Historically the economy of Bangladesh was dependent on the agriculture and production of agro-raw materials. But the landmass the country has is increasingly becoming insufficient to feed its growing population from agriculture. Therefore, the country is shifting its focus from agriculture to industrialization. In the transforming economic structure, the demand for electricity is geometrically increasing. Statistics demonstrates that every year the demand for electricity is increasing at 7 percent rate.
In order to meet the increasing electricity demand, Bangladesh has taken some short-term and long-term plans. The country is ambitious to connect the whole country to the electricity grid by 2021. Though a nuclear power plant was first proposed in 1961, but due to some underlying political and economic dilemma of the country, the proposal never could come into reality. A long-term plan entitled Power System Master Plan (“PSMP”) in 2016 could finally accommodate a comprehensive plan for nuclear power plant. PSMP aims for electricity generation capacity of 23 Gigawatts (“GW”) in 2020, 40 GW in 2030, and 60 GW in 2041. The first contribution from nuclear is expected in 2024 and the plan shows approximately 7 GW nuclear capacity by 2041.
As a part of PSMP, the country has undertaken three nuclear energy plants in different places with the technical and financial assistance from Russia, China, India, International Atomic Energy Agency (“IAEA”) etc. Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant (“RNPP”) in Pabna district with the technical and financial support of Russia and India is expected to be operational from 2024. 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 undergoing legal, regulatory, executive, financial and environmental components.
While Bangladesh’s initiative to nuclear energy is undoubtedly an optimistic news for its millions of electricity deprived population and prospective investors, some technical, geographical, technology transfer, and demographical issues of the country raise questions over the safety issues of the nuclear energy in Bangladesh. Instead of going for a single, smaller nuclear power plant and gathering experience and expertise, Bangladesh is risking itself by going flat out for large output plants simultaneously in different places. The densely populated Bangladesh located in a region prone to earthquake with poor technical expertise, and fragile economic and political stability is not ready to handle the fate of another Fukushima – in 2011 Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in Japan was severely damaged by a Tsunami following an earthquake causing high radioactive releases for next few days.
JSC AtomStroyExport, a subsidiary of Rosatom – Russia’s state-owned nuclear power corporation, has been appointed as general contractor by Bangladesh Atomic Energy Commission (“BAEC”) for the project. The construction work is undergoing currently at RNPP site of the planned first nuclear power plant in Bangladesh. As being country’s first nuclear power source, the RNPP requires rigorous scrutiny for safety and public health protection in the region. Different factors surrounding the RNPP are raising the concern over the safety issues of the site. Though IAEA is involved, and it oversees the safety of the RNPP, the safety issues of the plant have been rhetorically a concern of members of public in Bangladesh for many reasons.
United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission (“NRC”), being a leader in the nuclear energy sector, maintains the health and safety issues of nuclear reactors in multilayer shields through its licensing process for a proposed nuclear reactor. Russia, China, India, IAEA and other nuclear-enabled countries are reportedly involved in the construction and negotiation of RNPP in Bangladesh, but NRC is not yet officially involved. As several issues regarding the safety and public health of RNPP have raised concerns over the plant, it is timely to consider the NRC’s safety standards at RNPP in order to maximize the nuclear safety in Bangladesh. This paper will compare the safety issues surrounding the RNPP in Bangladesh with the safety standards maintained in the United States through NRC’s licensing process. This paper will reveal the safety issues of RNPP that still need extensive reconsideration based on the NRC’s long-gained experience reflected in its licensing process before Bangladesh goes for large scale construction at Rooppur site.
Safety Review in NRC’s Licensing Process
As discussed earlier, NRC reviews the safety issues of a proposed nuclear power plant (“NPP”) in multilayer proceedings. NRC’s multilayer proceedings and rigid scrutiny for ensuring safety of a proposed NPP present a lot of lessons for a new or prospective country like Bangladesh which is going to deal with the nuclear technology.
A lot of safety issues are resolved in the NRC’s pre-application licensing review procedure. The pre-application review includes an Early Site Permit (“ESP”) and Design Certification (“DC”). An ESP resolves site safety, environmental protection, and emergency preparedness issues independent of a specific nuclear plant design. On the other hand, a DC application must demonstrate how the applicant complies with the NRC’s relevant safety regulations regarding the design of a NPP. An application for a standard DC must contain proposed inspections, tests, analyses, and acceptance criteria (ITAAC) for the standard design. In addition, to NRC, Advisory Committee on Reactor Safeguards (“ACRS”), which is governed by the provisions of the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA) of 1972 that works independent of NRC staff, also reviews an application for ESP or DC independently.
