Source: The Daily Star (Dhaka) , 29 June 2001

Can we afford nuclear power plant?

Sharif Atiqur Rahman

Last year in March, I wrote in The Daily Starquestioning the feasibility
of the billion-dollar Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant project in
technologically backward and poverty-stricken Bangladesh. Since then some
new developments have taken place. In October 2000, Bangladesh and America
signed an agreement in Washington for cooperation on the peaceful use of
nuclear power under which the former will receive financial and technical
assistance for its Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant.

Earlier Dhaka had planned to include the issue in the Hasina-Clinton talks
during Clinton's visit in March 2000. Bangladesh, to gain Washington's
confidence about the peaceful use of the nuclear power plant, had also
signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and also ratified the
Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) just the visit. But Washington had
requested that the issue be dropped from the agenda, citing the nuclear
tests conducted by India and Pakistan in May 1998.

A report published in an English daily last week quoted Prime Minister
Hasina that the government has finalised preparations to start
installation of the proposed nuclear power plant. The report also stated
that the Bangladesh Atomic Energy Commission (BAEC) has already completed
the pre-implementation phase activities for the project and the
site-report has also been updated. There were also reports on a
high-powered team from the International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA)
visiting the project site a few days back. Earlier in December 1997,
another IAEA team came to Dhaka to discuss with experts and government
officials details of the power plant and to determine a time-bound action
plan. That team visited the site of the plant and conducted a 10-week
pre-implementation training programme joined by 32 participants in 1998 in

The concept of the Rooppur project, about 180 kilometres from Dhaka in the
district of Iswardi, was developed in 1961 by the then Pakistani
government and was approved initially for 70 Megawatt (MW) of electricity
generation. But it was virtually stalled due to lack of interest by
previous Bangladeshi governments as well as a shortage of funds and
technical assistance. The current plan is to have a much larger plant of
600 MW capacity, which is estimated to cost about $1 billion.

Nuclear power plants are justified to the naive general public on the
grounds of attractive cost-efficiency, safety and environment-friendly
aspects, whereas, the underneath complex web of issues burdened with
potential risk factors remains undetected.

Now, is nuclear power plant safe for Bangladesh?

Operating a nuclear power plant is quite different from the operation of
any other kind of power-generating plant. This is because of the
devastating consequences the population may face if an accident occurs
during the operation of a plant. Before I proceed further, some historical
facts can be cited.

1952 - December 12, Chalk River, near Ottawa, Canada: a partial meltdown
of the reactor's uranium fuel core resulted after the accidental removal
of four control rods. Although millions of gallons of radioactive water
accumulated inside the reactor, there were no injuries.

1957 -October 7, Windscale Pile No. 1, north of Liverpool, England: fire
in a graphite-cooled reactor spewed radiation over the countryside,
contaminating a 200-sq-mi area.

South Ural Mountains: explosion of radioactive wastes at Soviet nuclear
weapons factory 12 miles from city of Kyshtym forced the evacuation of
over 10,000 people from a contaminated area. The Soviet officials reported
no casualties.

1976 - near Greifswald, East Germany: radioactive core of reactor in the
Lubmin nuclear power plant nearly melted down due to the failure of safety
systems during a fire.

1979 - March 28, Three Mile Island, near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, USA:
one of two reactors lost its coolant, which caused the radioactive fuel to
overheat and caused a partial meltdown. Some radioactive material was

1986 - April 26, Chernobyl, near Kiev, former USSR: explosion and fire in
the graphite core of one of four reactors released radioactive material
that spread over part of the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, Scandinavia,
and later Western Europe. 31 claimed dead. Total casualties are unknown
and estimates run into the thousands. Worst such accident to date.

1999 - September 30, Tokyo, Japan: workers added seven times the required
amount. Radiation was released to the surrounding areas. The three workers
performing the operation were exposed to high levels of radiation and were
treated. Thirty-nine workers were exposed in total.

The alarming point of the above incidents is that all the major accidents
in nuclear power plants have taken place in technologically advanced
countries. The highly sophisticated technical knowhow or the specialised
expertise failed to prevent accidents in those plants. For a country like
Bangladesh where the typically installed gas or coal-based power plants
are tripping down regularly only due to faulty installation and lack of
proper maintenance, how safe will be a sophisticated nuclear power plant
is certainly questionable. Besides, Bangladesh lacks in the economic
strength to compensate or to recover from the liabilities arising from any
such accident that may happen in any nuclear power plant. The economic
cost of cleanup, evacuation and medical treatment from the Chernobyl
accident is estimated to be more than $100 billion so far. The cost of
merely closing down the plant itself is estimated to be $4 billion.

