In a conversation with energy expert Mahmudul Hasan about the Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant’s safety and other risk management issues in accordance with US standards. Mr. Hasan completed his study in energy and environmental law at The George Washington University Law School and has been working in the energy and environmental law field. He is currently working on his own clean energy initiative, CleanEnergy Exploration LLC.
Perspective: What is the general picture of energy sector and nuclear energy in Bangladesh?
Mahmudul Hasan: Bangladesh’s economy has traditionally been based on agriculture and the manufacture of agro-raw materials. However, the country’s landmass is increasingly insufficient to support its growing population through agriculture. As a result, the country’s focus is changing from agricultural to industry. The demand for power is expanding geometrically in the changing economic structure. According to statistics, the demand for electricity is increasing at a pace of 7% per year. Bangladesh has devised a number of short- and long-term initiatives to address rising electricity demand. Though a nuclear power plant was first planned in 1961, but due to some underlying political and economic dilemma of the country, the concept never could come into reality. In 2016, the Power System Master Plan also known as PSMP, a long-term plan, could finally accommodate a full nuclear power plant plan. With technical and financial help from Russia, China, India, the International Atomic Energy Agency, and others, the government is undertaking the construction of three nuclear power plants in as part of the PSMP. The Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant in Pabna district is expected to be operational in 2024, thanks to Russian and Indian technical and financial assistance. The legal, regulatory, executive, financial, and environmental components of the other two plants, Gangamati Nuclear Power Plant in Patuakhali district and Rangamati Nuclear Power Plant near the new deep-water port in Rangamati district, are currently being worked on.
Perspective: Do you think nuclear energy will solve the underlying energy problem in Bangladesh?
Mahmudul Hasan: PSMP targets to reach 40 gigawatts of power generation capacity in 2030 and 60 gigawatts in 2041. Nuclear power is scheduled to make its initial contribution in 2024, with a total capacity of around 7 gigawatts by 2041, according to the PSMP proposal. Nuclear energy has the advantage of being one of the most cost-effective energy solutions accessible after the initial construction costs. Nuclear energy also has the advantage of having a low risk of cost inflation, as opposed to traditional fossil fuels, which are subject to price fluctuations on a regular basis. Nuclear is a reliable and stable source of power, a fully operational nuclear power plant can produce electricity nonstop for an entire year. It has high density and produces low carbon emission. From that perspective, nuclear energy is the most realistic choice for Bangladesh since it provides a reliable and stable supply of electricity at a low cost and with minimal pollution.
Perspective: As we all know, nuclear power is complicated and demands a high level of safety. Do you believe Bangladesh can properly handle and run nuclear power plants?
Mahmudul Hasan: While Bangladesh’s nuclear energy program is obviously good news for the country’s millions of electricity-deprived citizens and potential investors, some technical, geographical, technology transfer, and demographical challenges raise concerns about the country’s nuclear energy safety. Rather than focusing on a single, smaller nuclear power plant and gaining experience and knowledge, Bangladesh is putting itself at danger by pursuing large-scale nuclear power facilities in multiple locations at the same time. Bangladesh, a densely populated country in an earthquake-prone zone with limited technical competence and weak economic and political stability, is unprepared to deal with the aftermath of another Fukushima. Despite the fact that the International Atomic Energy Agency is involved and regulates the Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant’s safety, the plant’s safety difficulties have been a source of rhetorical concern among Bangladeshi citizens for a variety of reasons.
The Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant is not the only nuclear power plant in the region; India and Pakistan have nuclear power plants that have been operational for decades. When it comes to Bangladesh, though, the concern about plant safety risks only grows. It is not due to the country’s technical or financial capacity; rather, it is due to mismanagement. Bangladesh, being a middle-income country with a rapidly increasing GDP, may be able to absorb the financial burden unless and until a major nuclear disaster occurs. Furthermore, the country has a large number of human resources working all over the world. If given sufficient training and exposure, gaining skill in managing a nuclear power plant will be a question of time. However, the most serious issue is nuclear power plant management. No one can guarantee that a significant percentage of the money set aside for nuclear safety will not end up in the private bank accounts of politicians and other high-ranking personnel. This issue exacerbates the emergence of other issues.
Perspective: How do you consider the safety of Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant in the US standards?