The application process is called Combined Operating License (“COL”). COL is a combined construction permit and conditional operating license. A COL application can incorporate by reference an ESP and/or a DC both as long as it addresses all applicable requirements and provides sufficient information for the review. The purpose of the pre-application review before a COL is issued is to provide the licensee an opportunity to understand the feasibility of the proposed site’s compliance with the NRC’s safety and environmental regulations before the licensee heavily invests on the site.
NRC conducts two separate reviews on an application for COL, namely, safety review and environmental review. Safety review dissolves all the issues related to the present and future safety of a nuclear power plant including the site, design, structures, technologies, systems, disposal of radioactive wastes, decomposition, emergency plans, liability in case of an accident and so forth. As a part of the safety review, an applicant must submit a final Safety Analysis Report (SAR) to support its application for a COL. The NRC prepares a Safety Evaluation report (SER) summarizing the anticipated effect of the proposed facility on public health and safety and the ACRS makes an independent evaluation and presents its advice to the NRC. Under Standard Review Plan for the Review of Safety Analysis Reports for Nuclear Power Plants: LWR Edition (NUREG-0800, formerly issued as NUREG-75/087), NRC and ACRS examine several issues. The following components of NRC’s safety review seemingly many have a concern for the RNPP:
In addition to technical issues, NRC’s safety review includes a functional public participation and liability mechanism in case of accident.
3. Safety Features of RNPP compared with NRC’s Safety Review
As discussed earlier, the following components of NRC’s safety standards have been taken to examine the safety features of RNPP:
a. Geographical Data of the Site and Surrounding Area
RNPP site may be affected and damaged by the earthquakes, floods and other natural disasters, as Bangladesh has been allegedly predicted to be inclined to earthquake, floods and other natural disasters. NRC reviews the stability of all earth and rock slopes both natural and manmade, whose failure, under any of the conditions to which they could be exposed during the life of the plant, could adversely affect the safety of the plant. The NRC requires that the safety features be designed to withstand the effects of earthquakes without loss of capability to perform their safety functions. Further, NRC reviews averages and extremes of climatic conditions and regional meteorological phenomena that could affect the safe design and sitting of the plant.
The RNPP site at Rooppur, nearby the River Padma, was chosen more than 57 years ago for a 10 MW prototype nuclear power plant on purely political grounds by the then Pakistani Junta (in 1961). No site selection procedure was ever conducted. Although the government claims that the site was selected after conducting all necessary seismic, geologic, meteorological and archeological examinations, the claim seems not convincing enough as the RNPP site itself cannot answer a lot of questions.
For RNPP and other future NPP in Bangladesh, earthquakes could pose a big threat. Bangladesh is located near three active earthquake fault lines – including the same fault line that caused the powerful earthquakes that shook Nepal few years back in April 2015, killing over 8,000 people. However, project officials say a seismic monitoring station as already been set up under the project site and they are monitoring seismic activity. Although the engineering of nuclear projects has improved, they cannot withstand powerful earthquakes like the one that hit Fukushima in Japan March 2011 as discussed earlier.
Additionally, Bangladesh is prone to floods and other types of natural disasters, especially the northwestern part of the country that includes the RNPP site location experiences frequent floods for last few decades due to the excessive release of water by India during the rainy season, that may pose a serious threat to the RNPP site. During the summer the region faces excessive drought that may be a threat for the RNPP, if drought has any disastrous components for a NPP.
b. Site Design, Structures, Technologies and Systems
NRC requires the reasonable assurance that the facility can be operated with adequate protection to the health and safety of the public. NRC does not compromise with the safety standards of a proposed NPP. During the 1980s, the NRC refused to issue operating licenses for the William H. Zimmer Nuclear Power Station, in Ohio. The NRC issued this ruling based on a charge that the plant had failed to meet construction and safety codes. The refusal of William H. Zimmer Nuclear Power Station’s application for license reportedly relates to the failure to satisfy the site design and system standards for a plant.
