Trained manpower biggest challenge for RNPP: M Ali Zulqarnain

Bangladesh’s eminent nuclear scientist and former chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission M Ali Zulquarnain talks about the hurdles in realizing the country’s dream of harnessing the power of atom to meet the demand of its rapidly growing economy. The nuclear scientist talks about what steered the Bangladesh government’s decision in finding partners, collaborators and financer for the Rooppur NPP.

How did Bangladesh arrive at the fulfillment of its long-cherished dream of harnessing atomic energy?

Two units of the country’s first nuclear power plant is currently under construction. The country reached this stage after completing many required steps. The initiative was first taken back in 1961 to install a nuclear power plant near the Padma River in Pabna. However, the project didn’t succeed at that time. The project was revived in 2009, when the Awami League-led government took the charge of the government. A deal was signed then with Russia to install the nuclear power plant. During the visit of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to Russia in January 2013, Russia signed a USD 500 million loan agreement for technical research on the proposed nuclear power plant. The government also laid the foundation stone of the nuclear power plant in Rooppur, Pabna in October of the same year. On December 25, 2015, the Bangladesh Atomic Energy Commission (BAEC) signed a deal with the Russian state-run ASE.

Later, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina inaugurated the main construction of the nuclear power plant of Rooppur, Pabna at the project site. This event has finally pushed forward the country one more step to fulfill the country’s long-cherished dream.

What were the challenges that Bangladesh faced in reaching this stage?

To reach the current stage, the one task that can be considered easier than the other tasks and was the acquisition of land for the power plant project. The land was acquired earlier and we didn’t have to look for land. In a densely populated country like Bangladesh, acquiring land would have been challenging if the land was not acquired already. Apart from this there were many tough tasks. Financing the project, selecting the country to buy the reactor from, choosing the right contractor were some of the tasks that were considerably difficult.

The most difficult part of the entire project was training manpower, which Bangladesh lacked. We had to start from scratch and for a developing country like Bangladesh, it is not always easy. It is a first nuclear power plant for us and that’s why selecting a country as partner for this sensitive and ambitious project was another difficult decision to make.

How did Bangladesh overcome the difficulties?

The government has handled these issues deftly. Firstly, Bangladesh developed a belief that it is doable. The Prime Minister should be praised for it. Besides, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and Russia assisted us in solving many problems. We have got India besides us as well. Bangladesh is still on the right track. Actually, the main requirement for Bangladesh was to have the courage and the mental strength to install a nuclear power plant, which the government has successfully instilled in the countrymen. Next, what was necessary was to select the right pertner. In this case we have selected Russia and they are working on it. Another important thing was to solve the financing issue, which was again managed by Russia as a loan.

The establishment of Unit 1 and 2 of the Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant is in progress. The power plant will be able to generate as much as 2,400 MW of power from these two units combined. The core construction of the reactor of the first unit was inaugurated by the prime minister and so far the construction progress is right on schedule and it’s a great news for us. This power plant is a long cherished dream of the countrymen and we’re progressing boldly towards fulfilling the dream.

A big project like RNPP is likely to change the fortune of the countrymen. Many of the large enterprises and the companies of the country are involved in the development of this project while it has also created job opportunities for individuals and opportunities for small businesses as well. You might not recognize the area after 10 years from now on which will be caused by the current transformation.

Did Bangladesh need any help in nuclear infrastructure development?

Bangladesh is absolutely a newbie in the nuclear power sector. The country had no prior experience, no money and no manpower. So, we needed help or assistance from others from the start to end. As I already said, the power plant is a sensitive and high tech project, so we needed both the technology and money to materialize the project. We also needed the technical knowledge on it and now we are approaching ahead with adequate preparation from all these sides.

What are the things that Bangladesh currently need to develop its nuclear power infrastructure?

Manpower. We need trained and proficient manpower and we need it as soon as possible. We need to prepare our own manpower and the process should be started now so that, we can operate the plant by ourselves very soon. Operating a nuclear power plant is utterly technical; we have talented students and we need to motivate them so that we can prepare them fast.

Also, now we need manpower to monitor and understand the ongoing works of the installation of the power plant. The construction of the power plant has already started and we need to oversee and supervise the entire installation process to make sure that everything is going on as planned. The government has already considered this as a priority project. The project should progress in a more coordinated manner.  The BAEC and the Government should have to be more sincere and they should do all these things in a planned and timely manner.
Safety and security are really important for a nuclear power plant. What measures have been put in place to ensure the safety at Bangladesh’s maiden nuclear power plant?

This power plant will be have a five-stage security system and a third generation technology. Russia has signed an agreement with Bangladesh to take away the radioactive waste. As a new entrant to the nuclear power sector, Bangladesh needs to ensure proper management of the radioactive waste. We need to oversee that everything happens according to the agreement and meets all the standard set by the IAEA.

The government will have to think about some new issues such as, ensuring the students who are studying nuclear energy do not migrate outside the country. The government may offer them a special pay-structure so that they stay in the country. The government needs to focus on such issues as well. We have India and China as our neighboring countries, who have already progressed much in nuclear power. We have to reach their stage and we will do it one day for sure.