Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant: Bangladesh’s swift ascent into nuclear power

Bangladesh’s Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant marks a rapid progression into nuclear energy, symbolizing the nation’s technical prowess. With extravagant features, it exemplifies efficient collaboration with Russia and IAEA guidance for sustainable development.

In 2008, the Awami League pledged to build the Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant in Ishwardi, Pabna, as outlined in their electoral manifesto. True to their word, upon assuming office, the party has successfully realized this commitment, marking Bangladesh’s inaugural foray into nuclear power generation. A noteworthy event is scheduled for Thursday when the first unit of the power plant is set to formally receive a fresh supply of uranium from the Russian contractor, Rosatom. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and Russian President Vladimir Putin will both virtually participate in this significant handover ceremony.

It’s worth noting the historical backdrop of Bangladesh’s nuclear ambitions. The initiation of the country’s first nuclear power plant dates back to 1961 under the then-Pakistan government. However, the project encountered numerous challenges and setbacks over the ensuing 62 years, preventing its completion. Enduring through ups and downs and witnessing substantial historical changes, the project is now on the verge of fulfilment. With the historic commissioning scheduled for Thursday, Bangladesh is poised to embrace the era of uranium fuel, signalling a momentous new chapter in its history.

 

History

 

Developments before the Liberation War

In 1961, under the administration of the then-Pakistan government, the initial steps were taken to establish the first nuclear power plant. The selection process for the site concluded between 1962 and 1968, with the Rooppur area in Ishwardi, Pabna, near the Padma River in former East Pakistan, identified as the chosen location.

Conducting thorough reviews to assess the project’s feasibility, the government acquired 260 acres of land for the nuclear power plant and an additional 32 acres for residential purposes. The initial stages of development, including the construction of office buildings, rest houses, an electrical substation, and some residential units, were completed during this period.

However, a significant shift occurred in 1969-1970 when the then-Pakistan government decided to cancel the implementation of this 200MW power production project. This decision marked a turning point in the project’s trajectory, halting the progress made in the development of the nuclear power plant in Rooppur.

 

Developments after the Liberation War

After Bangladesh gained independence in 1971 following the Liberation War, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the Father of the Nation, revived the initiative to construct a 200-megawatt nuclear power plant. Between 1977 and 1986, MS Sofratom conducted a comprehensive feasibility study, affirming the suitability of the Rooppur site for the construction of a nuclear power plant.

In response to the findings, the Executive Committee of the National Economic Council (Ecnec) approved a 125MW nuclear power plant project. However, due to various constraints and limitations, the implementation of this plan faced challenges and could not proceed as intended.

In 1987-1988, two companies from Germany and Switzerland conducted a second feasibility study, concluding that the Rooppur site was not only technically sound but also economically and financially feasible for a more substantial 300-500MW nuclear power plant.

Between 1997 and 2000, Dr MA Wazed Miah, the then Chairman of the Bangladesh Atomic Energy Commission (BAEC), initiated a fresh effort to construct a nuclear power plant with a capacity of 600MW. This marked a renewed commitment to harnessing nuclear energy for the nation’s development.

The government solidified its commitment to nuclear energy with the approval of the Bangladesh Nuclear Power Action Plan in 2000, setting the stage for the subsequent endeavours that ultimately led to the fulfilment of the Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant project.

 

Atomic Energy Pact of 2008-2012

In the 2008 electoral manifesto, the Awami League pledged to establish the Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant in Ishwardi, Pabna, marking Bangladesh’s first venture into nuclear power generation once they assumed power. Initiating the project under the development program titled “Accomplishment of Essential Activities for the Implementation of Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant Project,” the government undertook preliminary preparatory work and the development of nuclear infrastructures.

A significant step in the international collaboration for this project was the signing of a memorandum of understanding (MoU) on “Cooperation in Using Nuclear Energy for Peaceful Purpose” on May 13, 2009, between the Bangladesh Atomic Energy Commission (BAEC) and Russia’s state-owned atomic company Rosatom. This was followed by the signing of a framework agreement between Bangladesh and the Russian Federation on May 21, 2010.

To ensure the efficient execution of the project, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina led the formation of a national committee, a technical committee under the science and technology minister, and a working group led by the secretary of the Ministry of Science and Technology, accompanied by eight sub-working groups. The decision to build the Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant received parliamentary approval on November 10, 2010.

