Friday, 22 February 2013

Nuclear Power Plants in Bangladesh: Part II
Saturday, February 23, 2013

Are nuclear power plants viable for Bangladesh?

The government of Bangladesh has reached an agreement with Russia to build the country's first ever nuclear power plant (NPP) in Rooppur, Pabna. Given the momentous nature of the venture, this commentary lays out some major issues to facilitate and inspire public debates on the matter.
First, NPP offers the prospect of environmentally clean power supply at low operating costs over the long term. The estimated $1.5 to $2 billion construction cost of the Rooppur NPP does not seem expensive for such a plant. However, more details are needed about the modernity and sophistication of the NPP technology to be installed -- the components of the construction cost that will not be covered by the cited cost figure, and the proportion of the construction cost that will be local (in Bangladesh taka). Information is needed about the contracted operating fees, servicing fees, uranium costs, used fuel and waste management cost, decommissioning cost, and the cost of supporting facilities.
Second, once the various cost components are duly factored in, it needs to be evaluated whether the Russian collaboration is the most cost effective choice for Bangladesh. Prior to 2009, China offered to build and fund the Rooppur plant; South Korea also offered financial and technical help. It is thus unclear as to what comparative evaluations led to the agreements with Russia.
Third, according to the 2011 agreements with Rosatom (Russian atomic agency), Russia will supply the enriched uranium fuel and repatriate the used fuel back to Russia, and the Russian firm Atomstroyexport will build the NPP. Given the physical distance between Russia and Bangladesh, and the transportation and navigation arteries to Rooppur, the plan for long distance ferrying of the radioactive materials needs to be known and carefully evaluated. The plan for a repository of the radioactive waste is not quite known either, although low level wastes might be concealed beneath the NPP structures. Any radioactive waste repository in Bangladesh, however, exposes the connected water and marine system to grave risks of contamination due to seepage. These issues are more pertinent in Bangladesh than in Russia or elsewhere, given Bangladesh's topography, population density, and population proximity to any corridor.
Fourth, International Nuclear Event Scale (0 to 7, each increment is roughly ten times more severe) measures the severity of NPP events. By any estimation, the hazardous effects of a higher level event on health, water and food chain, and in general on the riverine ecological system of Bangladesh will be many times greater than those the world has hitherto witnessed.
Bangladesh is a very small country and any radioactive material released into the open is likely to spread quickly to much of the country and the neighbouring regions of India, exposing possibly more than hundred million people to nuclear contamination. While the government of Bangladesh is expected to have conducted in-depth study of the potential impacts of INES higher scale events, the information needs to be more widely circulated, examined and debated.