The so-called cost efficiency

It is argued that although the initial cost of a nuclear plant is double
that of a conventional gas-burned plant, the fuel cost is much lower than
that of a coal or oil-burned plant. Newly designed power plants of current
times promise cost efficiency. But still the initial cost is exorbitantly
high International Energy Agency (IEA) produced analysis on "Nuclear Power
in OECD", published in 2001, showed that the capital cost for today's
nuclear designs runs at about $2,000 per kilowatt, against about $1,200
per kilowatt for coal and just $500 per kilowatt for a combined-cycle gas
plant. When considering the full life-cycle costs of a new project in
today's money, some 60-75% of a nuclear plant's costs may be front-loaded;
for a gas plant, about a quarter. History also suggests that not
everything goes as planned when turning clever paper designs into
real-life nuclear plants. The Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant in the USA
designed to generate 2200 MW, was planned in the early '70s and was
estimated to cost around $500 million. The final cost ballooned to about
$8 billion before the plant started producing electricity 10 years behind
schedule due to errors in design and construction process, improper
quality control, inadequate documentation, etc.

With the continuous pressure on the foreign currency reserves, Bangladesh
cannot ignore such a huge capital cost to install a nuclear power plant
even if it finishes without any technical fault and within the scheduled
timeframe (which is most unlikely).

Bangladesh will have to approach to the donor countries to arrange the
fund. In case of foreign debts, we need to consider the interest accrued
during construction, which, over many years it takes to build nuclear
plants. We have to bear in mind that it took 40 long years for us to come
to the implementation phase from the planning phase. Besides, Bangladesh
will largely depend on foreign consultants to ensure safety of the plant
as well as design and supply of plant parts and equipment.

Environmental disasters

True that nuclear energy does not produce carbon dioxide, the chief
accused behind man-made global warming, but the other potential risk
factors prevent nuclear power from emerging as a clear winter. Radiation
is a threat to human health at every stage of the process, from uranium
mining to plant operation (even in those new ultra-safe plants) to waste
disposal. In operating a nuclear plant, a major problem is the disposal
and storage of the radioactive waste material produced by the plant. No
country has yet built a 'permanent' waste-disposal site. Disposal of
nuclear waste will be an addition to the existing environmental hazards
like high level of lead particle in the atmosphere or contamination of
arsenic in ground water.

The distance from a nuclear power plant also has a direct affect on things
such as breast cancer. In an extensive study it was found that, women
living near a nuclear reactor had an average of 26-28 deaths from breast
cancer per 100,000 women. Women living far from one averaged 22-23 deaths
per 100,000. It was observed that the breast cancer mortality rate in the
localities where the seven oldest US Department of Energy nuclear reactors
were situated rose by 37% during the period 1950-54 to 1985-89 period,
whereas a corresponding rate for the entire US population rose by only 1%.

In addition to this, there are numerous examples of evasive actions and
cover-ups by both commercial and government owned nuclear plant
authorities regarding the extent of malfunctions, accidents and consequent
release of radioactive materials. It is always easy to hide behind
"national security" and "sensitive information" to withhold information
from the public

Since the accident in the Three Mile Islands, USA in 1979, no new plants
have been built in the United States. A referendum in Sweden in 1980,
demanding an end of nuclear power was initiated by the Three Mile Islands
incident. The 1986 Chernobyl incident seemed to put the nail in the coffin
of nuclear power in Europe. Following Sweden, a number of countries
campaigned for a ban. Germany and Belgium have decided to ban new nuclear
plants. Even pro-nuclear France seemed to lose its enthusiasm for new
plants. In recent months the new government in Taiwan, once a big fan of
nuclear power, has tried to reverse the course. The Japanese government
has quietly scaled back its plans for 20 new plants. When the enthusiasm
for nuclear power plants is on he reverse gear for some genuine reasons,
why we shall choose to swim against the stream ignoring all the exposed
menaces of nuclear power plants.

Due to economical, geographical and demographical facts existing in
Bangladesh, any accident in the Rooppur power plant has the potential to
adversely impact the lives of every citizen of Bangladesh and of future
generations. Hence, the viability of a nuclear power plant in Bangladesh
needs to be rethought and recalculated. It is true that nuclear power has
far lower routine emissions than energy from burning fossil fuels and
Bangladesh is in a crying need of electricity. But whether nuclear power
plant is the perfect solution is arguable. It has been reported many a
times that the existing power plants in Bangladesh, if in production with
its full capacity, can supply the required amount of electricity. But due
to technical faults, lack of maintenance and notably, dishonesty from some
part of the concerned officials, have given the country's power sector a
gloomy look. Besides proper maintenance of the existing power plants and
vigilance against misuse and 'system loss' of electricity, the huge amount
of natural gas reserves can be a more suitable source of electricity than
nuclear power considering the grave risk factors associated with nuclear
power plants. Natural gas can be complemented by renewable energy sources
such as solar energy, biomass fuels (renewably produced and used), and
wind energy.

Atiq is a researcher and a writer. Views expressed here are of the
author's own.

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