IS BANGLADESH READY FOR NUCLEAR POWER GENERATION?
Bangladesh is said to be one of the biggest energy-starved countries, with the present demand for electricity at 7500 plus MW (Mega Watt) as opposed to the production of 5000 to 5800 MW. Access to electricity in Bangladesh is one of the lowest, about 40 percent of the total population are without access to adequate, cheap and quality energy. At present, we have to depend on indigenous energy resources, which are finite as well – gas, oil, furnace oil and coal to produce electricity. And about 55 per cent of our natural gas is used to produce this power. The reserve of gas is not infinite and will soon run out and before that happens, we must adopt alternative energy sources, be it renewable with a bio-ecological/green revolution or build nuclear power plants (NPP). Hence, the government recently decided to join the world’s 30-strong nuclear power club, signing an inter-governmental agreement (IGA) with Russia on November 2 2011 for a nuclear power plant at Rooppur, Ishwardi of Pabna district, in the country’s northwest region. Rooppur is 75 miles (120 kilometres) north of the capital city. The 2,000 megawatt (MW) nuclear power plant will have two units, each of which will generate 1,000 MW of power, according to the deal.
The plant might cost US$ 1.5 to 2.0 billion and is expected to be completed by 2017-18, as circulated in the local Press. Under the deal, Russian State Nuclear Company (Rosatom) will supply necessary fuel for the reactors during its life-term and take back the spent fuel. Russia will also manage nuclear waste and help decommissioning of the nuclear power plant in future, under the deal. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) allowed Bangladesh to install nuclear power plant in 2007 along with seven other developing nations for peaceful installation of nuclear power plant.
Now, very interestingly, the NPP stands on the border between citizens of Bangladesh’s greatest hopes of almost uninterrupted power supply and its deepest fears for the future – a nuclear catastrophe with contamination which can destroy scores of livelihood.
On one hand, atomic energy offers a clean alternative energy that can free us from the shackles of fossil fuel dependence. But contrary, it can summon ome of the greatest devils of disaster with examples of quake-ruptured Japanese power plants belching radioactive steam, and the dead zone surrounding Chernobyl’s nuclear contamination site where even today, babies are born with birth defects.
History of building NPP
Bangladesh, then East-Pakistan, first considered building a nuclear power plant in 1961. Since then, several feasibility studies have been carried out, affirming the feasibility of the project.
This reporter spoke to F R Al-Siddique, ex chief scientific officer and a director of Bangladesh Atomic Energy Commission (BAEC). He did his Phd from University of Cambridge and started his career with Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC). He narrated that, “In 1963 (during that time Siddique was working with PAEC)the Rooppur site was selected since East Pakistan was the most power starved amongst the two Pakistans and in East Pakistan, the northern Bengal part was even in worst conditions in regards to power supply. And it was also calculated following trend analysis that Rooppur bears little or no risks of earthquakes and massive floods, which were few of the main reasons to build a reactor there. But then the project never saw light and instead, nuclear power reactors were built in West Pakistan depriving us”.
Talking about some current issues, he said, “We went with a deal with Russia instead of other nations like France (dubbed as the nation with the finest nuclear generation technology) because Russia is more open towards sharing this technology at affordable prices. Our petroleum resources will soon run out; solar energy is still expensive and it yet cannot generate the amount of power needed to fuel industries and bio-fuel technology lacks infrastructure, materials and it requires massive amount of land. Therefore we have to adopt nuclear technology one day or the other as there are no options at the moment. And it must be preferably breeder technology, which produces double or surplus fuel from a single mechanism. (A breeder reactor is a nuclear reactor capable of generating more fissile material than it consumes. Breeder reactors are recently of research interest as a means of controlling nuclear waste and closing the nuclear fuel cycle)”.
He also added that, “If we look at the nuclear disasters, especially in Fukushima, the biggest mistake was to build it near the sea but today’s reactors are built in places and not near water bodies and if you talk about the biggest Cherenobyl disaster, it happened because of human mistakes not because of reactor’s fault. In this regard, I must add that we have to be extra cautious. And as days are passing, more new technology is developing and the risk is coming down. Nuclear technology is cost-effective, only the establishment cost is expensive but it is not very pricey to produce energy and it is cheaper than burning fossil fuels. And once we adopt this technology, we have to be bound by rules and guidelines from IAEA to stop any misuse or harvest illicit production of anything harmful. Saying this, we must invest both money and brains parallely on other sustainable sources like renewable energy.”