It has been reported that Russia will supply only the fuel/uranium and the other components including the reactor, turbine, operation and control of the site, training etc. of the project will be provided by India. India will supply the nuclear reactor from its own resources or from a third party. India’s role in the RNPP will be as a sub-contractor. But India does not manufacture the nuclear reactors. It imports reactors for its own nuclear sites from other countries. India’s involvement with the RNPP raises the concern over the safety of the plant. There is reportedly confusion about the role of Russia and India in the project. It is being heard that India will work as a subcontractor of Russia.
Non-signatory of NPT India is transferring its nuclear technology to Bangladesh which is quite new to nuclear field. It carries lots of grave threats and implications to the whole region. In fact, more than that, Indian nuclear stature lacks standardized safety and security mechanisms. In India, 1,733 scientists and employees who used to work in nuclear establishments and related facilities reportedly died from 1995 to 2010. Most of the victims were below 50 years of age. The real reason for the deaths of scientists and employees are not known yet as there have been neither any fact-finding committee nor any public disclosure about such many untimely deaths in so-called “safe” nuclear facilities. Therefore, the quality of technology supplied by India at RNPP is a concern related to the technology of the plant.
c. Plant Cooling System
A nuclear power plant consumes a huge amount of water from the river for its cooling tower. While reviewing a COL application NRC reviews the hydraulic of the plant, the quality of groundwater, plant cooling system and emergency supply and reservoir of water nearby the plant. RNPP will use a large volume of water from Padma river for its cooling system. India built a barrage across Padma river in Indian side in the 1970s to divert the water flow that has caused a drastic reduction of water flow in Padma in Bangladesh. According to data from the Bangladesh Water Development Board, the average minimum flow of the river has been 22,300 cubic feet per second (“cusecs”) over the last 12 years, which would allow withdrawal of around 345 cusecs per day of water the plant requires. But a drastic drop in river levels– as happened in May 2011 when water levels fell to only 3,100 cusecs – could pose a massive threat to the safe operation of the nuclear plant. Additionally, the people of the region highly depend on the water of Padma for the agriculture and other livelihoods. As mentioned earlier, the region faces excessive drought during the summer. If the water of the region is withdrawn during the summer at the upstream of the RNPP site, then the plant will face a huge catastrophe. Experts warn that if the emergency cooling system of the RNPP is suspended because of lack of water or power, its reactors will meltdown, triggering a catastrophe like Chernobyl and Fukushima.
In addition, an NPP require very clean water for its condenser and cooling systems to keep the plant operational. But the Padma River carries a huge amount of silt and sand during the monsoon and so the muddy water must be purified before it is used. Technically it will be a great challenge for the RNPP as the plant site is comparatively small to accommodate a water purification system and reservoir to store sufficient fresh water in case of emergencies.
d. Population of the Surrounding Area
NRC reviews data about the population in the site vicinity, including transient populations. The population information reviewed includes data from the latest census, and the projected population at the year of plant approval and 5 years thereafter. The NRC also reviews the specified low-population zone to determine if appropriate protective measures could be taken on behalf of the public in that zone in the event of a serious accident. In addition, NRC review establishes that proposed or permitted activities in the exclusion area unrelated to operation of the reactor do not result in a significant hazard to public health and safety.
Small-sized RNPP site has only 300-800 meters area surrounding the nuclear reactor that is being considered as Exclusion Zone or Sanitary Protection Zone. It is irrational to claim that beyond the 800 meters area surrounding the nuclear reactor, public health and safety will be safe. According to IAEA safety standard guidelines, there are in fact two more safety zones—the Precautionary Action Zone, which has a five-kilometer radius and where it is recommended to have evacuation facilities for an emergency evacuation within 15 minutes and the Urgent Protective Action Planning Zone, which has a 30-kilometre radius and where it is recommended to have evacuation facilities for an emergency evacuation within an hour. Given the transportation capacity and population density of the country, particularly in the plant area, it seems impossible to evacuate 3.5 million people living within 30-kilometre radius of the RNPP site within an hour.
