuclear engineers started to leave the country for jobs abroad. Some of them went to Canada and built nuclear power plants in Argentina, South Korea and Rumania. Only a small group of nuclear engineers stayed back around the research reactor at the Atomic Energy Research Establishment (AERE) at Savar or at the headquarters of the Bangladesh Atomic Energy Commission (BAEC) in Dhaka.
Except some feasibility studies and half-hearted negotiations with reactor vendors, no serious attempt was made by any government since independence to implement the Rooppur Nuclear Power Project till the present government came to power in 2009. The decision of the government to revive the Rooppur Nuclear Power Project is justified in view of the serious energy and power crises which the government inherited mainly from the past regimes. There was a shortage of 1500 to 2000 MW of electric power during the peak hours recently. Unable to meet the demand, the Power Development Board (PDB) had to opt for unpopular load shedding in a large scale.
The situation regarding the supply of primary energy sources also became precarious. About 90 percent of the present power generation is based on natural gas. Without any new discoveries in the recent past, the present production of natural gas is unable to meet the total demand in the power, fertiliser, industrial, transportation and domestic sectors. Naturally, no new gas-based power plant can now be built in the country unless new gas fields are discovered.
The country has good deposits of coal, 2 GT or more. Only one coalmine, Barapukuria, is under production but its performance together with that of a pit-head coal-fired power plant has been unsatisfactory due to poor planning and management. Depending on what method of extraction is chosen, coal may sustain a total of 10,000 to 15,000 MW of electric power when in full production. Further mining of coal is being delayed due to the absence of a national coal policy in the country. Imported oil is too expensive to generate electricity. Some rental power plants, based on diesel and fuel oil, are now under construction or in operation. Indigenous hydro resources are limited and have been fully exploited. Use of renewable energy for power production in commercial quantities is expensive and limited.
It is estimated that the country will need an additional 21,000 MW of electrical power by 2025. If no new natural gas field is discovered, this power must be met by coal, nuclear power and imported oil. Assuming that coal supplies 10,000 MW, a highly optimistic figure, and imported oil 5,000 MW, the rest of the power, i.e. 6,000 MW must be supplied by nuclear power.
On a request by the government of Bangladesh, Russia has shown interest in building two advanced pressurised water reactors (APWR), 1,000 MW each, at Rooppur. A memorandum of understanding and an agreement for cooperation on use of atomic energy for peaceful purposes have been signed by Bangladesh and Russia. Technical teams from both the countries exchanged visits to collect data and relevant information. An agreement for the construction of the first nuclear power plant in Bangladesh is likely to be signed early next year in Moscow during the scheduled visit of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. The nuclear power deal between Bangladesh and Russia will herald a new phase of cooperation between the two friendly countries.
The APWR design is completely different from that of the Chernobyll reactor in which a serious accident occurred in 1986, due to a combination of both design faults and operational errors. Russia has successfully overcome the shortcomings that caused the Chernobyll accident. Russia is building nuclear power reactors in Iran, India, China and Bulgaria. Present day Russian reactors, designed with containment buildings, are safe like any reactor in the western world. As a result, an accident like that of Chernobyll will be an unlikely event at Rooppur. BAEC should, however, ensure that the safety features of the proposed Russian reactors for Rooppur adhere to US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (USNRC) or European Utility Requirements (EUR) or equivalent standards.
Bangladesh Atomic Energy Commission must do its homework properly and thoroughly before the contract is signed so that the first nuclear power plant of the country can be built without unnecessary hitches. The major challenges of the project implementation are likely to be the following:
-availability of technical personnel for the construction and operation of the plant;
-availability of sufficient cooling water for the condenser and the design of the intake structure;
-transportation of heavy equipment to the site and
-maintenance of the schedule of construction.
At present, there is a total vacuum of senior engineers with nuclear background in BAEC. This vacuum has been created mainly for two reasons. First of all, without any nuclear power programme in hand, BAEC was unable to recruit or attract suitable engineers. Secondly, most of the engineers who were recruited and trained at the research reactor at AERE , Savar left their jobs for better opportunities in the private sector or abroad. The Commission must immediately recruit engineers at various levels, some at senior levels with experiences of construction and operation of large industrial plants and train them in nuclear reactor engineering.
It takes years to train a nuclear engineer. All the engineers recruited and trained for operation of the Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant must be paid highly attractive and competitive salaries in order to retain them on their jobs. Contingent plans to fill vacant positions must be kept ready at all times.
The design of the intake structure for condenser cooling system will be a challenging task because of the reduction of the flow of water in the Ganges since the construction of the Farakka Barrage upstream in India, the shifting nature of the main channel of the river and the high content of silt in the water. It is worth recalling that during negotiations with WENESE of Belgium, several designs of the intake structure were suggested by the prime contractor but they could not warrantee their performances. The impact of the proposed Ganges Barrage downstream of the Rooppur site on both water intake system and navigation to the site should also be taken into due consideration.
The transportation of the heavy equipment to the site is closely linked with the project schedule. All heavy equipment must be transported during the peak monsoon period when the water draft is maximum. It must be remembered that if one season is missed for any reason, the whole project schedule may be delayed by one year. Low productivity of the local labour force, unfamiliarity of local project managers with modern techniques of project management like CPM and PERT, civil disturbances, natural calamities, bureaucratic bottlenecks, etc., also contribute to delays in project schedules.
The problems cited above are not insoluble. It is desirable to apprehend the problems in advance so that the negotiating team of BAEC is able to opt for the most viable and economically optimal solution in each case. Looking at the progress made so far in the present negotiations with the Russians, it is quite probable that the Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant, having been elusive for a very long time, will be a reality and it may be possible to complete the two nuclear plants at Rooppur by 2017-19.
The Rooppur Nuclear Power Project should be the beginning and not the end of the nuclear power programme in Bangladesh. To make nuclear power economic, it is imperative that Bangladesh adopts a long-term nuclear power plan. There are good prospects to build two more nuclear power plants near Chittagong and two around Khulna, each of 1,000 MW, along the coastal belts to be operational between 2020 and 2025. It is time to start planning and looking for suitable sites for the future nuclear power plants in the coastal regions. While all previous governments failed, the successful implementation of the Rooppur Nuclear Power Project will surely add a new feather to the cap of the government of Sheikh Hasina.
Dr. Abdul Matin is a former Chief Engineer of Bangladesh Atomic Energy Commission and was involved in the negotiations with the Russians and the Belgians on Rooppur Nuclear Power Project.