“We have to adopt this technology like France and engage more in ‘coal distillation’ as opposed to ‘coal burning’ (which emits green house gases), a process which would fetch us many valuable chemicals which can be used for developments in the fields of medicine and pharmaceuticals. The first stage of coal distillation gives us pitch, which we use on roads and why should be impport this material when we can produce it in the country. This process would open a pandora’s box of opportunities for us”, Siddique concluded.
Inside the NPP
So what happens inside a nuclear power plant? In a nuclear-fueled power plant – much like a fossil-fueled power plant – water is turned into steam, which in turn drives turbine generators to produce electricity. The difference is the source of heat. At nuclear power plants, the heat to make the steam is created when uranium atoms split – called fission. There is no combustion in a nuclear reactors.
And in a Pressurized Water Reactors (PWR) water is kept under pressure so that it heats, but does not boil. This heated water is circulated through tubes in steam generators, allowing the water in the steam generators to turn to steam, which then turns the turbine generator. Water from the reactor and the water that is turned into steam are in separate systems and do not mix.
Let us look at the process, step-by-step as explained on websites of nuclear power generation and United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission:
• The Fuel
The fuel used in nuclear generation is primarily uranium 235. It is manufactured as small round fuel pellets. It is said that a single pellet is less than an inch long, but produces the energy equivalent to a ton of coal. The pellets are placed end-to-end into fuel rods that are 12 feet long. Over 200 of these rods are grouped into what is known as a fuel assembly.
The process of producing electricity begins when uranium atoms are split (i.e., fission) by particles known as neutrons. Uranium 235 has a unique quality that causes it to break apart when it collides with a neutron. Once an atom of uranium 235 is split, neutrons from the uranium atom are free to collide with other uranium 235 atoms. A chain reaction begins, producing heat. This reaction is controlled in several ways, including by control rods which absorb neutrons.
Control rods are inserted among the fuel assembly rods that hold the uranium pellets. When they are in place, they absorb the atomic particles that would normally initiate the chain reaction. When they are withdrawn from the fuel assembly, fission is allowed to occur.
The heat produced in the reactor is transferred to the first of three water systems: the primary coolant. The primary coolant is heated to over 600 degrees Fahrenheit. In a pressurized water reactor, a pressurizer keeps the water under pressure to prevent it from boiling.
• Steam Generator
The hot, pressurized water passes through thousands of tubes in nearby steam generators. These tubes are surrounded by another water system called the secondary coolant. The heat from the primary coolant is transferred to the secondary coolant, which then turns into steam.
The primary and secondary systems are closed systems. This means that the water flowing through the reactor remains separate and does not mix with the water from the other system.
Next, the steam is piped from the containment building into the turbine building to push the giant blades of a turbine. The turbine is connected to an electric generator by a rotating shaft. As the turbine blades begin to spin, a magnet inside the generator also turns to produce electricity.
• Condenser Coolant
After turning the turbines, the steam is cooled by passing it over tubes carrying a third water system, called the condenser coolant or lake water. The steam is cooled so it condenses back into water and is returned to the steam generator to be used again and again.
• Lake or Cooling Towers
At some nuclear stations, lake water flows through thousands of condenser tubes to condense steam back to water. It is then discharged down a long canal (for cooling) and eventually enters the main part of the lake.
At other plants, the condenser cooling water is circulated through cooling towers to remove the extra heat it has gained. The water is pumped to the top of the cooling towers and is allowed to pour down through the structure. At the same time, a set of fans at the top of each tower pulls air up through the condenser water. This lowers the temperature of the water. After it is cooled, the condenser water flows back into the turbine building to begin its work of condensing steam again.
Concerns of building NPP
Now let us look at some of the urgent concerns or disadvantages of building NPP:
Informed and involved citizens are more concerned than happy. An electrical engineering researcher based in the United States Munsi Haque said, “It should be the safety issue addressed as the top priority since Rooppur area is near the biggest flood zone and it is also a densely populated area. Nothing in the world is fail-safe. Advanced countries like Japan, USA, Russia could not prevent the disasters. Bangladesh being among the poorest countries in the world and harbours very corrupt, indisciplined, near lawless society with morally corrupt majority administrators, leaders, politicians and law-people…we are talking about the biggest calamity soup”.
