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Why so late?

  • Published at 08:01 pm May 21st, 2017
Why so late?

Bangladesh and India signed on April 08 a total of 22 MoUs and agreements during Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s visit to India.

Among them, there are two agreements and one arrangement relating to cooperation on peaceful uses of nuclear energy.

These include: (i) Agreement between the Government of the Republic of India and the Government of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh on Cooperation in Peaceful uses of Nuclear Energy, (ii) Arrangement between The Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) of the Government of the Republic of India and The Bangladesh Atomic Energy Regulatory Authority (BAERA) of the Government of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh for the Exchange of Technical Information and cooperation in the Regulation of Nuclear Safety and Radiation Protection, and (iii) Inter-Agency Agreement between Global Centre for Nuclear Energy Partnership (GCNEP), Department of Atomic Energy, Government of India and Bangladesh Atomic Energy Commission (BAEC), Ministry of Science and Technology, Government of People’s Republic of Bangladesh on Cooperation regarding Nuclear Power Plant Projects in Bangladesh.

Not the first time

This is not the first time the two neighbourly and friendly countries signed agreements of this kind. As a matter of fact, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the Father of the Nation, initiated nuclear cooperation with India back in 1973, soon after the independence of Bangladesh. An agreement of cooperation on peaceful uses of atomic energy with India was signed in Dhaka on August 27, 1973.

Under this agreement, Bangladesh and India decided to cooperate with each other for building a research reactor in Bangladesh. A team of senior Bangladeshi nuclear engineers and scientists visited the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) in Mumbai to prepare a conceptual design of the reactor.

They spent about a month in Mumbai and made a preliminary plan to build a research reactor in joint collaboration with India. Unfortunately, the project was not pursued further after the tragic assassination of Bangabandhu in August, 1975.

There has been very little contact between the two countries on application of atomic energy since then. The agreement of cooperation signed in 1973 expired in 1978 without being renewed.

Note that while Bangladesh only recently signed a deal for the construction of two 1,200 MWe nuclear reactors with Russian assistance at Rooppur, India has been pursuing a vigorous program of research and development in the field of nuclear energy since its independence in 1947.

India’s vast experience

To date, India has 22 nuclear power reactors with a total generating capacity of 6,219 MWe in operation and seven reactors with a generating capacity of 5,400 MWe under construction. In addition, it has five research and testing reactors.

With several operating research reactors, BARC is the premier institution for advanced research in nuclear science and technology in India. Affiliated to BARC, there are several centres around India which are engaged in advanced research in similar or allied fields.

While the Indian Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) is engaged in research and development, the Nuclear Power Corporation of India (NPCIL) is responsible for planning, construction, operation, and maintenance of all nuclear power plants in India. Over the years, NPCIL has acquired a considerable expertise in nuclear power plant construction and operation.

If we signed the agreement of cooperation with India in 2013, we would have a pool of highly trained engineers by now and be in a good position to negotiate a more favourable deal with Russia

The main mission of the Global Centre for Nuclear Energy Partnership (GCNEP) is to conduct research and development on nuclear systems that are safe, secure, proliferation resistant, and sustainable. The function of the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) is “to ensure that the use of ionising radiation and nuclear energy in India does not cause unacceptable impact on the health of workers and the members of the public and on the environment.”

AERB has developed its own safety codes and associated safety guides. The AEC, NPCIL and AERB work under the Department of Atomic Energy.

Over the years, India has accumulated a vast experience not only in R&D but also in design, construction, operation, and regulation of nuclear power reactors. In addition, India has built several centres of excellence for teaching and training in the field of nuclear science and technology. Russia has built two VVER-1000 nuclear reactors at Kudankulam (Units 1 and 2) in India and is building two more similar reactors (units 3 and 4) at the same site.

Error on our end

In 2009, Bangladesh started negotiations with the Russians for the construction of two similar reactors at Rooppur, practically without necessary preparation and without adequately trained manpower.

In an article published in a national newspaper in March, 2013, I wrote: “We have already lost valuable time. Let us sign an agreement of cooperation on peaceful uses of atomic energy with India as early as possible and build up a working relationship with them for the training of Bangladeshi engineers and scientists and for exchange of information and expertise on nuclear science and technology.”

As mentioned earlier, Bangladesh inked a deal with Russia for the construction of two VVER-1200 reactors at Rooppur without properly evaluating the project proposals and without taking help from any independent and competent consultant.

If we signed the agreement of cooperation with India in 2013, we would have a pool of highly trained engineers by now and be in a good position to negotiate a more favourable deal with Russia.

Note that while India is paying only $3,000/kWe for the Units 3 and 4 at Kudankulam, we would be paying $5,500/kWe (183% more) for the reactors at Rooppur. I believe we could save at least $3.6bn on Rooppur if we had negotiated more wisely and proficiently.

The present agreements of cooperation with India on peaceful uses of atomic energy are most welcome, though they have come too late because the authorities dealing with Rooppur failed to appreciate the importance of such cooperation with India in 2013.

They are now learning by a costly trial and error method. Unfortunately, it is the poor tax-payers who will pay heavily for their mistakes.

Had the prime minister been properly advised in 2013, I am sure she would have taken immediate steps to renew the agreement of cooperation with India that had been originally signed under the instruction of her illustrious father in 1973.

Abdul Matin is a retired nuclear engineer and a former professor at BUET.