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Bangladesh’s Quest for Nuclear Energy

Dr Anand Kumar is Associate Fellow at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses. Click here for detailed profile
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  • October 17, 2007

    Bangladesh faces a shortage of electric power and is planning to meet the shortfall by setting up nuclear power plants. Significantly, this development has occurred at a time when the country is being ruled by a caretaker government with the backing of the military. The military in Bangladesh is trying to carve out a permanent place for itself in governance by creating a National Security Council.

    Bangladesh requires about 5,000 MW of power and the shortfall in supply sometime soars to 2,000 MW. Most of the country’s power plants are old and frequently break down due to technical trouble. Last year, violence over power cuts in a northern Bangladesh town resulted in the death of at least 20 people. Clashes took place between police and farmers who had demanded more electricity for irrigation. The massive electricity shortages have also hit the country’s booming textile industry.

    Till October 2006, Bangladesh was ruled by a four-party alliance headed by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). For its leaders who were neck deep in corruption, the priority was to somehow manage the situation till the next elections were held. However, with the coming of the caretaker government headed by Fakharuddin Ahmed, improved governance has come on to the national agenda. The caretaker government has tried to improve the power situation by first entering into negotiations with an Indian company, Bharat Heavy Electricals Limited, for the construction of a power plant.

    Recently, Dhaka also succeeded in getting the green signal from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) for the construction of a nuclear power plant in Pabna. The country plans to set up a 600-1000 MW nuclear power plant by 2015, which is estimated to cost between US $1 and 1.5 billion. Reports indicate that the IAEA has given the green signal to Dhaka for going ahead with this plan, and that an IAEA team is likely to visit the plant site soon.

    In April 2005, Bangladesh had signed an agreement on nuclear cooperation with China, under which it is to receive Chinese assistance in exploring for nuclear materials and construction of a nuclear power plant. China has been focusing on developing closer ties with Bangladesh in recent years in order to bring that country within its fold. Moreover, given that the balance of Sino-Bangladesh bilateral trade is skewed in favour of China, the Chinese seem to be hoping to offset Bangladeshi concerns in this regard by collaborating in the nuclear field. Reports also point out that Bangladesh has approached Russia as well for co-operation in the field of nuclear power.

    Bangladesh is a signatory to the NPT and has every right to use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. However, its eagerness to go in for this option while other sources of energy remain underutilised is indeed surprising. There are several other options available to improve the power situation in the country. Bangladesh has huge reserves of gas and coal, but strangely it does not seem to want to use these. An assessment summary on the country's gas reserves prepared by the United States Geological Survey (USGS) in 2001 stated that Bangladesh has potential new gas reserves of about 33.5 trillion cubic feet (TCF). In 2004, the National Energy Policy of Bangladesh estimated the country's total coal deposits to be at 2527 million tonnes. This includes estimates of deposits at four fields – Barapukuria, Khalaspir, Phulbari and Jamalganj. A significant part of these reserves is recoverable. What is more, the oil division of South Korea’s Daewoo International along with its Indian and Myanmarese partners has discovered about 7.7 trillion cubic feet (TCF) of exploitable gas in three blocks in the Bay of Bengal. All these resources can be used profitably for power generation.

    Interestingly, over the years Bangladesh’s effort has been to show that it possesses a smaller gas reserve that is not even sufficient for its own purposes. It is also not encouraging foreign companies wanting to invest in exploring and identifying new gas fields. Further, Dhaka did not agree to the laying of a gas pipeline between Myanmar and India, which would have not only given it an opportunity to earn revenue through transit fees but also utilise some of the gas transported through its territory.

    In comparison with these other sources, nuclear power is not cost-effective as far as Bangladesh is concerned. Several international companies including from India have given proposals to establish gas or coal-fired power plants. Bangladesh could have also approached China to provide clean coal technology instead of nuclear power technology for power production. Bangladesh would do well to focus on exploiting cost-effective resources that are domestically available in plenty rather than being profligate and spending scarce resources on expensive technologies for power generation.