In addition, it is reported that government has not informed the people living within the risk zone of the emergency evacuation. If the application for COL is accepted, the NRC holds a public meeting near the proposed site to familiarize the public with the safety and environmental aspects of the proposed application, including the planned location and type of plant, the regulatory process, and the terms for public participation in the licensing process. Several public meetings of this type are held during the reactor licensing process. In case of Bangladesh, no such public meeting ever has been happened near the site location or anywhere to educate people on nuclear safety and emergency responses.
e. Spent Fuel Management
Nuclear waste management is another concerning issue, which needs special infrastructure as well as separate budget allocation. In case of the USA, NRC disposes the spent fuel. So, an operator does not need to be concerned over the spent fuel management except transporting the spent fuel to a convenient repository. Regarding the spent fuel management at RNPP, it seems no consideration has been given to technical issues associated with the storage, transportation and disposal of radioactive material and radioactive waste. 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 RNPP have capacity to store spent fuel for the period before deporting to Russia, given that RNPP is small in size.
f. Radiation Management
Radiation leaks are also very common in nuclear power plants. Only last October, the Institut de radioprotection et de sûreténucléaire (IRSN), France’s public authority on nuclear safety and security, identified a cloud of radioactive isotope ruthenium-106 in European territory originating from a Russian nuclear facility. But Russia’s nuclear agency has refused to accept responsibility. When countries with advanced technologies and financial capacity like Germany, Italy, and Switzerland have all given up nuclear power plants and Japan is reducing nuclear power production after the Fukushima disaster, Bangladesh seems to be blinding itself recklessly with Russian Technology. The risk of mismanaging a nuclear power plant is the inevitable occurrence of a nuclear accident and the consequences are simply massive – thousands, if not millions, of people will be exposed to high doses of radiation, surrounding region will be contaminated with radioactive materials and the country will be encumbered with billions of dollars of compensation. For a densely-populated country like Bangladesh without sufficient technical and financial competence, a grand vision for nuclear energy technology is meaningless. Nuclear is not an adventure to play with.
g. Technical Expertise and Human Performance
Before issuing an operating license, the NRC requires an applicant to satisfy the facility licensee’s training and experience requirements in order to be a licensed operator or senior operator. In addition, NRC requires a prospective licensee to undergo some examination on technical, mental and physical competence. It ensures the necessary technical expertise and human performance in a nuclear power plant.
The emerging nuclear trio amongst Bangladesh, India and Russia is quite alarming because the presence of nuclear even for the purpose of energy can bring dreadful results. Bangladesh has no technical expertise or skilled manpower to undertake such a complex and high-tech project like RNPP. In general, lack of experts on nuclear technology can constitute a great challenge on the efficient production of nuclear power in Bangladesh. Though Russian experts will be working along with the local experts, any fission technology will not provide efficient production without the proper domestic introduction and demonstration of such technology. Being a leader in nuclear technology, it is an easy task for NRC to educate its own people with necessary knowledge and skills efficiently on operating a NPP, whereas it is uncertain how much the Russia will educate the experts of Bangladesh and how much the those experts will be able to learn within this short period of time.
h. Plans for Coping with Emergencies
The NRC safety review focuses on potential external hazards or hazardous materials that are present or may reasonably be expected to be present during the projected lifetime of the proposed plant. The nature and extent of activities involving potentially hazardous materials that are conducted at nearby industrial, military, and transportation facilities have been evaluated to identify any such activities that have the potential for adversely affecting plant safety-related structures. The review considers the applicant’s probability analyses of potential accidents involving hazardous materials or activities on site and in the vicinity of the proposed site to confirm that appropriate data and analytical models have been used. The purpose is to evaluate the sufficiency of information concerning the presence and magnitude of potential external hazards, so that the facility can be prepared to respond an accident as soon as it happens. As per as NRC’s safety preparedness there may be accidents for several reasons, the operator should be informed of the possible way out of the accident by anticipating a comprehensive hypothetical accident response layout based on the site characteristics and surrounding area.
Bangladesh has no institutional and regulatory framework to undertake a complex study of hypothetical accidents in a NPP and possible necessary responses. The government claims that Russia has assured Bangladesh of the safety of the plant, whereas the Russian state-owned company, Rosatom, has rightly asserted that the responsibility of ensuring safety lies with the licensee not contractor.
Considering the unique case of a country like Bangladesh, where the characteristically fitted gas or coal power plants fail frequently because of bad installation and scarcity of appropriate maintenance, the measure of safety for a sophisticated nuclear power regime is logically questionable. If Bangladesh assumes the sole responsibility of mapping the safety responses of RNPP that will be catastrophe because Bangladesh is less than an infant in nuclear technology and, consequently, safety standards will be seriously impaired. The nuclear disasters, of course, are more devastating and treacherous than gas disasters.
