With the construction of Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant (RNPP), Bangladesh has entered the age of nuclear energy. The RNPP being constructed with Russia’s assistance marks a landmark in ensuring energy security for the rapidly industrializing nation.
However, since RNPP is the country’s first foray into technically complex nuclear energy sector, there have been concerns whether the country has the legal and policy frameworks, technical capabilities and skilled manpower in place to successfully operate a nuclear power plant. One of the recurring concerns relates to the management of nuclear waste.
Radioactive waste or nuclear waste means radioactive material in gaseous, liquid or solid form for which no further use is foreseen by the end and which is controlled as radioactive waste. Spent fuel is also radioactive material that has been irradiated and permanently removed from a reactor core. Radioactive wastes are mainly three types, low-level (LLW), and intermediate-level (ILW) and high-level wastes (HLW). These wastes are carefully stored or disposed so as there is no chance of radioactive exposure to people and these decays with time. Disposal of low-level wastes are comparatively straight forward and typically sent to land-based disposal immediately following its packaging for a long-term management. Some parts of the world i.e. Czech Republic, Finland, France, Japan, Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, UK, etc. countries are availing near-surface disposal at ground level at depths of tens of meters.
High level wastes (HLW) need extra care during disposal. The first step of disposal of HLW is storage to reduce heat and decay radioactivity. After storing HLW for a sufficient amount of time many options have been explored for a safe and environment friendly long-term disposal and which is also publicly accepted. The most accepted proposal is deep geological disposal at the mined repository. ILW (which also contains long-term radioactive isotopes) and HLW of USA are disposed at the geological repository of Mexico. Deep geological disposal facility is built at depths between 250 and 1000m for mined repositories and 2000 to 5000m for holes.
For the management of radioactive waste, there are varieties of binding and non-binding international legal instruments, e.g. the Convention on the physical Protection on Nuclear Material (CPPNM) 1980, The convention on Nuclear safety 1994, IAEA Code of Conduct on the Safety and Security of Radioactive Sources 2003.The most relevant treaty on this subject matter is the Joint Convention on the Safety of Spent Fuel Management and on the Safety of Radioactive waste Management 1997(Joint Convention).
The Joint convention aims to achieve and maintain a high level of safety worldwide through national and international cooperation. It is applicable to the safety of radioactive waste management when these wastes are coming out from civilian applications. The convention is also concerned about trans-boundary movement of radioactive waste. The convention requires the parties to undertake such movement pursuant to the provision of this convention.
Focusing into the legal arrangement of Bangladesh, it was an Act in order to operate and manage the whole Nuclear Energy activity the Bangladesh Atomic Energy Regulatory Act 2012. It is a comprehensive law regarding safety and management of nuclear plant and radioactive waste. This law is drafted under the light of joint convention of 1997 and Convention of Physical Protection of Nuclear Material 1980 (CPPNM) and IAEA Basic Safety Standards No BSS 1 15 1996. The Act establishes regulatory authority and enumerates provisions for making license, authorization, import and export of nuclear material, compensation in case of accident, responsibilities of the authorized entity transport and waste, radiation protection etc.
In addition, the Bangladesh government approved Radioactive Waste Management Policy in October, 2019. As per the policy, the government will form a company named ‘Radioactive Waste Management Company (RWMC)’ under Companies Act 1994 to manage the disposal of radioactive waste. Bangladesh Atomic Energy Commission will be operating the company. The new policy is adherent to the international norms and established practices on nuclear waste management.
In 2017, Bangladesh and Russia signed an agreement on the management of spent fuel from RNPP. As per the agreement titled, “Agreement between Government of the People's Republic of Bangladesh and the Government of the Russian Federation on Cooperation on Concerning Returning of Spent Nuclear Fuel from Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant to the Russian Federation”, Russia will take back the RNPP’s spent fuel for temporary technological storage, further reprocessing and management in compliance with international nuclear safety standards. Dr. Parvez Ahmed, Assistant Professor and Chairman of Department of Law of Green University of Bangladesh, an expert on international law says, “Bangladesh’s legal and policy framework regarding the operation and regulation of nuclear energy, management and transportation of nuclear waste is highly appreciable. But there are many avenues which still remain unexplored. Establishing proper regulatory experts to deal with the complex issues of nuclear energy law is also another challenge that Bangladesh Atomic Energy Regulatory Authority (BAERA) might face. In depth research is required for the understanding the responsibility under international Law.”
Furthermore, for ensuring compliance with IAEA approved protocols in nuclear safety and security, including nuclear waste management as per international norms, the BAEC has created Nuclear Safeguards and Security Division (NSSD). The division is responsible for submission of safeguards reports on IAEA Safeguards Agreement and the Protocol Additional to the Safeguards Agreement.
While the Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant progresses rapidly towards operationalization, it is evident that the government has worked diligently towards putting in place nuclear safety and security safeguards in adherence to the international norms and has worked towards creating policy and administrative framework to ensure compliance with IAEA protocols in nuclear safety and security.
[Author: Aroup Raton Shaha, Researcher, Head of Department of Law, Cox’s Bazar International University]
BDST: 1755 HRS, JAN 14, 2021