Rooppur Nuclear Energy Project in Bangladesh and the IAEA: An Example of Mutual Collaboration

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Bangladesh stands at the cusp of a new era of energy sufficiency and power. With its 7.1% economic growth (2022) and rapid growth of population, the country has embarked on an ambitious journey to harness nuclear energy for the first time. The maiden Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant, currently under construction, symbolizes Bangladesh’s commitment to meeting its sustainable development goals and transforming into a developed nation by 2041.

When fully completed, the two reactors at Rooppur will be competent to generate a combined 2400 MW of electricity. According to the Ministry of Science and Technology, the initial phase of the facility is expected to commence operations in July 2024, followed by the second phase in July 2025. Upon the start of operations for both units, the Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant will come with the capacity to produce 2,400 MW of electricity.

According to experts, this carbon-free, reliable baseload power will help Bangladesh diversify its energy mix away from an over-dependence on natural gas, which currently provides nearly 80% of its electricity. With the commissioning of the plant in 2023, nuclear power is expected to meet 9% of Bangladesh’s electricity needs, while contributing 2% of total GDP. The project also boosts electricity access and over the next year alone, 2.7 million Bangladeshi households are set to be connected to the grid. It is also expected that the production of energy through the plant will provide round-the-clock power that may spur industrial growth, create jobs, improve healthcare and education services, and raise living standards across Bangladesh.

The Rooppur plant, however, is the centerpiece of the government’s vision to expand, decarbonize and diversify its power sector. In addition, together, nuclear and renewables − as the lowest carbon electricity sources − will allow Bangladesh to meet its rising power needs in a sustainable manner while combating climate change.

The IAEA in the Rooppur Nuclear Energy Project

Bangladesh’s breakthrough journey into nuclear power has benefited immensely from International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) assistance at every step. IAEA guidance and direction have been influential in developing the necessary legal, regulatory, managerial, technological, and human resource infrastructure for its safe and secure introduction.

The IAEA has advised Bangladesh on meeting all prerequisites through its Milestones Approach, which provides a phased plan tailored specifically for newcomer countries. Bangladesh has also hosted multiple IAEA review missions under the Integrated Nuclear Infrastructure Review (INIR) program to take stock of its progress. These periodic expert evaluations have helped the government keep its nuclear power goals on track by highlighting areas needing priority attention. Rafael Mariano Grossi, the Director General of the IAEA said, “Bangladesh serves as an exemplary case for emerging nations in the field of nuclear power expansion, making progress in its program with the guidance of the IAEA.”

In retrospect, the IAEA’s involvement and assistance with Bangladesh’s nuclear power aspirations began in 2009. An IAEA-organized workshop helped initiate high-level discussions on the infrastructure required for a nuclear power project. This was followed by Bangladesh signing up for the IAEA Milestones Approach in 2015, decisively setting the stage for Rooppur. ‘s development. Over the years, the IAEA along with Russia has trained a 1000-strong contingent of Bangladeshi engineers and technicians in Russia, its technology partner for Rooppur. It has also offered specialized courses in nuclear law, safety, waste management, and emergency planning − building indigenous capacity and self-reliance.

The IAEA has also been continuing to monitor construction milestones and safety measures at Rooppur. Its last review mission in 2018 noted satisfactory progress and also certified Bangladesh’s preparations to receive its first fuel consignment from Russia, turning its nuclear aspirations into reality. Looking ahead, IAEA supervision has ensured the plant meets the highest international benchmarks for design safety and operational preparedness before employing uranium fuel imported from Russia in 2023. It is also expected to continue its substantial technical direction until it is ready to be launched in late 2024 or early 2025. Thereafter, the IAEA will regularly inspect its functioning as Bangladesh makes its much-anticipated transition to a nuclear power producer.

An Example of Mutual Collaboration

Bangladesh’s collaboration with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in building its first nuclear power plant demonstrates a notable example of cooperation between a developing country and an international organization. The IAEA has been providing extensive guidance, reviews, and recommendations at each stage to ensure Bangladesh develops the required infrastructure and capability to operate nuclear power safely and securely.

Through its technical cooperation program and Peaceful Uses Initiative, the IAEA has supported Bangladesh with Integrated Nuclear Infrastructure Review (INIR) and  Integrated Regulatory Review Service (IRRS) missions to assess progress along with the IAEA’s Milestones approach for new nuclear power programs. Zia Shah, a Senior Nuclear Safety Officer of the IAEA said, “The IRRS mission in Bangladesh had a significant purpose of evaluating and enhancing the regulatory infrastructure necessary to ensure the safety of the country’s nuclear power program.” These undertakings have proven invaluable for Bangladesh by identifying areas needing additional focus like human resource development and establishing entities like the Radioactive Waste Management Company. By requesting an Integrated Regulatory Review Service mission in 2022, Bangladesh continues to utilize IAEA expertise in developing its legal, governmental, and regulatory framework.