Fifth, before constructing and operating the Rooppur or any other NPP, it is essential that not only the risks be measured/estimated, but also an efficient and well-resourced risk control and disaster management system is designed, put in place and well-rehearsed ahead of time. This is of paramount importance because NPP will be a novel venture for Bangladesh, but the country is not reputed for its governance effectiveness, safety and disaster management record and preparedness. Moreover, the infrastructure, from transportation to medical, is grossly inadequate even under normal circumstances. It is unfathomable how Bangladesh can quickly evacuate and relocate say just a few hundred thousand people from the Rooppur area, not to speak of the expected millions.
Sixth, while the Rooppur NPP may be cost competitive, how its 1,000 MW or even the projected 5,000 MW NPP capacity by 2,030 (re: World Nuclear Association) will vitally address the longer term power needs of Bangladesh calls for a careful evaluation. According to the government, the projected demand is 19,000 MW in 2021 and 34,000 MW in 2030. If the Rooppur NPP is connected to the grid by 2,021, it will meet less than 5% of the projected 2021 power need, even operating at 90% capacity. If all 5,000 MW of projected NPP capacity comes alive by 2030 and operates at 90% capacity, only 13% of the 2030 power needs will be met. Of course, if the economy and the population continue to grow, this percentage will dwindle even further beyond 2030.
Thus, unless Bangladesh becomes infested with NPPs, the nuclear choice is unlikely to make a dent in the country's growing needs for power over the longer haul. Meantime, each of the five (assuming 1,000 MW size) projected NPP additions would keep aggravating the chances of a higher INES event and its potentially colossal effects.
Seventh, the wisdom of entering at all the arena of nuclear power generation is worth debating, given that most of the long-time and economically resourceful users (e.g., US, UK, Japan, Canada) are actually winding down their NPP capacity. The few countries (like China, Russia and India) actively adding capacity are self-sufficient in the technology, have atomic weapons arsenal, and more importantly wish to either preserve their own reserves of non-renewable resources (like crude oil) and/or to curtail their dependence on such external resources for strategic reasons.
Lastly, with the Rooppur plant and the planned additions thereafter, the risk of the radioactive materials falling into the wrong hands cannot be downplayed considering the history of turbulent politics, poor and porous security apparatus and law enforcement, and widespread corruption and governance failures.
In summary, NPP offers an environmentally clean way of diversifying the power generation portfolio of Bangladesh at low operating costs over an extended period of time. However, the capital costs are large without significantly meeting the long term power needs, the risks are real and grave, disaster management appears daunting, and an array of alternative clean power technologies are indeed available. In the end, whether the risks and costs of NPP are acceptable enough is not a matter to be resolved by the science experts or economists. After all it is the ordinary people of Bangladesh who would bear the lethal consequences of potential NPP mishaps for generations. If this is not the time for fully informing and engaging the citizenship on such an overarching matter, then when?
The writer is a Professor of Practice in Finance at McGill University, Montreal, Canada. E-mail:

