The idea that a ‘dirt-poor country’ like Bangladesh would spend huge amounts of money developing a nuclear power industry would appear to make little sense, said former US ambassador in Dhaka James F Moriarty in a diplomatic cable he sent to Washington on January 01, 2009.
‘Serious doubts remain however, about Bangladesh’s ability to ensure the safety and security of nuclear facilities, and about the economic justification of a very poor country sinking huge amounts of money into nuclear energy, rather than developing its extensive coal and gas reserves,’ Moriarty said in the cable released by WikiLeaks on August 30, 2011.
‘Serious concerns about the safety of nuclear facilities in Bangladesh remain. For years a radiological source at an abandoned site in Chittagong was not properly safeguarded,’ the cable added.
‘BAEC [Bangladesh Atomic Energy Commission] cited the lack of trained human resources as a major future challenge, both in the operation and regulation of nuclear facilities. Bangladesh’s highly-respected but small cohort of engineering professionals will not likely be large enough to support a nuclear industry without substantial foreign expertise. Other challenges may include security concerns, disposal of nuclear waste and public opposition to nuclear power projects,’ the cable reads.
Bangladesh has long expressed an interest in developing a civil nuclear energy programme to address its power generation needs. This interest has increased in recent years as the country’s steady industrialisation has put further strains on its limited energy resources. The government of Bangladesh has taken initial steps to prepare for a civil nuclear energy industry and is eager to cooperate with US efforts to mitigate risks.
Bangladesh’s interest in nuclear energy pre-dates its independence from Pakistan. In the 1960’s the government of Pakistan identified a site at Rooppur, near the Padma River, for the development of a nuclear power plant. Political instability leading to the independence of Bangladesh in 1971 halted those plans, and the authorities chose to build the plant in West Pakistan instead, near Karachi, according to the cable.
The newly independent GOB [government of Bangladesh] continued to reserve the Rooppur site for a future nuclear power plant, and conducted several feasibility studies, most recently in 1987. In 2007 the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) gave its approval to Bangladesh for the development of nuclear power.
Based on a timeline set according to IAEA guidelines, BAEC estimated a nuclear
plant could be operational by the early 2020’s.
The Bangladesh government’s desire to develop nuclear energy is largely driven by increasing shortages of electricity, which has become ever more critical with the country’s growing industrialisation and agricultural production.
Bangladesh’s steady economic growth of 6 per cent a year is likely to hit a plateau soon if power generation shortages are not addressed. Currently, 85-90 per cent of Bangladesh’s electricity is generated by natural gas, with most of the remainder generated by coal. Bangladesh has significant hydrocarbon resources, both on land and offshore, but various setbacks have prevented the country from exploiting them fully.
‘Corrupt practices under previous governments and indecision by the caretaker government have prevented any new exploration for natural gas, while operating wells start to deplete. Coal production has been seriously hampered
by opposition to open-pit mining and the lack of a coal policy,’ the cable says.
The Bangladesh Atomic Energy Commission is currently the only authority in Bangladesh concerned with nuclear energy, but BAEC anticipates the development of a national nuclear power authority to operate nuclear power facilities.
‘Bangladesh is not yet party to the Vienna Convention on Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage, but BAEC reported its participation was “under process”,’ the cable reads.
Bangladesh has signed a number of other IAEA multilateral agreements including the Convention on Early Notification of a Nuclear Accident (1988), the Convention on Nuclear Safety (1996) and the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material (2005).
‘Commercial tenders for nuclear energy generation are some time off, but Bangladesh has approached Russia, Japan, South Korea and China about providing assistance. When the chief adviser [Fakhruddin Ahmed] (equivalent to prime minister) visited China in September 2008 media reports indicated China “responded positively” to Bangladesh’s request, (although the Chinese Embassy here believes no progress on this request is imminent). The response from other countries has been lukewarm,’ the cable says.
BAEC, with assistance from the US department of energy’s national nuclear security administration, is now taking steps to
secure and remove the source, the slow response raises questions about the security of larger and more hazardous facilities in the future.
Moriarty also said that Bangladesh sits on enormous coal reserves of the highest quality.
Similarly, a rigorous programme of gas exploration would likely lend to a large increase in Bangladesh’s already sizeable proven reserves.