• Theft of nuclear fuels, for example uranium.
• The cost of other issues after installation such as operating fees, servicing fees, fuel cost, waste management cost for transportation of materials from here to Russia can get very expensive.
• Exposed radioactive waste and its repository in Bangladesh will endanger the ecological balance, put water and marine systems at grave risks of contamination due if there is seepage.
• Nuclear contamination of any kind in either Bangladesh or India will not only spread like wildfire but affect both the states.
• An extensive disaster management system must be designed before the NPP operation starts. Since we do not have proper infrastructure to give advanced warnings of earthquakes or tsunamis and have limited resources for making quick evacuations, any of the natural calamity will not only harm the residents but the nuclear reactor as well.
• A large number of countries, especially Germany are in the process of nuclear phase-out and looking towards renewable energy or other options.
• Unstable political scenario with governance failure in every terms.
• Dependance on Russia for our reactors to be run, spare parts purchase and technical difficulties. A game international politics might brew.
Another official of Dhaka University requesting anonymity said, “Inorder to fetch our electricity demand via NPPs, we would be needing a lot of them. Quite frankly, Rooppur NPP will produce 2,000 MW (which will be added to the grid) in 2020/21 but at that time, our demand will be 19,000 MW from 7,500 MW (demand at present). This will be affected more if the projected scenario like population, development, infrastructure are miscalculated now. Hence, instead of building more nuclear reactors, we can start investing parallely in other sources of energy like renewable, solar etc. Nuclear cannot be the only option”.
With all these concerns, this reporter went to BAEC and spoke to one of the top officials. Asking not to be named citing security issues, he thoroughly tried to counter the concerns, as follows:
• The IAEA has responded to the demand of the embarking countries to NPP by providing them with assistance, standards, guidance, technical documents, reviews, assessments and inspections.
• Thus, IAEA formulated the Milestone Approach comprised of 19 infrastructure items in 3 phases or milestones in order for Bangladesh to be and to continue and implement a nuclear power program.
• These 3 phases/milestones are:
a. Understanding the commitment
b. Ready to invite bid/negotiation for the first NPP
c. Ready to commission and operate the first NPP
• Now 19 infrastructure issues needs to be addressed seperately for each of the phases:
1. National position
2. Nuclear safety
4. Funding and Financing
5. Legislative framework
7. Regulatory framework
8. Radiation protection
9. Electrical grid
10. Human resource development
11. Stakeholder involvement
12. Site and supporting facilities
13. Environmental protection
14. Emergency planning
15. Security and physical protection
16. Nuclear fuel cycle
17. Radioactive waste
18. Industrial involvement
• The issue of safety and security in siting, designing, construction and operation phases of Rooppur NPP will be given top priority. The selection of nuclear technology is crucial because this NPP project site was selected earlier, the essential characteristics at present, such as site geology and hydro-geology; seismicity; site preparation; excavation; internal and external access routes; emergency preparedness; construction laydown and storage areas; service utilities; administration and technical support buildings – all these will be re-assessed.
• Authorization or siting license from Bangladesh Atomic Energy Regulatory Authority has to be taken. It is mandatory.
• Initiatives have been taken for the development of technical and economic feasibility evaluation for the NPP location.
• The assessment of Rooppur NPP environmental impacthas been undertaken.
• Bangladesh has decided to involve the NPP design institute of the vendor country in site charecterization of Rooppur NPP so that nuclear reactors must be complimented with the latest safety codes for severe accident prevention and capable of tolerating severe man-made or natural events like flood, earthquakes etc.
• It is proposed that in order to build and operate the Rooppur NPP, Bangladesh needs to establish a project organization that could function independent of any political and regulatory establishments.
• Initiatives for capacity building in national academic and research infrastructure in the field of nuclear science and technology have been taken with Dhaka University and some other private universities establishing departments of nuclear engineering. DU started the nuclear engineering courses from this year. These capacity building initiatives will enhance the development of technical competence of regulatory authority personnels, engineers so that there are abundance of trained hands by the time Rooppur NPP is erected.
