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Bangladesh Must Pause Down the Nuclear Path

Dr. Peter Custers, a theoretician on nuclear production and author of Questioning Globalized Militarism looks at implications of the Russia-Bangladesh nuclear deal.

Jan 28 2013 (IPS) - Few critical questions have been raised so far by Bangladesh’s intellectual community over the deal towards construction of two nuclear power plants in Rooppur, 180km from capital Dhaka.

Yet, questions do need to be posed. On Nov. 2 last year, Russia and Bangladesh signed the long awaited nuclear power agreement on the supply of two 1000 Megawatt reactors. Significantly, the deal was closely followed up by a major defence deal worth a billion dollars for delivery of armoured vehicles, transport helicopters and other weaponry.

This last deal was sealed during Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s recent Moscow visit. The given pattern – of a deal facilitating the purchase and transfer of nuclear technology paving the way for enlarged armament transfers – is broadly similar to the pattern set by the U.S. and India when they signed their framework agreement on nuclear cooperation in 2008.

Here, an expansion in U.S. exports of armaments to India was the hidden, reverse side of the nuclear deal. And while ostensibly there is no direct link between the two types of trade, both the U.S. and Russia evidently are equally eager to enlarge both their sales of nuclear technology and of weaponry towards countries of the South. But whether the Rooppur deal and the sequential defence deal – both involving huge sums of public money – are really in the interests of Bangladesh needs to be scrutinised.

Bangladesh’s nuclear lobby undoubtedly will have celebrated the Rooppur deal as a grand success. After all the dream to provide Bangladesh with nuclear energy is longstanding, dating from the time Bangladesh was a part of Pakistan before 1971.

Few details on the content of the nuclear agreement have been revealed to Bangladesh’s public. From the ‘self-evaluation report’ submitted by Bangladesh to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in the middle of 2012, however, it appears that the two nuclear reactors to be supplied by Russia to Bangladesh will be of VVER-1000 design.

This is a water-cooled and water-moderated reactor reportedly devised in the late 1970s. Towards the cooling of the nuclear fuel rods, water is pumped into the primary circuit of the reactor and kept under constant pressure to prevent it from reaching boiling point.

After its use in the reactor complex, the (polluted) water needs to be released, i.e. dumped back onto the environment. This immediately raises the question as to the consequences of Rooppur for the fisherfolk in Ishwardi, the sub-district of Pabna where Rooppur is located. Will biodiversity in the reactor’s surrounding water bodies be affected?

Further pertinent questions arise once we try to envision how Rooppur’s nuclear fuel rods will be supplied and disposed of. To some extent the arrangements chosen imply that Bangladesh’s own population will not be burdened with the damaging consequences of the nuclear waste that is generated in the nuclear production chain.

Neither, it is implied, will massive amounts of low-level waste be dumped in the country in consequence of uranium mining. Nor would the country’s landscape or subsoil be disfigured due to the presence of storage tanks containing long-lasting, high-level fluid waste from nuclear reprocessing.

Will this suffice to allay the public’s fears? Under the agreement signed between Russia and Bangladesh, Bangladesh will not itself enrich uranium. Russia will both supply the fuel elements for the reactors, and will take back the highly radioactive rods once they have completed their ‘life-cycle’.

However, this does not mean that the people of Ishwardi and Pabna can rest reassured. Central issues to be looked into here are the temporary storage of the radioactive fuel rods after the end of their usage and the transportation of the fuel rods to and from the Rooppur nuclear complex. In Europe the transportation by road of used fuel elements has for many years aroused fierce resistance from anti-nuclear activists.

Thirdly, there is the question of reactor safety from a nuclear catastrophe. Russian officials will surely argue that the VVER-1000 design has proven to be more secure than the design of the granite-moderated reactor in Chernobyl, Ukraine, where the world’s most catastrophic nuclear accident ever took place in 1986.

Surely, it is the last-mentioned RBMK design which has burdened the Russian state and people with nightmarish problems – of hundreds of thousands of cancer deaths and of a vast contaminated region where agricultural production had to be suspended. Yet the so-called ‘stress tests’ undertaken in Russia in 2011 subsequent to the Fukushima disaster in Japan have laid bare numerous basic defects that Russian reactors share with those in Japan.

A joint report brought out by Rosatom and other Russian state institutions in the middle of 2011, for instance, questioned the capability of the country’s reactors to remain safe if cooling systems collapse, and there reportedly is no guarantee that power backup systems will be effective in case of a cooling system failure.

The official report also described how spent fuel is simply allowed to accrue in onsite storage sites because of lack of space. One wonders whether scientists belonging to Bangladesh’s nuclear establishment have reviewed this report by Russia’s state agencies. And whether their own worries have been dispelled.

The country would do well to take notice of the huge international controversy surrounding nuclear energy today. In neighbouring India, for instance, there has emerged an informed debate, which is of immediate relevance for Bangladesh. Coincidentally the strongest opposition against nuclear construction has been built in the area surrounding Koodankulam in Tamil Nadu precisely in opposition to a VVER-reactor supplied by the Russian Federation.

Being densely populated and subject to annual river flooding, Bangladesh can ill afford to take risks. Hence, any construction works in Rooppur should be preceded by an informed public debate in which both the country’s progressive intellectuals, the new generation of urban activists, and Pabna’s peasants and fisher folk take part.

 
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