However, along with the Technical Safety Review of the design documentation in 2018, more reviews by IAEA experts are planned as construction finishes, including a final INIR phase 3 mission before operations start. IAEA leadership even joined Bangladesh’s Prime Minister and Russian President in a ceremony marking the arrival of the first nuclear fuel shipment in October this year. For its part, Bangladesh has worked closely with the IAEA by implementing most recommendations, participating in scientific visits and training courses, developing policies for waste management and fuel reprocessing, and keeping the IAEA informed on progress. This level of collaboration and transparency has enabled the IAEA to effectively assist Bangladesh’s program.

With around 25% of the construction completed during a site visit in early 2020, the IAEA Deputy Director General expressed a satisfactory remark by observing progress and advanced construction. He highlighted how nuclear power can support Bangladesh’s impressive development goals by significantly expanding electricity access to drive economic growth for its 160 million people. However, by October 2023, around 90% of the construction of the first unit and 70% of the second unit’s construction have been completed.

Therefore, by providing guidance and other substantial assistance while Bangladesh constructs its first nuclear power plant, the IAEA fulfills its mission to enable new nuclear energy programs as a clean energy source supporting sustainable development. For Bangladesh, working within the IAEA framework lends further credibility to its transparency and rigor in startup and oversight. This collaboration can serve as a catalyst for Bangladesh to increase its engagement with international organizations to meet its developmental goals

Cooperation with Russia

The story of Bangladesh’s maiden nuclear plant is as much about international cooperation as it is about national development. It exemplifies how developing countries can realize their high-tech ambitions through partnerships guided by mutual respect and responsibility. The project, however, commenced and fast-tracked its journey in 2009 when Russia offered to build a nuclear power reactor for the energy-starved nation. Negotiations culminated in a bilateral agreement two years later, setting Bangladesh firmly on its nuclear power path.

As project collaborators, both countries have played robust roles and utilized their distinct strengths while accommodating other limitations. Russia has provided 90% financing for Rooppur’s USD 12.65 billion price tag through affordable credit. In this regard, Russia’s state nuclear corporation, Rosatom, has been handling all technical aspects of design, construction, and fuel supply. However, the spirit of partnership is evident as Bangladesh prepares to go critical. Russia has trained a 1,000-strong contingent of Bangladeshi nuclear professionals over the past decade. It has also committed to timely project completion despite grappling with a post-Ukraine economic crisis.

In keeping with this cooperation, there has been a discussion that Bangladesh and Russia have reached an understanding for the use of the Chinese currency, yuan, with a view to settling payments of Rooppur nuclear construction. Both countries are also expanding nuclear ties into areas such as nuclear medicine, food irradiation, and training. The Rooppur project sets a shining example of South-South collaboration at a time when developing nations are seeking energy security. Its successful execution will motivate more countries to consider nuclear power to meet rising electricity demand in a sustainable manner.

Bangladesh’s Success and the Way Forward

In pursuing nuclear power, Bangladesh has achieved in just over a decade what takes most developing countries nearly twice as long. Its 2400 MW Ruppoor reactors are on track for commissioning in 2024 − only eight years after Russia was contracted to build it. Bangladesh has systematically ticked off every nuclear infrastructure milestone through partnerships guided by the IAEA. As a result, Bangladesh now stands prepared to graduate into the elite club of 33 countries that produce nuclear electricity.

The Rooppur plant crowns Bangladesh’s coming of age as a technically savvy and cutting-edged, fast-growing Asian economy. It also burnishes the country’s credentials as an attractive destination for high-technology investments inspiring greater engagement from global nuclear vendors beyond Russia. Although Bangladesh is yet to experience with the first two Russian VVER units, it expects that the outcome will be very remarkable with a long-term run. The IAEA, in this regard, is expected to assist Bangladesh in scaling up its nuclear power fleet and optimizing plant productivity over its 60-year lifespan.

However, realizing the full developmental potential of nuclear power in Bangladesh will require broader policy reform. Streamlining fuel import logistics, balancing non-power applications with electricity generation, and leveraging nuclear technology for national progress could be areas of focus going forward. Training programs that focus on nuclear project management and self-reliance will also better position the country to drive its nuclear future.

In A Nutshell

The Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant stands as a symbol of Bangladesh’s determination to meet the energy needs of its rising economy in a sustainable manner. By harnessing nuclear technology, the country has taken a giant developmental leap that promises greater electricity access along with industrial growth and higher living standards.

In pursuing its nuclear power goals, Bangladesh has ably balanced collaboration and self-reliance under IAEA supervision. The Rooppur project sets a template for developing countries to attain advanced technical capabilities through cooperation anchored in mutual interest and responsibility. As Bangladesh graduates into the world’s nuclear club, it must now prepare to fuel its ambitious development agenda over the coming decades. Its first nuclear plant only marks the first step of this exhilarating new journey.

– Kawsar Uddin Mahmud is a Research Intern at the KRF Center for Bangladesh and Global Affairs (CBGA).

Published in The Geopolitics [Link]