• According to a 1997 UN resolution and IAEA’s multilateral approach to nuclear fuel cycle, no new countries joining the nuclear club with NPPs will be encouraged to handle uranium. Therefore, we have a pact that Bangladesh will have to return the uranium fuel rods which will be leased as fuel for power generation. If we even think of adopting the technology of nuclear fuel cycle, this program will be stopped. So stealing of uranium is out of the question.
• The spent fuel will be taken back to Russia and the recycling will be done there. As per the agreement, the Russian authority would take the responsibility of nuclear waste management taking away all the waste to Russia by a specialized ship.
• After Fukushima disaster, it has been ordered to the nuclear industry to build NPPs with robust design that can ensure safety, security, and which will provide physical protection to the environment and to the public. We are looking at a generation 3+/Third Generation Plus reactor which will ensure to not allow transmission of radiation beyond 800 meters.
• Rooppur NPP will have pressurised water reactors (PWR), the generation-III type discussed above, with extra safety features – the core of a PWR consists of slightly enriched uranium as fuel, and water as both moderator and coolant, a combination that makes the void coefficient negative. A negative feedback stabilises a system. If voids are formed in the core for any rise in power level, the negative void coefficient will bring the power down. No power surge, like the one in Chernobyl unit 4, is possible in a PWR making it inherently safe.
• The reactor at Rooppur will be built with containment buildings. It is possible to build multiple containments around reactors as extra precaution.
• PWR incorporates multiple barriers to prevent the release of radioactivity in to the atmosphere.
a. The first barrier is the ceramic fuel pellet where nuclear fissions take place and energy is released. The pellet retains most of the fission products, the main source of radioactivity.
b. The second barrier is a sealed metal tube called the cladding that contains the fuel pellets. The cladding retains any gaseous radioactive material that may leak out of the fuel pellets.
c. The third barrier is the closed primary cooling water system that circulates through the core and carries the heat to the steam generator. The cooling system will contain any radioactivity that may leak out of the cladding.
d. The fourth and last barrier is the containment building designed to contain any radioactivity that may leak out of the primary cooling system through any accidental rupture.
• Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, while observing a nuclear power plant model during the inaugural ceremony of a two-day international conference on nuclear power last month, said that during the bilateral consultation, she had requested Russian President Vladimir Putin for providing Bangladesh the safest and the latest reactors and has received his assurance in this regard.
Meanwhile, as Bangladesh is opting nuclear power generation, many countries have decided a nuclear phase-out. A nuclear power phase-out is the discontinuation of usage of nuclear power for energy production. Often initiated because of concerns about nuclear power, phase-outs usually include shutting down nuclear power plants gradually and looking towards renewable energy and other fuels.
Austria was the first country to begin a phase-out (in 1978) and has been followed by Sweden (1980), Italy (1987), Belgium (1999), and Germany (2000). Austria and Spain have gone as far as to enact laws not to build new nuclear power stations. Several other European countries have debated phase-outs.
Following the March 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, Germany has permanently shut down eight of its reactors and pledged to close the rest by 2022. The Italians have voted overwhelmingly to keep their country non-nuclear. Switzerland and Spain have banned the construction of new reactors. Japan’s prime minster has called for a dramatic reduction in Japan’s reliance on nuclear power. Taiwan’s president did the same. Mexico has sidelined construction of 10 reactors in favor of developing natural-gas-fired plants. Belgium is considering phasing out its nuclear plants, perhaps as early as 2015.
According to BAEC more than 25 countries in Asia expressed interest in implementing NPPs as key constituent to their energy mix. Our neighbouring India has 20 operational nuclear reactors in in 20 NPPs, seven new are under construction while Pakistan is operating three NPPs and two new reactors are under construction.
Anti-Nuclear and Alternative Energy Campaigns
As of November 2011, countries such as Australia, Austria, Denmark, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Malta, Portugal, Israel, Malaysia, New Zealand, and Norway have no nuclear power reactors and remain opposed to nuclear power.
This reporter spoke to Kazi Mamun-Ur Rashid, an anti-nuclear demonstrator and activist and was part of the Green party in Germany working on a massive anti-nuclear movement. He is currently based in Bangladesh and is still working for the movement.