Mahmudul Hasan: With its extensive experience, the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission, or NRC, is a leader in the nuclear energy sector. During the licensing procedure for a proposed nuclear power plant, it maintains the health and safety issues of nuclear power plants in multilayer process. Russia, China, India, the International Atomic Energy Agency, and other nuclear-enabled countries are involved in the building and negotiations of Bangladesh’s Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant, but the NRC is yet officially involved. As a consequence, it is unlikely that all of the Rooppur site’s safety standards will match the NRC standards. However, NRC standards may provide valuable insight into the Rooppur site’s safety standards and identify areas where the authorities should be more concerned.
The Rooppur location, near the Padma River, was chosen more than 60 years ago by the former Pakistani Junta for a 10 MW prototype nuclear power plant on strictly political grounds in 1961. There was never a site selection procedure. Although the government claims that the location was chosen after the necessary seismic, geologic, meteorological, and archeological investigations, the claim does not appear to be credible. As a result, the NRC’s first standards are not met at the Rooppur site. The NRC conducts two different reviews on nuclear power plant applications: a safety review and an environmental review. For both reviews, site selection is a key factor.
Perspective: What may be the other concerns for the site selection in Bangladesh?
Mahmudul Hasan: Earthquakes could pose a significant threat to Rooppur and other planned nuclear power plants in Bangladesh. Bangladesh is situated on three active earthquake fault lines, one of which was responsible for the devastating earthquakes that struck Nepal in April 2015, killing over 8,000 people. However, project authorities claim that a seismic monitoring station has already been established beneath the project site and that seismic activity is being monitored. Although nuclear power plants have improved in terms of engineering, they are still vulnerable to severe earthquakes such as the one that struck Fukushima in Japan in March 2011.
The NRC examines the stability of any natural and man-made earth and rock slopes whose failure, under any of the situations to which they may be exposed over the plant’s lifetime, could endanger the plant’s safety. The NRC mandates that the safety features be built to resist earthquakes without losing their capacity to execute their safety functions. In addition, the NRC examines climate averages and extremes, as well as regional meteorological occurrences that could affect the plant’s safe design and siting.
Further, Bangladesh is also susceptible to floods and other natural disasters. As a result of India’s excessive water flow during the rainy season, the northwestern section of the country, which contains the Rooppur site, has undergone recurrent floods in recent decades, posing a major threat to the Rooppur site. The region experiences severe drought during the summer, which could pose a threat to nuclear power plants, which require a continual high-volume water supply for plant cooling system and emergency supply and reservoir of water nearby the plant. Furthermore, the Rooppur site’s neighbors rely heavily on Padma’s water for agriculture and other livelihoods. As previously said, the region may experience extreme drought during the summer. If the region’s water is taken during the summer upstream of the Rooppur location, the plant will suffer a massive disaster. Experts warn that if the Rooppur site’s emergency cooling system is shut off due to a shortage of water or power, the reactors will meltdown, causing a disaster similar to Chernobyl and Fukushima.
Furthermore, nuclear power plants require extremely clean water for their condenser and cooling systems in order to stay functioning. During the monsoon, however, the Padma River carries a lot of silt and sand, so the dirty water has to be cleansed before it can be used. Technically, the Rooppur will have a significant difficulty because the plant site is rather small, making it difficult to integrate a water purification system and a reservoir to store enough fresh water in case of an emergency.
Perspective: What other US standards do you think should be considered for the Rooppur site?
Mahmudul Hasan: The NRC examines data on the local population, including temporary groups, in the area of the site. The population data examined includes statistics from the most recent census, as well as projections for the year of plant approval and the next five years. In the event of a serious accident, the NRC examines the specified low-population zone to see if adequate protective measures could be done on behalf of the public in that zone. Furthermore, the NRC’s analysis finds that proposed or approved operations in the exclusion zone that are unrelated to reactor operation do not represent a significant risk to public health and safety.