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 yet. 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. To minimize negative consequences for Bangladesh from such a case, there is a need for Bangladesh to have civil preparedness and public awareness in the field of nuclear security and safety.
Other Issues related to Safety of a NPP outside the Scope of NRC’s Licensing Process
a. Accountability and Public Participation:
The Atomic Energy Act in the USA requires that a public hearing be held before a construction permit is issued for a nuclear power plant. The public can take part in the COL application review process in several ways. Several public meetings are held during the reactor licensing process, where NRC informs the member of public about different elements and safety features of a NPP. After completing safety and environmental reviews, the NRC publishes the Draft Safety Evaluation Report for comment by the appropriate federal, state, and local agencies as well as by the public. Members of the public may submit written or oral comments on the drafts. Afterwards, the agency issues the Final Safety Evaluation Report that addresses all comments received. If NRC decides to issue a COL it calls for a public hearing. Earlier to the issuance of COL, members of the public may submit written or oral comments on the proposed ESP or DC. The Commission may then decide to hold a hearing to resolve the disputes on ESP or DC.
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. Bangladesh isn’t an exception from this practice of limited transparency. However, it seems, that the publicly available information about the RNPP is excessively limited. The lack of information, open for national mass media about the RNPP, 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. There is a demand from public across Bangladesh for more transparency when it comes to the nuclear cooperation between Bangladesh, India and Russia. The Bangladeshi authorities could be more responsive to this demand.
b. Risk Management and Liability
In the USA the Price-Anderson Act of 1957 covers liability claims of members of the public for personal injury and property damage caused by a commercial nuclear power plant accident. Where, in case of Bangladesh, the question of liability management is non-existent. Nuclear Power Plant Act 2015, which is the main law regarding the nuclear power in Bangladesh, does not contain any provisions for the consequences of any NPP disaster. In any occasion where the plant is mothballed, cancelled or accidentally damaged, the legal position of the contract between BAEC and ROSATOM enumerates that the government of Bangladesh have to repay the loan with interests. It cannot be denied in such case the risk is extensive, hazardous and improper. The bitter truth is that man-made disasters in the Third World do not usually give rise to compensatory litigation. Bangladesh needs a comprehensive law on nuclear power production which is necessary in order to guide the future safe energy production. The government should make clear policies to address the impact of nuclear safety regulations and liability rules.
RNPP is not the only NPP in the region, however, when it comes to Bangladesh the concern over the plant safety issues simply raises. It is not for the technical or financial capacity of the country, it is for the mismanagement of statutory and public bodies. As being a middle-income country with rapidly growing GDP, Bangladesh may anyway handle the financial liability of NPPs, unless and until there is no massive nuclear disaster. In addition, the country has a lot of human resources working across the world. Gaining expertise on operating a NPP will be a matter of time if given proper training and exposure. But the major problem lies with the management of a NPP. No one can assure that a good portion of the allotted money on nuclear safety will not go to the private bank accounts of political leaders and other concerned high officials. This problem reinforces other problems to rise. Otherwise, government could launch a site selection process before choosing Rooppur site and could acquire a larger site with less population in the vicinity. Besides the safety of the RNPP, there are a lot issues with the environmental impact of the plant. The Environmental Impact Assessment, though required by IAEA, is supposed to be non-existent in reality.
NRC has been dealing NPPs for nearly seven decades and has long-standing experience of regulating the nuke. The NRC’s licensing process maintains a comprehensive safety review of the site and the plant related components. As we have seen, a lot of RNPP’s safety features do not satisfy a lot of safety standards of NRC. This non-satisfaction, though not have any legal implications as NRC is not a part of RNPP trio, can be suicidal for Bangladesh. Neither Russia nor India will take the responsibility if an accident happens at the RNPP, instead Bangladesh will have to bear the responsibility to compensate the misfortune of it. Bangladesh is no way ready to handle a nuclear accident with zero casualties like Japan in Fukushima nor is it financially capable enough to bear the extremely high expenses of washing out the radioactive components after an accident. Therefore, the country should reconsider the NRC safety standards, besides Russian and IAEA standards, before large scale construction of RNPP. Otherwise, if once the plant is substantially done, there will be no backspace button. n
The writer studies LLM in Energy and Environmental Law at the George Washington University Law School, Washington D.C.