Bangladesh–Russia nuclear collaboration: A model for emerging economies looking for alternative energy sources



Sariful Islam
photo Barta24.com

photo Barta24.com

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Bangladesh is globally recognized as a fast-growing economy but some critical bottlenecks could soon hamper the country’s bid to join the club of developed nations. Bangladesh is not alone in this. Several developing nations face a huge glass ceiling while scaling up their economy, that of power. Power is the critical component that replaces the raw muscle power of labour, enabling mechanization, better working conditions and higher levels of income. 

The Government of Bangladesh has already charted out an ambitious plan to raise the present individual per capita income from $1,466 to $12,500 by 2041 by increasing production in the manufacturing goods basket, modernising agriculture-based production as well as expanding the critical industrial sectors.

Although industrialisation is one of the main wheels to an advanced economy, the country faces a severe lack of electricity to feed the looms and the levers. The plan envisioned by the Sheikh Hasina’s government aims to create a total of 100 special economic zones by 2025, some of which have been already inaugurated while some are under construction and nearing completion.

Needless to say, these special economic zones will create huge job opportunities as well as increase the GDP of Bangladesh. The devil in the detail here is that power supply is a must for the proper functioning of these special economic zones which Bangladesh currently lacks. The Bangladesh government under the leadership of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina does realise the importance of power generation for industrialisation and has thus included a sustainable power generation strategy in the plan. Bangladesh has also taken a bold initiative of constructing new power plants among which the nuclear power plant in Rooppur nestled in the northern district of Pabna is a unique one. This is being built with Russian assistance.

The country’s first nuclear power plant at Rooppur consists of two units – each with a capacity of 1,200 megawatts. Under a general agreement signed in 2015, Russia’s state-run Rosatom nuclear corporation is tasked with constructing the plant. They will also operate it and provide fuel. The first unit would be operational by 2023 while the second one by 2024. The construction works have been going on day and night in the Rooppur site to meet the deadline. Russia has predictably emerged as an all-weather friend of Bangladesh in constructing the plant and has been sending heavy equipments in time keeping with the schedule. The plant will operate for 60 years with the option to extend the operations by another 20 years.

The latest technology VVER-1200 is being used which is a third-generation reactor. Its ingenious feature is its passive safety system. The passive safety system allows the cooling system to operate in an emergency even the plant goes out of electricity. All safety system functions 24x7 while it works for the core for 72 hours. The latter means, if an accident happens, there is time to take all necessary pre-emptive measures to prevent the radiation spread or, in a highly unlikely scenario shift the residents of the nearby area. According to Rosatom, the VVER-1200 is designed to avoid tragic disasters such as Fukushima or Chernobyl.

Besides Bangladesh, Russia has also been constructing nuclear power plants in many countries around the globe. In the Middle East, Russia has contracted with Turkey to build VVER-1200 reactors while Egypt is going to have four VVER-1200 reactors. A World Nuclear News report also confirmed that European countries such as Belarus, Finland and maybe Hungary are also going to have Russian generation III+ reactors. Even China, which has reportedly approached Bangladesh with proposals for a second nuclear power plant, signed an agreement in 2019 to construct in two sites. Both these sites are required to have two VVER-1200 reactors.

About choosing Russia in constructing RNPP, Dr ASM Ali Ashraf, a Professor at the Department of International Relations at the University of Dhaka, says, ‘I think Bangladesh-Russia nuclear energy cooperation provides a template for understanding how a country implementing its first nuclear power plant (NPP) makes vital decisions regarding the choice of vendor country, reactor technology, and spent fuel management.’

Dr. Ashraf, whose research interest area is nuclear policy in South Asia, further states, ‘Among these three decisions, the first one is the most crucial determined by a country’s energy mix, geopolitical realities and NPP funding plans.’

In materialising the $13 billion ‘dream project,’ Bangladesh has been getting financial assistance from Russia. In addition to this, Moscow has been providing training and scholarship to study nuclear science and technology in Russia to Bangladeshi students and nuclear scientists who will later take the responsibility of operating the nuclear facilities.

To achieve the target of being developed countries by 2041, the use of nuclear energy for civilian purpose is but a well-calculated choice of a power-starved nation like Bangladesh. The electricity produced by nuclear power plants would be cheaper than other power generating coal-powered plants. A recent estimate of Bangladesh government suggests the price of per unit electricity of RNPP would be Taka 4.5 which is nearly half of the electricity produced in coal-powered plants.

This is also the case with most developing nations. Though the production cost of electricity generated by using gas is half of the nuclear one, the reserve of gas is depleting and can sustain by a decade or a decade and a half as some academic research suggests. Gas being a global commodity, the low purchasing power of developing nations also translates to their lack of access to this key resource. Countries having deposits would also have to let go of the substantial foreign income from gas if they desist from taking the nuclear route. Another advantage of nuclear power over gas is that prices are stable and immune to fluctuations.

The first-ever nuclear power plant could open up a wide area of opportunities for Bangladesh including attracting foreign investment. The electricity deficit costing industrial production could be a thing of the past. Once the nuclear power plant would be operational, the supply of electricity to the industrial zones as well as other large business firms and service providing facilities can be expected to be smooth. If Bangladesh can ensure proper electricity supply along with other special offers, it can nudge corporations to set up base and turn itself into a manufacturing hub in South Asia. Recently countries such as Switzerland, South Korea and Japan among others have shown their interest in investing or increasing the investment in Bangladesh. Other countries have also been looking for the option of shifting their companies from China. Getting an assurance of uninterrupted electricity is likely to influence the decision of the foreign companies in stepping in Bangladesh.

 Sariful Islam, Research Scholar, Department of International Relations, South Asian University, New Delhi.