Thursday, 21 February 2013

Nuclear Power Plants in Bangladesh: Part I
Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Pros and cons of Nuclear Power Plants

Photo: AFP
Bangladesh may soon be building a nuclear power plant (NPP) to meet its energy needs. This article gives an outline of how NPPs work and the dangers associated with them.
Hydro, coal, gas and nuclear plants use different means of spinning large turbines that cause an electro-magnet inside coils of wire in a generator to spin, putting electrons in motion inside the wires and thereby creating electricity. Thermal plants use coal or gas for the heating process that spins the turbines while NPP uses uranium in a nuclear reactor. At a typical NPP, the nuclear reactor core -- rods of uranium arranged in bundles -- is immersed in a pressurised water tank called the vessel. As the nuclear reaction is spurred, neutrons strike and split the uranium atoms, which release energy and more neutrons that go on to split other uranium atoms. The energy in turn heats up the water that is channelled to a steam generator. To avoid overheating, the cooling process places control rods made of neutron absorbing material into the reactor. To prevent radiation, the vessel is encased in a thick concrete shield.
Environmental impact: The most prominent advantage of NPP is that it avoids the environmentally adverse greenhouse gas emission (GHG) of coal or gas based thermal plants. This consideration has been a key factor in driving the growth of NPP in developed countries from the 1950s to the 1990s.
Recent NPP trends: At least three parallel trends about NPP can be observed in the world. First, according to the IAEA 2012 Report, worldwide there is a clear downward trend in the number of construction starts since 1979 (highest: 42) and connections to the grid since 1986 (highest: 33). Second, recent rise in construction starts is in the high growth economies (China, Russia, India and South Korea). Third, despite greater efficiency and safety of NPP technology, most of the important and long-time users (like USA, Japan, UK, Germany, and Canada) seem to be phasing out their previously built NPP capacity. For example, out of the 435 reactors in operation worldwide in 2011, 104 were in the USA, but the country has only one plant under construction and has not commissioned any new NPP in the new millennium. Japan, UK, Germany and Canada have none under construction. In recent decades, the global momentum seems to have shifted to alternative technologies such as wind and solar along with clean coal (reduced emission).
NPP risks: Spread/slippage of radioactivity from the vessel area of NPP and from the uranium fuel or the waste (from NPP production) into the open can cause severe health and environmental hazards. This may occur, for example, due to faults in the NPP design and construction, human errors in operating and servicing the NPP, natural forces/disasters damaging the NPP or the waste repositories, accidents during transportation of the fuel and the waste, and access to and malicious use by terrorists and other rogue users. According to The Guardian, there were 33 known accidents at NPPs worldwide between 1952 and 2011.
The most damaging incident at the highest International Nuclear Event Scale (INES), (0 to 7, each increment is roughly ten times more severe) level of 7 took place in 1986 at the Chernobyl NPP in Ukraine (then part of USSR) when a reactor exploded, and according to the IAEA, released into the atmosphere 400 times the radioactive contamination of the Hiroshima bomb. While the long-term effects are still being studied, the immediate human fatalities were limited since only 116,000 people lived in the 30 kilometers radius around the Chernobyl plant, who were relocated after the accident. Radioactivity, however, is believed to have spread to a far greater area of 28,000 square kilometers with 830,000 residents.
Since 2000, there were six incidents (INES rating between 2 to 5), with the latest incident (INES of 5) taking place at the Fukushima NPP in Japan in 2011 when the Sandai earthquake and tsunami led to failure of the emergency cooling system.
Some important observations from the history of the NPP incidents are as follows. First, despite extensive control measures, hazardous incidents do happen. Second, even with experience and sophisticated technologies, the frequency of hazardous incidents did not decline much over time. Third, even the most experienced, technologically advanced and rich countries experience such events and have enormous difficulty in managing a higher INES scale event, most amply illustrated by the 2011 Fukushima experience. Fourth, the potential health and ecological hazard of any higher INES event is expected to be more devastating if the NPP site is located in a region of high population density and the surrounding ecological system features connected water bodies, plantation and cropping areas. Fifth, the disaster could spread further in the absence of a well-planned, resourced (human, financial and physical) and rehearsed system of event and disaster management in place.
Economics of NPP: Generally speaking, the initial construction cost of a NPP is higher than that of coal, gas, wind or solar installation. NPP also involves significant costs for managing radioactive used fuel and waste and ultimate decommissioning (9% to 15% of capital cost). However, NPPs have long physical life and low fuel and operating costs. The main construction cost component is the overnight engineering, procurement and construction (EPC) cost of the power system, followed by owner's cost, roughly 20% of EPC cost representing ancillary facilities including land. The overnight EPC cost is principally affected by the sophistication of the technology, local proportion of construction, and the labour and materials cost levels. As such, the overnight construction cost can vary widely across the globe, generally in the range of $2 billion to $8 billion, for a 1,000 MW NPP. Even with high end estimate of the construction cost as in the USA, it seems that NPP can be cost competitive.
In summary, NPP offers clean electricity at a relatively low fuel and operating cost. However, deadly NPP accidents do happen and can have severe health and ecological effects, especially in densely populated and agrarian countries. Many long-term NPP using countries are also shifting toward alternative clean technologies.
The writer is a Professor of Practice in Finance at McGill University, Montreal, Canada. E-mail:

Sunday, 10 February 2013

A Tribute to The 2/13: Shahbag Moar and the Red-Green-Yellow spirit

A tribute to "The 2/13".

