The government is all set to get a nuclear power plant built, using Uranium 236 as the reactor fuel at Rooppur in Pabna. Of utmost concern is that Russia, which is due to supply the nuclear power plant, experienced the biggest number of civilian fatalities, injuries and related radiation sickness following the Chernobyl disaster in 1986.
Officially, many hundreds were killed, while the injuries and radiation sickness infected many more thousands over generations as radiation cannot be “wished” away. The affected area is still out-of-bound and will remain so for many years.
A similar disaster here could very well contaminate a quarter of Bangladesh’s land area. That we are considering such a power source under loan financing at a higher interest rate than other international loans, makes matters worse.
We are moving towards a potentially deadly future misadventure. Crudely stating realities, we are buying a “nuclear time bomb” that has the potential to make densely populated Bangladesh a hell on earth in the decades to come, while its people are possibly still paying for purchasing this nuclear plant.
In an operational U236 nuclear reactor, many different types and quantities of both dangerous and harmless radioisotopes are produced from progressive nuclear mutation on the fuel elements. When the concentration of such radioisotopes increases significantly, the fuel rod is considered as “spent,” and is replaced with a fresh fuel rod.
These harmful radioisotopes further decay into other products, and from these waste products come dangerous and fatal levels of radiation that, if not properly contained, can kill a person within seconds.
The potency of these various isotopes, both dangerous and harmless, such as strontium-90 and cesium-137, is determined by its “half-life” that is to say the time taken for the radioactivity to decrease to half the original level.
Some radioactive substances will be safe only after 1,024 years after it has been safely stored. However, some waste materials remain dangerous for hundreds and even for thousands of years. The most common hazardous substances in nuclear plants need the design to provide complete isolation for over three hundred years.
For this proposed plant therefore, our biggest concern will be nuclear waste disposal. According to existing Russian law, Russia cannot bring nuclear waste from other countries for disposal or storage. Senior Russian officials at the last discussion meetings on the plant with our authorities, on June 10, 2013, stated this important fact.
They also denied the existence of any written agreement on nuclear waste management with Bangladesh. They said that only a “verbal guarantee” was given. Legally their law covers only import of waste for reprocessing, if that is even possible. Interestingly, Russia lacks the technical capability to reprocess waste generated by VVER-1000 reactors, which are to be built and supplied to Rooppur.
So how on earth will Bangladesh be able to tackle this crucial radioactive waste disposal issue? This very important and critically vital question must be sorted out immediately before we even think of building the nuclear power plant; one that will produce sizeable quantities of lethal radioactive waste products which must be safely disposed.
This is not to say that a nuclear power technology, which is safer and can deal with waste issues, is not feasible. Studies by Fordham University, New York, suggest that a preferred option to the Uranium 236 Roorpur reactor would be safer U238 fueled (91% U238 and 9% U235) nuclear power plants, which has the scope to provide safe control of 500MW capacity nuclear power plants.
The concept for such “Pebble Bed Nuclear Reactors” has been around for decades, but save for projects in South Africa and China, they have not been used widely. In principle there is no problem of disposal for the spent fuel, which would be like hard unbreakable tennis balls and can be safely buried when needed. They are cheaper and would require less land.
However, such an option is not on offer to Bangladesh at the moment.
So the question has to be asked urgently. Are we buying long-term radioactive poisoning and other deadly radiation related diseases? If this can’t be answered satisfactorily, the U236 nuclear plant at Rooppur should not go ahead.
The writer is a retired engineer. This article was first published in Dhaka Tribune, a leading newspaper in Bangladesh.
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