The Roopur Nuclear Power Plant Project: From Ayub Khan's eyewash to Hasina's Dangerous Reality

Sheikh Hasina puts her name on the Roopur Nuclear Power Plant (Source: BBC)
The Roopur nuclear power plant is a Russian financed and constructed 1000 MW project sited by a highly variable and erosive river, 30 km from Bangladesh's border with India. It was originally conceived, poorly, by the Pakistan government in 1961 as the site for a small 10 MW experimental reactor.

Just to the south of the Lalon Shah Bridge in the Ishwardi upazila (subdistrict) of Pabna district, it lies in the Awami League run Pabna-4 constituency. Indeed local, regional and international alignments are important for mega projects.

Objections from scientists
Voice for Justice, a group of Deshi scientists from around the world wrote to the IAEA expressing concern about it on June 30th, but the Awami League Government has embarked on the building process in the run up to the election. In this letter questions are raised about the location, financing and safety of the plant, technical expertise and the obsolescence of the Rosotom VVER-1000 reactor, which is considered unsafe for the EU. For engineering geeks there is a wiki page on the Voda Voda Energo Reactor.

A bunch of Mugs?
After surveying Bangladesh's nuclear establishment in 2011, the IAEA recommended that the capability to act as a “knowledgeable customer” should be developed (slide 34). My feeling is that this is technocrat speak for "you are a bunch of mugs", but it is an exciting technofix. 

As an ex-physicist who used to believe that the worlds problems would be solved if only we figured out how to achieve sustainable nuclear fusion, it enthused me when I first heard of it. To add to the cringe factor I wandered and blagged my way into the Atomic Energy Commission in Agargaon back in the day and had a really interesting chat with them.

Political value
One one level this is geopolitical science, a lot of Deshi scientists were trained on Moscow, much of the left was Moscow aligned and this is a big boon for them all. For example, C S Karim, the ex-head of the Bangladesh Atomic Energy Commission and ex Caretaker Government Advisor was trained in Moscow, he must be loving this. 

There is little noise from the hard left in Bangladesh on this, whose campaigning efforts seem focussed on the Rampal Coal plant commencing near the Sundarbans. Suddenly Deshi city folks care about tigers. Its weird.

Its worth noting that the same plant nearly got built in West Bengal under the leadership of the Left Front, before the new regional government binned the idea in 2011 following agitation.

Nuclear Developmentia
For their sins, the Russians have set up a Nuclear Energy Information Centre in Dhaka, I hope that their propaganda is critically appreciated. It reminds me of the role of Sense about Science in promoting GM research in the UK. A strange blend of revolutionary communist interpretations of science.

Debate and rigorous scrutiny
There needs to be a sober debate about all the aspects of this project and the power problem in Bangladesh. 
  1. Do our people know the impacts of a leak, or an accident, or an attack on the plant by India? Its potentially an amazing way to poison the southern half of the country. Oh yes and Dhaka.
  2. What if there isn't enough water for cooling in the River because of upstream withdrawals at the Farraka Barrage? 
  3. How is the river morphology of the Ganges-Padma likely to change near the Roopur site?
  4. What if a combination of events conspire to undermine the plant, its supply chains and waste disposal?
Research and Policy Creativity
This government made electricity-related election pledges and wasted their opportunity to make a difference by relying on short term, costly solutions (rental power plants) and dangerous non-solutions of geopolitical alliance and liability (Rampal Coal Plant with India, Roopur Nuclear Plant with Russia).

The country could really benefit from a soulful technological mojo, but it remains elusive. Aside from the climate doomsayer's environmental determinism and reckless epistemicaly autistic techno-optimism there are transformative vistas and creative solutions which perhaps are not so sexy but safer and more real.

The problem with the power sector is a tricky one, the late Quamrul Islam Siddiqui, founder of the Local Government Engineering Department that pioneered district road building in Bangladesh had a crack at it, but power is a tricky beast and he clearly didn't manage to fix it. Here is a link to the Power Development Boards overview of itself. 

Some interesting facts
Pakistan's electricity generation capacity ~ 21 000 MW (183 millions people) 115 Watts/citizen
West Bengal's electricity generation capacity ~ 5 500 MW (91 million people) 60 Watts/citizen
Bangladesh's electricity generation capacity ~7 200 MW (155 million people) 46 Watts /citizen

Makes you wonder about what is really going on in the power sector doesn't it?

To Do
  • Fund some veteran engineers, and canny people from the sector to undertake deep research into its function and dysfunction.
  • Get everybody to pay their bills.
  • Resist developmentor prescriptions.
  • Incentivise local renewable uptake.
  • Encourage community based gas exploitation technologies.
  • Exploit every last clean development mechanism gizmo.
  • Heed UBINIG approaches.

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