Mo Chaudhury

Shahbagh Moar and the Red-Green-Yellow spirit

February 10, 2013
Photo courtesy: Arif Hafiz
In case it slipped our mind, it is the month of February, and there is resolute chanting of streams of young Bangladeshis in Shahbagh. Around the corner, the thunderous voice of a by-gone time still vibrates in the ethers of the Suhrawardy Uddyan to be heard again, and the mighty wavelets from the long-ago unfurling of a Red-Green-Yellow (RGY) flag still ripple in the corridors of a historic campus to palpitate a beleaguered nation, lost for a direction, mired in contradictions and confusions. It was then a war of liberation from the oppressive intruders; it is now a jihad of emancipation from dilapidated politics and governance.
Back in 1971, the nation had a crystal clear purpose etched in blood dating back to 1952, namely, sanctity of life and liberty (in all senses of the term, linguistic, cultural, political, economic, religious, etc.) for the 75 million people and their future generations. It was to be a country with unfettered freedom of expression, exalted human rights, thriving representative democracy, symphonious communal discourse and equitable economic opportunities for all. It was to be the Shonar Bangla, the melodious abode on earth, all Bangalis will be proud to claim as their domicile and/or emotional home. It was this dream home that the RGY flag of 1971 embodied, the freedom fighters made the ultimate sacrifice for, and the untold millions saluted with “Joy Bangla” greeting the hail of bullets, the blade of bayonet, the pain of diabolic mutilation, the agony of uncouth violation and the darkness of captivity. Alas, over the next 40 plus years, the red of the RGY flag became littered with the blood of the country’s once cherished leaders, decorated war heroes and countless ordinary citizens, caught in vicious wrangles of governance power, escalating turf wars, and ever increasing crime and violence against ordinary citizens across the land, despicably including children, women and minority members. Even the shine of the miraculous economic achievements failed to claim the glow of the dream home, the boisterous land full of life and liberty blooming in all their dimensions was never to be. While the RGY flag was changed to the current Red and Green only flag in 1972 for purely pragmatic reason (the map of the country in yellow was not easy to copy truthfully), the departed glow of the life and liberty of 1972 would never return over the next 40 years.
Compared to 1971/72, the country is richer, more literate and healthier, more connected internally and to the external world, amenities abound, basic physical needs are no more an issue, and yes, the Bangladesh Tigers have become a world class cricket team. Why is the country then in a worse state than in 1971/72 in most other dimensions? Unlike the experience of our neighbor and ancestor India, and other Asian and western democratic states, why the rising physical standards in Bangladesh are not accompanied by improving human rights and freedom of expression, lesser violence (political and general) and more pervasive rule of law, unbiased, expedient and efficient delivery of justice for all, maturity in political and parliamentary discourse, non-corrupt, accountable and transparent governance for all of citizenship (not just for party followers), and marginalization of ultra-extremist (religious, socio-economic) political forces? While myriads of explanations may and do exist, the single most consequential reason is moral bankruptcy of the major political parties. It is this slippery slope that led to the total loss of trust and confidence of the mass in the words and actions of the parties, in position or in opposition.
People are gathering en masse at the Shahbagh Moar believing that the Quader Mollah verdict is unjust. Given that the war crime activities of the indicted war criminals were so widely known (like common knowledge), there are three probable reasons for the verdict to be unjust: (a) failure of the government prosecution to provide sufficiently convincing evidence, (b) pitfalls in the special amendment under which the crimes are being prosecuted, and (c) the trials (amendment and prosecution) and the verdicts are rigged/manipulated. Note that in any case, the unjust verdict reflects the failure of the ruling regime to deliver long-awaited justice for the victims of 1971. If the reasons are (a) and/or (b), the injustice might be unintended, although it still borders an incredulous scenario of government inefficiency. The reason (c), on the other hand, means that the efforts of the government are less than genuine in obtaining befitting punishment for the heinous crimes. The fact that this is happening under the watch of the historic party that led the Liberation War is rather troubling, justice denied now will perhaps never be served again, and this is what finally enraged the ordinary citizens enough to congregate at the Shahbag Moar.