In December 2010, Yukiya Amano, the former Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), visited Bangladesh, pledging full support from the IAEA for the Rooppur project. The intergovernmental agreement (IGA) between the Bangladesh government and the Russian Federation regarding the construction of the Rooppur NPP was signed on November 2, 2011.

An important milestone in evaluating Bangladesh’s nuclear infrastructure occurred from November 9-15, 2011, with the conduct of an IAEA Integrated Nuclear Infrastructure Review (INIR) mission. Subsequently, the Bangladesh Atomic Energy Regulatory Act, 2012, was passed in the parliament on June 19, 2012, contributing to the regulatory framework for nuclear activities in the country. These developments mark a comprehensive and collaborative effort in realizing the Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant project.

 

First Phase

On January 15, 2013, a crucial step was taken during Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s visit to Russia when a state export credit agreement was signed. This agreement was specifically for the preparatory work associated with the Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant. Building upon the previously signed intergovernmental agreement (IGA) and the state export credit agreement, the Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant establishment project’s first phase was officially adopted.

A significant moment occurred on October 2, 2013, when Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina formally inaugurated the first phase of the construction of the Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant.

 

Nuclear Power Plant Act

In 2015, the Nuclear Power Plant Act was issued on September 16, providing provisions for the establishment and management of an operating organization for the nuclear power plant. On August 18, 2015, the Nuclear Power Plant Company Bangladesh Limited (NPCBL) was formed for the establishment and operation of the Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant, and another agreement was signed on December 25 for the main phase of the project.

A follow-up mission from May 10-14, 2016, reviewed the progress in implementing the IAEA’s recommendations for the Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant. On June 21, 2016, the Bangladesh Atomic Energy Regulatory Authority granted a site license, and a Joint Coordination Committee (JCC) meeting on June 22, 2016, made key decisions regarding the supply, management, operation, and maintenance of fuel for the power plant.

On July 26, 2016, the intergovernmental credit agreement for the Rooppur NPP construction was signed between the Bangladesh and Russian governments. An agreement on the return of spent nuclear fuel was signed on March 15, 2017, between Russia and Bangladesh. Additionally, on April 8, 2017, intergovernmental and inter-agency agreements were signed between Bangladesh and India, focusing on peaceful nuclear energy cooperation and collaboration on nuclear power plant projects.

On August 30, 2017, an agreement was signed between the Bangladesh government and the Russian Federation concerning the return of spent nuclear fuel from the Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant. The Bangladesh Atomic Energy Control Authority (BAERA) took a significant step on November 4, 2017, by issuing the design and construction license for Rooppur NPP Unit-1 in favour of the Bangladesh Atomic Energy Commission.

A notable milestone was reached on November 30, 2017, when Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina inaugurated the concrete pouring of the first unit of the Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant.

 

Present

On October 10, 2021, and October 18, 2022, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina officiated the commencement of work for installing the nuclear reactor pressure vessels for the first and second units of the Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant. These events marked significant progress in the construction and assembly of key components for the power plant.

A crucial step in the operational phase was observed on September 29, 2023, when the first batch of fresh uranium, serving as the nuclear fuel for the inaugural unit of the Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant, was transported from Dhaka to the project site.

 

Safety Protocols

The design of the Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant (NPP) adheres to rigorous safety standards, meeting the high-level safety requirements established worldwide for future nuclear power plants. The plant incorporates reliable five layers of barriers that act as robust safeguards, preventing radiation exposure to people and the environment even in the most extreme scenarios.

The reactor’s design features a layered safety system with five distinct barriers:

  • Fuel Pellets
  • Fuel Cladding
  • Pressure Vessel
  • First Containment (Inner Building)
  • Second Containment (Outer Building)

These layers ensure a comprehensive and multi-faceted approach to safety, providing extensive protection against radiation exposure. In the event of a severe accident with extreme power loss due to a grid failure, akin to the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant accident, the Rooppur NPP is designed to remain safely shut down for at least 72 hours without requiring external assistance or off-site power supply.

The Rooppur NPP comprises two VVER-1200 nuclear reactors, which are a flagship product of ROSATOM’s integrated solution. The VVER-1200 offers a 20% higher power capacity while maintaining a size comparable to the previous VVER-1000 model. Additionally, it boasts an extended 60-year service life, load-following capability, high capacity utilization (90%), and an 18-month refuelling cycle. The VVER is a thermal neutron reactor that utilizes pressurized water as both a coolant and a moderator, showcasing advanced technological features that contribute to the overall safety and efficiency of the Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant.