Rashid studied Engineering and Economics in Berlin and got involved in 1977 with the ‘Alternative Liste’ (AL) – a group of students in Berlin, which later emerged as the Green Party in Germany. AL started its journey politicizing the environmental questions and in the 80s the anti-nuclear question became one of the core components of the total ecological movement in Germany. Till 1990 he was involved with a research group around Professor Bernd Senf (see YouTube ) that dealt with the practicability and deficiencies of the Newtonian 2nd Law of Thermodynamics’ that led to design and invention of machines run by fossil fuel, a finite form of energy, the form of energy bound to matter.
Talking about how many atomic energy commission based experts and scientists are saying that renewable energy yet did not get a breakthrough and that NPP is risk free and is the only solution in front of us, to that Rashid disagreed and says, “Nuclear reactors while operating are not at all safe. Even a brand new reactor by dint of its very existence, emits radio activity.
Wherever you place a reactor, within the orbit of 10 Kilometers the environment dies, the trees become fruitless, the soil die because the micro organisms die, animals move away from that place – if they can. Scientists say that 3+ generation nuclear technology is secured and any way the projected probability of an accident is one in 500 years. But the reality has shown that in 42 years we had three accidents. If 3+ generation nuclear technology is so safe, then why Europe has decided to move away from such a secured technology…have they gone crazy? And our scientists in Bangladesh are the only sane human souls? The Risk is also, as to where we are going to deposit the radioactive wastes? These wastes remain radioactive for ten thousands of years, which means given the geological changes and also added to this that the country has become earthquake prone, and in case of any earth quake, we are going to put at least 500 coming generations at life risks…can we take this responsibility ?
Also that Bangladesh is such a densely populated nation and in case of an accident, total country will be affected. We must know that a reactor that we are planning will be equal to 100 atom bombs thrown on Hiroshima and Nagashaki during the Second World War! Imagine 100 atom bombs detonating on the soil of Bangladesh at the same time!”
“Then again, when you stop the operation, can you really stop a nuclear reactor or its contamination? No you can’t, you will have to spend millions to keep the dead project under check! What will happen to this dead but a white elephant, in case of an earth quake? Take the German example, the people there have become so conscious that to whatever extent they can, they are going for alternative energy, they are using solar and wind energy. There, I have found scientists leaving the mainstream line of thought and have started engaging themselves in low-end and simple technologies. During the seventies, the book written by Erich Schumacher ‘Small is Beautiful’ has done tremendously to change the thinking modus of people in the western world. If Bangladesh has to survive, it has to leave the path of Newtonian Mega Machine thinking, we have to opt for Appropriate and Low End technology. Ultimately, the present world will be devoid of fossil based fuel, what will Bangladesh do at that time? Our scientists are opting for NPG just because they are from that branch, they have dedicated or spent their whole life on that subject, they just cannot give up their identity as scientists, the whole life they were not creative enough to see their position critically, and that’s why they also are not in a position to show us any alternative. If there is any alternative option, what will happen to these scientists? They will just be ‘no-one’ in this society. This is what they are afraid of I’m afraid! We must understand that to be prepared for an alternative is also to leave the mainstream school of thought, and this needs lot of courage to say the truth, for which we people are not ready. We always have in the past and at present as well, opt for the path of least resistance. This is one of the basic problems to go for an option that will lead one to a polar opposite pole. In the question of energy, yes, we have to make a u-turn! We have to comprehend the fact that, the mainstream science has created the atom bomb and that reveals the fact that it is in itself destructive. We need to leave this path” Rashid said more.
“I want to end with an example, talking to some experts on nuclear energy does not give you the exact picture of what nuclear power is, its risks, and its socio-ecological costs. Let’s assume that you go to an allopathic doctor who is a cancer specialist. Will he ever tell you what chemo therapy actually is? Chemo therapy has never healed a cancer patient, is never going to heal or cure anybody. He is never going to tell you that chemo is the final assault on a patient and that it is going to kill him/her soon! All you have to do is, to find alternative sources of information to educate yourself. As long as you depend on mainstream sources, you will always remain blindfolded” Rashid added.
*This article was first printed in The Independent Weekend Magazine