To understand the culminating outrage, it is worthwhile to cite a few instances that represent years of contradictions, confusions, deceptions and betrayals by the major political parties. The historic party that led the Liberation War once formed political alliance with many of the same collaborators that it is now prosecuting. The party that was established by a legendary freedom fighter is now allied with the same very organizations whose political aspirations could not be farther from the ideals of the Liberation War. Time and again, the parties promised to make judiciary independent of the executive branch of the government, but have consistently reneged once in power. Worse, law enforcement and judiciary have been used by whichever party is in power as an extended arm of the party itself, vigorously harassing and punishing the opposition and non-political critiques including the media and the civil society. Repeatedly, the leading parties have supported the transitional caretaker Government system for conducting elections, but only to vehemently oppose the same system when in power.
With the leading parties in power alternatively, Bangladesh has become a country that proudly proclaims to be secular and to disavow extreme religious fundamentalism, but continues to retain the majority religion as the official religion in the constitution, and continues to rely on huge amounts of grant, finance (to oil its economic machine) and wage remittance from some of the most fundamentalist countries on earth. It has become a country that risks dismantling vital economic relationship with long-term development partners on the basis of a differential interpretation of what constitutes a graft crime, that cannot build a $3 billion vital infrastructure (Padma Bridge) but signs a $1 billion arms deal and a $2 billion nuclear plant deal with a country with the most disastrous nuclear incident. Bangladesh has become a country that tries to displace its only Nobel laureate from a Nobel winning institution using little used rules, that continues to allow the creation of more private banks, and yet it connives for more government control of the most acclaimed banking institution when governance failures at its large nationalized banks have permitted massive banking frauds.
Under the leadership of the leading political parties, Bangladesh has become a country where convicted murderers are pardoned and convicted criminals are escorted from jail. At the same time, the murderers of ordinary citizens like Sagar-Runi, and countless others remain untraced long after the brutal crimes, many citizens disappear without a trace, many innocent girls are raped without severe penalty for the perpetrators, and minority victims like those in Ramu keep waiting for the real culprits to be indicted. Bangladesh is a country where violent political activists roam the streets with impunity and even when there is decisive evidence, as in the case of Biswajit murder, the authorities routinely dare to deflect party association and responsibility that unpardonably slows down the wheels of justice for the hapless families of the non-descript victims. Last, but not the least, it is paradoxical of the highest order that the War Crimes Tribunal has handed out capital punishment to a defendant, Abul Kalam Azad, who is absent (it is unfathomable how this defendant escaped from Bangladesh to Pakistan, reportedly) and life sentence to a defendant, Quader Mollah, who is in custody.
In summary, the people of Bangladesh have every reason to be skeptical about anything their ruling and opposition parties say or do. In pursuit of petty political expediency and convenience, the leading political parties and their alliance partners have lost their credibility all together to speak on behalf of the people. Unlike 1971/72, the interests and aspirations of the political parties have drifted fatally apart from those of the people. The instruments of blame game, threats of unspecified conspiracies, and the mechanics of rotating governance through contradiction, confusion and deception, all of it needs to end, and could be nearing the end if the Shahbagh Protest is not hijacked by the political machineries like all the other times before. The protests cannot, however, afford to veer off or be politicized into the agenda of the political parties that wish to eliminate legitimate freedom of expression and political association for citizens who believe in an active role of religion in state governance. Not only that is unconstitutional, it also defeats the 1971 ideals of the promised land of liberty, in all senses of the term, for all Bangladeshis. The widely shared and cherished end of keeping away religion based governance from the seats of power must not be achieved by the fascist means of banning religion-based political organizations. After all, if these parties are to be banned because of the violence committed by their activists, then by the same argument, the major parties and their student organizations should have been banned a long time ago. For the Shahbagh Moar cause to remain viable as the cause of justice for the victims of 1971, it is imperative that the foundation and the greater cause remain the ideals of the Liberation War.
To conclude, the Shahbagh Rise of February, 2013, ‘The 2/13’ is easy to be interpreted as a spontaneous emotional protest against a single verdict and/or a single group (the religious right). But deep down, it is the struggle of an effectively disenfranchised people to regain its long-lost franchise and to reclaim the spirit of the RGY flag and eventually the promised land of 1971. At least, that is the earnest hope of this author and perhaps many others.
Mo Chaudhury is a Professor of Practice in Finance at McGill University, Montreal, Canada.