The exclusion zone or sanitary protection zone around the nuclear reactor at the small-scale Rooppur plant is only 300-800 meters in size. It is ridiculous to claim that public health and safety will be protected beyond an 800-meter radius around the nuclear plant. According to International Atomic Energy Agency’s safety standards, there are two additional safety zones: the precautionary action zone, which has a five-kilometer radius and where evacuation facilities for an emergency evacuation within 15 minutes are recommended, and the urgent protective action planning zone, which has a 30-kilometer radius and where evacuation facilities for an emergency evacuation within an hour are recommended. Given the country’s transportation capacity and population density, particularly in the plant area, it appears that evacuating 3.5 million people living within a 30-kilometer radius of the RNPP site in under an hour is difficult.
Furthermore, it has been stated that the administration has failed to notify those residing in the risk zone about the immediate evacuation. If a proposed nuclear power plant application is approved, the NRC hosts a public hearing near the proposed site to educate the public about the proposed application’s safety and environmental issues, such as the proposed location and kind of plant, the regulatory process, and the terms for public participation in the licensing process. During the reactor licensing procedure, several public meetings of this nature are held. In the case of Bangladesh, no such public meeting has ever taken place near the site or anywhere else to educate the public on nuclear safety and disaster preparedness.
Perspective: We often hear about the radiation leakage from nuclear power plants, do you think that might affect the neighboring population?
Mahmudul Hasan: Nuclear power plants are also prone to radiation leaks. The Institut de radioprotection et de sûreté nucléaire (IRSN), France’s governmental authority for nuclear safety and security, has discovered a cloud of radioactive isotope ruthenium-106 in European territory, which originated from a Russian nuclear facility. However, Russia’s nuclear agency has refused to take blame. When countries with superior technologies and financial resources, such as Germany, Italy, and Switzerland, have all abandoned nuclear power facilities, and Japan has reduced nuclear power production following the Fukushima accident, Bangladesh appears to be blindly embracing Russian technology. The danger of mismanaging a nuclear power plant is the unavoidable occurrence of a nuclear accident, with massive consequences: thousands, if not millions, of people will be exposed to high doses of radiation, the surrounding region will be contaminated with radioactive materials, and the country will be saddled with billions in compensation. A lofty vision for nuclear energy technology is pointless for a highly populated country like Bangladesh that lacks the technical and financial capabilities. Nuclear power is not a game to be played with.
Perspective: What is your concern about the technical expertise Bangladesh has on the nuclear energy technology?
Mahmudul Hasan: To get a nuclear power plant approved, the NRC requires an applicant to meet the facility licensee’s training and experience requirements before awarding an operating license. In addition, the NRC requires a prospective licensee to pass a technical, mental, and physical competency examination. It assures that a nuclear power plant has the requisite technical expertise and human performance. The emergence of a nuclear trio between Bangladesh, India, and Russia is concerning, because nuclear weapons, even if used for electricity, can have disastrous consequences. Bangladesh lacks the technological know-how and experienced staff to carry on a project as complicated and high-tech as the Rooppur site. In general, Bangladesh’s lack of nuclear technology expertise could pose a significant hurdle to the country’s efficient nuclear power generation. Despite the fact that Russian professionals would collaborate with local experts, any nuclear technology will be ineffective until it is properly introduced and shown in the home market. As a nuclear technology leader, the NRC has an easy time equipping its own people with the necessary knowledge and skills for safely operating a nuclear power plant, whereas it is unclear how much Russia will educate Bangladeshi experts and how much they will be able to learn in such a short period of time.
Perspective: How a hypothetical nuclear accident is assessed, and do you think Bangladesh is prepared with the necessary data, information and technology?
Mahmudul Hasan: The NRC’s safety review focuses on external risks or hazardous materials that are present or could reasonably be expected to be present during the proposed plant’s planned lifetime. The nature and scope of activities using potentially hazardous compounds undertaken at surrounding industrial, military, and transportation facilities have been assessed in order to identify any such actions that could negatively impact plant safety-related infrastructure. To ensure that adequate data and analytical models have been used, the assessment evaluates the applicant’s probability calculations of potential accidents involving hazardous chemicals or activities on site and in the area of the proposed site. The goal is to determine whether there is enough information about the presence and size of potential external dangers so that the facility can respond to an accident as soon as it occurs. According to the NRC’s safety readiness, accidents can occur for a variety of causes; therefore, the operator should be informed of the different ways out of the accident by predicting a thorough hypothetical accident response plan based on the site features and surrounding region.
