Why the Bangladeshi public has concerns over the Rooppur nuclear project

Nuclear energy can help reduce Bangladesh’s chronic power shortage. Source: Global Look Press

Nuclear energy can help reduce Bangladesh’s chronic power shortage. Source: Global Look Press

If explained in details and promoted by the Russian and Bangladeshi authorities, solutions about water supply, spent nuclear fuel, and security could end some concerns and fears about the Rooppur NPP and help create a friendly environment around this project.

On Feb. 22, 2017, the Bangladesh Institute of Peace and Security Studies arranged a seminar in Dhaka titled ‘Entering the World of Nuclear Energy: Key Security Issues for Bangladesh.’

The quantity and quality of the audience, and the issues that the participants raised at the event showed that huge interest on this subject coexists with serious concerns about possible risks associated with the use of nuclear energy.

The central part of the interest and concerns belongs to the Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant (NPP), which is being built with Russian assistance. It consists of two VVER-1200 reactors of the 3+ generation, which are the safest and most advanced reactors in the international market. The first and second reactors are likely to become operational in 2022 and 2023 respectively.

Highlights of the discussion in Dhaka are relevant in a wider context of international cooperation in the field of the peaceful use of nuclear energy.

Bilateral nuclear projects usually don’t have full transparency for the public domain. This is understandable. Full transparency may be used by various groups with negative outcomes for the projects. These could include political forces, wishing to use their anti-nuclear agenda for cultivating their electorate. Or lobbyist groups, trying to derail an existing project to clear path for competitive ones. They could also be adversary states, exploring vulnerabilities in the country, hosting a nuclear project. Threats also come from terrorists, attempting to target civilian nuclear facilities.

Bangladesh isn’t an exception from this practice of limited transparency. However, it seems, that the publicly available information about the Rooppur NPP is excessively limited. The lack of information, open for national mass media about the Rooppur NPP, results in concerns and fears about this project. There are no final and unequivocal answers for the questions that are heavily discussed by experts, journalists and social activists in Bangladesh.

Water supply and spent nuclear fuel

One of them is about water supply for the nuclear plant (water is a coolant for reactors). The site for the Rooppur NPP was chosen even before the creation of Bangladesh, in early 1960th, on the Padma (Ganga) river. But when in 1975 India completed the Farakka barrage in the state of West Bengal, it affected Bangladesh’s water supply, including the river level in the area of the Rooppur NPP. Besides, there are immense seasonal diversions of the river and variations of the water level.

The spent nuclear fuel from the NPP is another issue of public concern in Bangladesh. Two questions are usually asked in this regard. First, where it will be stored? There is a fear that it will be stored in the country. A negative reaction to this possibility prevails in Bangladeshi society.

Second, if the spent nuclear fuel is stored in Russia, how safe will the procedures be of removing it from reactors and transporting it from Bangladesh to Russia?

Public attention is heavily focused also on various issues of security for the Rooppur NPP. For instance, who will operate the nuclear facilities, built by Russia, and how qualified will these people will be, if they are from Bangladesh? Who will provide security for these facilities, and how trained and equipped will these servicemen be, if they are locals? How serious are the Bangladeshi authorities and Russian partners are about terrorist threats to the Rooppur NPP? What are the measures that the Russian and Bangladeshi sides take to respond to cyber threats to the nuclear infrastructure in this country?

Each of these questions was probably discussed in detail by Moscow and Dhaka, but the public seems to have been kept “in the dark.”

In some cases, there are clear answers.

First, the water supply is a really serious technological challenge for the Rooppur NPP, that likely to be resolved via a protected water-catchment area in the Padma River.

Second, according to the agreement between the Russian and Bangladeshi governments on ‘Cooperation Concerning the Construction of a Nuclear Power Plant on the Territory of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh of Nov. 2, 2011,’ the Russian side will take spent nuclear fuel from Rooppur to its territory, and will use its own capabilities for its transportation.

Third, because Russia already faces terrorist and cyber threats for critical infrastructure at home, or the projects, built by Russia abroad, it permanently improves their capability to resist such threats. For instance, the Russian three plus generation reactors have improved passive protective measures, which help avoid radiological risks in the case of probable accidents at nuclear power plants.

In the field of cyber threats, the Russian nuclear industry recently initiated a comprehensive research of cyber security for nuclear infrastructure. After collecting data till the middle of 2017, new measures will be developed against cyber threats.

If explained in details and promoted by the Russian and Bangladeshi authorities, solutions about water supply, spent nuclear fuel, and security could end some concerns and fears about the Rooppur NPP and help create a friendly environment around this project.

Terror threat and security issues

In other cases, the questions about the Rooppur project remain unanswered. The Bangladeshi experts have no idea about national preparations for training, equipment, and deployment of specially assigned servicemen to protect the NPP against illegal and violent actions that could compromise its security, including possible terrorist attacks.

The question about the preparedness of emergency and enforcement services and the armed forces to react to probable accidents that are related to the national nuclear infrastructure has no clear answer. The Bangladeshi experts and journalists suppose that such preparations just don’t exist.

This issue relates not only to Rooppur NPP. Given the nuclear deterrence relations between China and India, and India and Pakistan,

Bangladesh finds itself in close proximity to potential targets for nuclear strikes in the case of very unlikely, but not fully impossible, armed conflicts between these countries. To minimize negative consequences for Bangladesh from such a case, there is a need for Dhaka to have civil preparedness and public awareness in the field of nuclear security and safety.

No doubt, these questions should be addressed primarily to the Bangladeshi authorities, not to Russia. These questions go beyond Russian commitments, according to two agreements between Russia and Bangladesh. (Agreement between the Russians and Bangladeshi governments on ‘Cooperation in the Field of Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Energy of May 21, 2010,’ and the above-mentioned agreement of Nov. 2, 2011).

But these questions are directly related to the security and safety of the Russian-backed NPP in Rooppur, which is why it would be reasonable for Russia to help Bangladesh to address them too.

If Russia wants to defend its investments in nuclear energy in Bangladesh, it should be involved into wider cooperation with this country. This includes exchange of the best practices in the fields of nuclear security and safety, joint trainings for special forces that are assigned for providing security of critical infrastructure and collaboration between emergency services of both countries.

There is a demand from public actors in Bangladesh for more transparency when it comes to the nuclear cooperation between Dhaka and Moscow. The Bangladeshi and Russian authorities could be more responsive to this demand. Even if some details were already disclosed in agreements and statements, it should be worth informing the public about them again and again. The Rooppur NPP should be part of wider and more intensive dialogue between Bangladesh and Russia on nuclear and non-nuclear security.

Petr Topychkanov is an associate in the Carnegie Moscow Center’s Nonproliferation Program, and a senior researcher at the Center for International Security of the Institute of World Economy and International Relations of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Read more of his articles here.​

Views expressed in the column are personal.

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