 

Cooperation with IAEA

Bangladesh’s venture into nuclear power has been greatly facilitated by comprehensive support from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) at every phase of its development. The IAEA’s guidance has played a pivotal role in establishing the essential legal, regulatory, managerial, technological, and human resource infrastructure, ensuring a secure and safe implementation of nuclear power.

The IAEA has provided Bangladesh with a structured roadmap through its Milestones Approach, a phased plan tailored for newcomer countries, advising on meeting prerequisites for nuclear power. The country has undergone multiple IAEA review missions under the Integrated Nuclear Infrastructure Review (INIR) program, allowing expert evaluations to identify areas requiring priority attention.

Reflecting on the inception of this collaboration, the IAEA’s involvement began in 2009 with an organized workshop that initiated discussions on the required infrastructure for a nuclear power project in Bangladesh. The commitment was solidified in 2015 when Bangladesh adopted the IAEA Milestones Approach, setting the stage for the development of the Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant. The IAEA, in partnership with Russia, has played a pivotal role in training over a thousand Bangladeshi engineers and technicians in Russia, offering specialized courses in nuclear law, safety, waste management, and emergency planning, thereby building indigenous capacity and self-reliance.

The IAEA’s ongoing involvement includes monitoring construction milestones and safety measures at Rooppur. The agency’s 2018 review mission noted satisfactory progress, certifying Bangladesh’s readiness to receive its first fuel consignment from Russia, thus transforming its nuclear aspirations into reality. Looking forward, IAEA supervision ensures that the plant adheres to the highest international benchmarks for design safety and operational preparedness before the introduction of uranium fuel from Russia in 2023. The IAEA is expected to provide substantial technical direction until the plant is ready for launch in late 2024 or early 2025. Subsequently, regular inspections will mark Bangladesh’s transition into a nuclear power producer, supported by the ongoing guidance of the IAEA.

 

Investments from Russia

The project’s significant strides began in 2009 when Russia extended an offer to construct a nuclear power reactor for Bangladesh, addressing the nation’s energy needs. The subsequent two years saw fruitful negotiations culminating in a bilateral agreement, solidifying Bangladesh’s commitment to embarking on its nuclear power journey.

As collaborative partners in the project, both Russia and Bangladesh have actively contributed their strengths while accommodating various challenges. Russia, demonstrating a strong commitment, has provided 90% of the financing for the USD 12.65 billion Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant through favourable credit terms. The technical aspects of design, construction, and fuel supply have been expertly managed by Russia’s state nuclear corporation, Rosatom. Despite facing economic challenges after the Ukraine crisis, Russia has maintained the spirit of partnership by training a substantial contingent of 1,000 Bangladeshi nuclear professionals over the past decade and committing to the timely completion of the project.

The collaboration has extended beyond the project itself, as evidenced by discussions around the use of the Chinese yuan for settling payments related to the Rooppur nuclear construction. Both nations are diversifying their nuclear cooperation into areas such as nuclear medicine, food irradiation, and training. The Rooppur project serves as a noteworthy example of South-South collaboration, especially at a time when developing nations are actively seeking energy security. Its successful implementation is poised to inspire other countries to explore nuclear power as a sustainable solution to meet the growing electricity demand.

 

Into the future

In a remarkably short span of just over a decade, Bangladesh has achieved a feat in pursuing nuclear power that takes most developing countries nearly twice as long. The 2400 MW Rooppur reactors are set for commissioning in 2024, only eight years after Russia was contracted for their construction. Consequently, Bangladesh is now poised to join the elite club of 33 countries that produce nuclear electricity.

The Rooppur plant symbolizes Bangladesh’s evolution into a technically advanced and cutting-edge, fast-growing Asian economy. It enhances the country’s appeal as an attractive destination for high-technology investments, potentially attracting global nuclear vendors beyond its collaboration with Russia. While the first experience with the Russian VVER units is yet to unfold, Bangladesh anticipates a remarkable outcome with a long-term impact. The IAEA is expected to play a crucial role in assisting Bangladesh in expanding its nuclear power fleet and optimizing plant productivity over its anticipated 60-year lifespan.

Realizing the full developmental potential of nuclear power in Bangladesh will necessitate broader policy reforms. This includes streamlining fuel import logistics, finding a balance between non-power applications and electricity generation, and leveraging nuclear technology for comprehensive national progress. Focusing on training programs that emphasize nuclear project management and self-reliance will further position the country to drive its nuclear future efficiently.