Bangladesh lacks the institutional and regulatory infrastructure to conduct a detailed analysis of hypothetical nuclear power plant accidents and the associated actions. The government says that Russia has assured Bangladesh of the plant’s safety, however the Russian state-owned enterprise Rosatom has correctly said that the licensee, not the contractor, is responsible for assuring safety. Given the peculiar circumstances of a country like Bangladesh, where gas or coal power plants routinely fail due to poor installation and a lack of suitable maintenance, the measure of safety for a sophisticated nuclear power system is inherently dubious. If Bangladesh takes sole responsibility for mapping the Rooppur site’s safety responses, it will be a disaster since Bangladesh is still a baby when it comes to nuclear technology, and as a result, safety standards will be severely compromised. Of course, nuclear disasters are far more deadly and dangerous than gas disasters.
There is no clear response yet to the question of how prepared emergency and enforcement services, as well as the military forces, are to respond to possible mishaps involving the nation’s nuclear infrastructure. These concerns should, without a doubt, be directed to Bangladeshi authorities rather than Russia. According to two agreements between Russia and Bangladesh, these issues go beyond Russian promises. To reduce the negative impacts of such an event for Bangladesh, civic preparedness and public knowledge in the sphere of nuclear security and safety are required.
Perspective: What is your concern about the nuclear waste management?
Mahmudul Hasan: Another difficulty is nuclear waste management, which necessitates specialized infrastructure as well as a specific budget allocation. In the United States, the spent fuel is disposed of by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NRC). So, except from delivering the spent fuel to a convenient disposal, an operator does not need to be concerned about spent fuel management. Technical concerns linked with the storage, transportation, and disposal of radioactive material and radioactive waste appear to have been overlooked when it comes to spent fuel management at Rooppur site. Though Russia has agreed to take back the spent fuel, but the question remains on how safe the procedures will be of removing it from reactors and transporting it from Bangladesh to Russia, given that Bangladesh doesn’t have sufficient transportation infrastructure to transport high-level radioactive waste. In addition, spent fuel is to be stored on site in a suitably designed fuel pond for a good number of years. The question arises, does the Rooppur site have capacity to store spent fuel for the period before deporting to Russia, given that Rooppur site is small in size.
Perspective: What are your other concerns regarding the Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant?
Mahmudul Hasan: According to reports, Russia will only offer the fuel/uranium for the project, while India will provide the reactor, turbine, site operation and control, training, and other components. India will either use its own resources or rely on a third party to supply the nuclear plant. India will participate in the Rooppur site as a subcontractor. However, India does not produce nuclear reactors. It imports reactors from other countries for its own nuclear power plants. India’s cooperation with the Rooppur site raises concerns about the plant’s safety. There is reportedly a misunderstanding concerning Russia’s and India’s roles in the initiative. India is rumored to be working as a subcontractor for Russia.
India, a non-signatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, is exporting nuclear technology to Bangladesh, which is relatively new to the nuclear field. It poses numerous serious threats and has far-reaching repercussions for the entire region. In truth, India’s nuclear status is hampered by a lack of regulated safety and security systems. From 1995 to 2010, 1,733 scientists and employees who worked in nuclear plants and related facilities in India are reported to have died. The majority of the victims were under the age of 50. The true cause of the deaths of scientists and personnel is unknown because no fact-finding commission or public disclosure of so many untimely deaths in so-called “secure” nuclear facilities has been established. As a result, the plant’s technology is concerned about the quality of technology given by India.
Furthermore, in the United States, the Price-Anderson Act of 1957 protects members of the public against tort claims for personal injury and property damage resulting from a commercial nuclear power plant disaster. In Bangladesh, however, the issue of liability management is non-existent. The Nuclear Power Plant Act of 2015, which is Bangladesh’s major nuclear power law, makes no provisions for the implications of a nuclear power plant disaster. The legal position of the contract between Bangladesh and Russia enumerates that the government of Bangladesh must repay the loan with interest in the event that the plant is mothballed, cancelled, or accidently destroyed. It is impossible to deny that the risk is significant, dangerous, and inappropriate in this situation. The harsh reality is that in the Third World, man-made disasters rarely result in compensation lawsuits. Bangladesh requires a comprehensive law on nuclear power generation in order to guide future energy production in a safe manner. The government should establish clear policies for dealing with the consequences of nuclear safety standards and liability restrictions.