The Quiet Achiever - Bangladesh Country Report

Part 1: The State of Play.

In this two part special, Nuclear Forum Asia, visits Asia’s quiet achiever in nuclear, the People’s Republic of Bangladesh. Not without its challenges but the talk of the nuclear industry, the Ruppur NPP is gaining acclaim and kudos from the International Atomic Energy Authority and is set to accelerated the nation’s often otherwise floundering journey toward development.

Grossly underpowered

After nearly a year of news of backward steps in Southeast and East Asian nuclear, Bangladesh might just be the shining light in a region that has, for really no logical reason, dimmed recently. The diminutive South Asian nation holding a huge population of 163 million people is one of the planet’s densest and with over one third of its citizens without power, to say Bangladesh is power hungry would be an understatement.

The infrastructurally underdeveloped nation produced a dismal 56 TWh of electricity in 2014, according to the World Nuclear Association, providing per capita energy consumption of around 320 kWh per annum – compare this to the French who, as a nation, consumed eight times this amount with a far smaller population. French per capita consumption is over twenty times that of Bangladesh but as the latter aims to become a middle-income nation by 2021 with a development strategy emphasising science and technology to fuel economic growth, which will of course, in turn, drive the demand for power.

Bangladesh is hugely rich in, and massively dependent on, natural gas, with large reserves hidden in the fertile, alluvial floodplains that are formed by the confluence of three great rivers, the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna. According to the International Energy Agency, the country draws over 80% of its energy needs from natural gas (supplies are said to be depleting) with a further 15% coming from oil. But it is hardly enough for the growing nation that adds two million to its population annually.

Great potential

With the dual factors of Bangladesh’s population and coming off a low base of infrastructural and industrial standards, potential to replace the nation’s gross reliance on natural gas is high. Government ambitions to diversify this dangerously lopsided market are also
high. Currently a net importer of energy from neighbour India, Bangladesh also aims for some degree of energy self-sufficiency. Five percent of government expenditure is devoted to energy and in just four short years, the nation’s leaders hope to supply electricity to 55 million people currently without access to the grid. This seems unrealistic but even if the government reached half this ambitious goal it would be providing power to a population greater than that of Australia.

To date power has been derived from mainly gas and oil. However, lack of sufficient conventional natural energy resources does impede existing power plants operating at full capacity. The country’s gas reserves are depleting, and thus gross reliance on this source must change. Few alternatives exist and research indicates that inadequate energy sources and reserves will force the regulators to severely restrict power supply. The country also lacks adequate geographical prerequisites to harness hydro-electric as a source of electricity generation.

2021 is a significant crunch date for Bangladesh, as it hopes to not only reduce natural gas to 25% of the energy mix but to also “Go nuclear”, with the atom and renewables contributing a significant 20% (realistically, however, this is more likely to occur in 2023). Not the most obvious contender for the next Asian nation to roll-out a nuclear programme, Bangladesh might just pip a few regional rivals to the post. Necessity is the mother of all innovation, and it is strikingly clear that nuclear is the way forward for this unstable and unique energy market.

IAEA impressed

Bangladesh is making all the right moves with its harried timeline of goals and the country is far from a nuclear novice – a Bangladeshi research reactor has been operational for over three decades. The country’s inaugural nuclear power producing project is already up and running, and has attracted the approval of global watchdog the IAEA with a commitment to assist Bangladesh in achieving sustainable development in nuclear. On the banks of the River Ganges’ tributary, the Padma, while visiting the under-construction Ruppur (sometimes Rooppur) nuclear power plant just two months ago, IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano provided a firm thumbs-up regarding safety, always the first and foremost concern with emerging nations.

“Bangladesh is making significant progress in the construction of its first nuclear power plant,” said the Director General. He added that the IAEA appreciated the strong political commitment, the public support, and the cooperation by Russia as important indications of the advances made at power plant. “The government is keeping in close touch with the IAEA [consulting on] the most efficient risk management and safety measures for the Ruppur nuclear power project,” Mr Amano said in July, as reported in the Dhaka-based Energy Bangla.

“The IAEA believes Bangladesh has adopted the best practices and the state-of- the-art technology.” The Director General confirmed that the IAEA would continue to provide safety (including meeting military leaders to ensure security) and risk management know-how with a view to Bangladesh’s quest to connect Ruppur to the national grid. It has not been complete smooth sailing for Ruppur however, hence Mr Amano taking the unusual step of placing special consideration into military security of the facility. Bangladesh has experienced significant political unrest, distant but ever-present insurgencies and a rise in acts of terrorism, often in the capital.

Furthermore, within the last five years, concerns have been raised by both local and international energy experts regarding the costs associated with the facility, and further tangential issues have sprung from these financial concerns. However, huge establishment costs are a common concern raised when challenging the construction of new plants in young nuclear nations.

Nonetheless, the nuclear industry is a long-run game, once the initial costs are divided over a facility’s lifetime, nuclear is not unusually costly. In Part Two of our Bangladesh Country Report, we delve deeper into the challenges involved on the road to rolling out Bangladesh’s first nuclear power plant at Ruppur. NFA will candidly speak with a leading Bangladeshi nuclear expert and former Chairman of the Bangladesh Atomic Energy Commission regarding the issues, solutions and strategic partnerships encountered on the
nation’s nuclear journey.

Photo from IAEA