Water shortages pose risks to Bangladesh’s first nuclear plant

Bangladesh hopes the 2,000 MW Rooppur nuclear power plant on the Padma River will satisfy the country’s growing electricity demand and cut its heavy dependence on waning reserves of natural gas.

But there are growing concerns the dwindling flow of water in Padma River – a distributary of the Ganga which flows from India – will post huge risks to the operation of the nuclear plant which will require huge amounts of water for cooling.

The Bangladesh government signed an agreement with Russia in 2011 to build a nuclear power plant on the banks of Padma River in Pabna district.

Under the agreement between the Bangladesh Atomic Energy Commission and Russian state-owned Atomstroyexport the nuclear power project will be completed by 2021.

The project’s feasibility evaluation and environmental impact assessment have been carried out and are now under review, according to Dr Shawkat Akbar, project director of the power plant.

Thirsty nuclear

Nuclear plants around the world are usually built near large lakes, river or the ocean since lack of water could cause a major nuclear disaster.

The plant will use about 455,000 gallons per minute of water, said mechanical engineer KM Mahbubur Rahman, who has independently calculated the water use of the Rooppur power project.

Experts warn that if the emergency cooling system of the Rooppur plant is suspended because of lack of water or power, its reactors will meltdown, triggering a catastrophe like Chernobyl and Fukushima.

Nuclear power plants are about 33 per cent efficient – only one-third of power generated by the reactor reaches the grid as electricity, the rest is wasted as heat released into the atmosphere or surrounding water. The Rooppur power plant will not be an exception.

Cold water will be drawn from the Padma River to cool the power plant’s equipment and warm water will be put back into the river, potentially disrupting ecosystems.

India controls river flow

The Padma is the main distributary of the Ganga, a transboundary river that flows from India. India built the Farakka Barrage across the Ganga in the 1970s to divert water to the Hooghly River and flush out sediment clogging up Kolkata port.

But this has contributed to the drastic reduction of water flow in Padma in Bangladesh, destroyed agricultural land and displaced entire villages. Now, every dry season the river faces water shortages.

According to data from the Bangladesh Water Development Board, the average minimum flow of the river has been 22,300 cusec (cubic feet per second) over the last 12 years, which would allow withdrawal of around 345 cusec per day of water the plant requires.

But a drastic drop in river levels– as happened in May 2011 when water levels fell to only 3,100 cusec – could pose a massive threat to the safe operation of the nuclear plant.

The project developer claims there is sufficient water. “The plant will not face any challenge for lack of water. Also, it is quite possible to keep the plant operational through withdrawal of underground water,” Dr Akbar claimed.

However, independent engineer Rahman calculated that the nuclear power plant will require far more than the operators acknowledge.

But since the project’s environmental impact assessment and feasibility study are not publically available it is hard to verify claims.

There are other challenges. Nuclear power plants require very clean water for its condenser and cooling systems to keep the plant operational. But the Padma River carries a huge amount of silt and sand during the monsoon and so the muddy water has to be purified before it is used.

Mahbub said the solution will be to build large ponds to allow the suspended solids to settle and provide clean water for the cooling system. Water purification plants will also be installed nearby to supply clean water to the plant, officials say, which will consume a lot of power.

Apart from water from the Padma, the Rooppur power project will have to store enough water in reservoir tanks at the site in case of emergencies.

Earthquake fears

Earthquakes could post an even bigger threat. Bangladesh is located near three active earthquake fault lines – including the same fault line that caused the powerfulearthquakes that shook Nepal last month, killing over 8,000 people.

Dr Jasim Uddin, a former safety director at the International Atomic Energy Authority (IAEA), said that although the engineering of nuclear projects has improved, they cannot withstand powerful earthquakes like the one that hit Japan.

What’s more, the plant is situated in a densely populated area, so the risks are greater. “If the Rooppur power plant collapses due to any accident or disaster, about 3.5 million people living in 30-kilometre radius of the plant will need to be shifted, which will be a quite impossible task for the country,” he added.

Project officials say a seismic monitoring station has already been set up under the project site and they are monitoring seismic activity.

“Rooppur nuclear power plant is not only a national issue but an international issue. Both the laws of the local and vendor countries and the IAEA guidelines are being followed to ensure the safety and security of the project,” Dr Akbar said.

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