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Dhaka-Moscow nuclear bonhomie

Dhaka-Moscow nuclear bonhomie
Diplomacy may have won the day for Russia more than financial/technological reasons, in bagging the order to build two nuclear power generating stations in Bangladesh by 2022-2023. This would enable Bangladesh to become the third country in South Asia to generate nuke power, after India and Pakistan. However, Sri Lanka could join the list soon according to present indications.

A proposal to build nuclear power plants in East Pakistan had been put forward as early as 1961 and approved in 1963, according to open source information. Therefore, neither Awami League (AL) leader Sheikh Hasina, nor Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) leader Khaleda Zia, can be rightfully accused of harbouring illusions of grandeur in going nuclear. Bangladesh has pledged to observe non-proliferation obligations and its nuke programme is closely monitored by the IAEA.

The primary reason to opt for nuclear power was the woeful shortage of electricity in what was Pakistan’s ever neglected Eastern province. An estimated 47 per cent of the people virtually lived without electricity under Pakistan. Naturally, the problem was urgently addressed by both the Al and the BNP after the province won its independence. Despite facing massive economic and resource-related problems, Bangladesh authorities have succeeded in taking power to the villages, although about 30 per cent of the people still face uncertain supplies.

During the sixties, Rooppur (pronounced Roop-poor) 160 kilometres to the North of Dhaka in Pabna district had been earmarked as a likely site for the proposed plant, which, if built, would have produced 125 Megawatts. By the time Bangladesh authorities found the time to address the problem of major power shortages and seek international help, it was 2001. Mrs Zia’s BNP was in charge. As the Prime Minister, she initiated talks with China. Beijing offered financial assistance as well as expertise and the two countries signed an agreement in 2004 to implement the project.

The BNP’s anti-India stance and close links with Pakistan was common knowledge. It was not the only advantage that China won from the BNP. Mrs Zia allowed Chinese experts the use of certain facilities in its Defence sector that enabled them to keep track of all northbound flights made from neighbouring West Bengal and adjacent areas.

This gave China a definite edge over India in terms of regional aerial defence and security. India had been effectively outflanked in its East, with China’s near total domination already established in Myanmar, then under army rule.

Talks continued between China and Bangladesh until 2008. It was understood that the plant would produce 1000 MWs. Simultaneously, Russia and South Korea also offered their help .A formal Russian proposal followed in 2009. By this time, the BNP had introduced the Caretaker system of Governance in Bangladesh, to ensure peaceful multi party democracy and avoid the unrest created by the ‘Baksal’ type of governance by the Awami League and a brief reign by President Ershad. At least that is what BNP leaders claim.

There was general surprise when in April 2009, an agreement with Russia was signed for the proposed plant to be put up at Rooppur costing $2.1 billion. Capacity was to be raised by 2017, with provisions for a second plant, both to produce 1100 MWs each. A site of 294 acres had been selected and the land-losers compensated.

The question arose what eventually tilted the scales in Russia’s favour? The decision to prefer Russian help over China’s was taken during the caretaker regime. Bangladesh watchers feel that Russia’s total support, commitment and help to the country’s struggle for independence was a strong factor. Russia and India signed the Indo-Soviet Friendship Treaty at the time, stating explicitly that Russia would stand by India in the event of any attack against the latter. The pact became necessary as Western countries including the UK and France, led by the USA, were clamouring for military intervention if necessary, to prevent what they feared would be a break- up of Pakistan.

Old timers recall how the US Seventh Fleet was ordered to move towards the Bay of Bengal by US president Richard Nixon. Russia, sending its own group of ships in pursuit of the US ships, showed that it meant business too, stalling the US action. Open source material mentions how at least 40 Russians were killed while clearing the heavily mined Chittagong and Mongla Ports of the newly independent, but badly crippled Bangladesh. Says a Kolkata-based analyst, “In terms of assisting the Bangladeshi struggle for independence, Russia’s help was no less important than that of India, because India on its own could not stand up to the military might of the West.”

In contrast, the Chinese behaved very differently. Announcing that it would support a stronger and united Pakistan, and hinting that possible troop movement could well be organised along the disputed border in the Himalayas with India in case Pakistan was attacked, its position was almost identical with that of the US-led West. Later events indicated that the speculative second part of this agenda was merely a feint.

Years later, Chinese authorities have revealed a little known fact that was never advertised at the time: despite their public stand and announcement on the Indo-Pak war, the Chinese had urged upon confidentially to Pakistan to settle its internal differences peacefully, end its crackdown against the poor, defenceless East Pakistanis and meet some of their legitimate demands.

It is another matter altogether that neither President Yahya Khan and his gang in uniform or the ambitious Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto set much store by such sane advice from Beijing, and paid a high price for their obduracy. Why Bangladesh has chosen to set up nuclear power plants when (a) it had abundant gas reserves and (b) held rich reserves of good quality coal, is another question that needs answering.

According to latest estimates of the Bangladesh’s Energy Ministry, the country would need to generate at least 19,000 MWs by 2021, which would increase to 39,000 MWs by 2030. Its gas reserves would not last that long. Finding alternatives were essential. With global warming now established as a fact and affecting Bangladesh directly, the use of coal for power production was also being frowned upon internationally, although there were short-term concessions for developing countries.

‘There was really no option but to go nuclear for power production in Bangladesh’ says South Asia Specialist Subir Bhaumik. ‘With all its problems, Dhaka has won much international acclaim for its proud record in poverty alleviation, improved education system, women empowerment, health and general economic development. It has reasonably succeeded especially under the Awami League to curb Islamic extremism and in meeting its millennium development goals (MDGs) better than most other countries in the region. It plans to become a middle income country during the next decade, firming up and expanding its industrial sector. Additional power would be the key to its modernisation.’

Under the existing system, the used nuclear fuel would be returned to Russia. Bangladesh would need to spend on average over $150 million annually to shore up its power sector. Russian companies would supply most of the equipment. The first unit would go on stream from 2022, as work on the site and the laying of foundations for different structures gets under way. The second would become operative only a year later, in 2023. Both units should produce 1200 MWs each. Bangladesh Atomic Research Commission would be the owners of the plants.

Initially, it was agreed that Bangladeshis working in the project would be trained in Russia, but now some would be trained in India as well. Mrs Hasina is also keen to ensure Indian help and participation in the proposed expansion of the Bangladesh energy development sector. Through the joint venture route, India would help Bangladesh set up the long awaited 1320 MW power plant at Bagerhat, Khulna. Its active participation and help in setting up a similar plant near Chittagong is also under consideration. This is apart from the 1000 MW or so that Bangladesh daily takes from Tripura and West Bengal, in India.

With India gaining a sizable foothold in the development of the power generation scenario of Bangladesh, Delhi can certainly breathe easier than before in terms of expanding its regional goodwill and influence. Dhaka is also in high level talks with Japan for the construction of a third nuclear power plant in the medium term, according to current reports.
Ashis Biswas

Ashis Biswas

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