Bangladesh’s first nuclear power plant (NPP) in Rooppur on the east side of the river Padma in the Pabna district is nearing completion. The atomic energy project which includes two units, with a capacity of 1.2GW each will make Bangladesh, only the third South Asian country after India and Pakistan, to incorporate nuclear power in their energy mix.
But even as the country is gearing to make a foray into nuclear energy, there still persists a general sense of apprehension, more commonly among the general public, with regards to its safety and potential health risks. Mostly, these trepidation stem from the all-pervasive myths and misinformation that cloud objective understanding of a complex and nuanced subject.
Today, nuclear energy provides about 10% of the world's electricity and is the second largest source of low-carbon power, the first being hydropower. Despite the impressive on-paper performance, the public opinion about nuclear power is that of apprehension with many believing that it poses health risks, is hazardous to the environment and is financially not very viable.
Firstly, it is not easy nor advisable to brush nuclear energy fears under the carpet. The need is to address them with sound data and reasoning to ensure that people appreciate the asset nuclear energy actually is.
One of the persistent myths related to nuclear power is that it is dangerous due to risk of catastrophic failures leading to radiation leaks. The VVER-1200 reactors, the kind used in Rooppur Nuclear Project, are some of the most advanced nuclear reactors in the world. These VVER-1200 are 3+ generation reactors with improved technical and economic characteristics ensure absolute operational safety and fully comply with the IAEA post-Fukushima safety standards. The main feature of the VVER-1200 project is a unique combination of active and passive safety systems that provide maximum resilience to external and internal impacts, including tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes and air crashes.
Another persistent myth about nuclear power is that it is bad for the environment. However, according to studies, nuclear energy, results in 99.8% fewer deaths than brown coal; 99.7% fewer than coal; 99.6% fewer than oil; and 97.5% fewer than gas. Whereas, a study reveals that air pollution caused by the burning of fossil fuels - a major source of airborne fine particulate matter – is a key contributor to the global burden of mortality and disease.
The study reveals that burning of fossil fuels- such as coal and oil- was responsible for 8.7m deaths globally in 2018. To put that into perspective, a staggering one in five of all people died that year due to air pollution resulting from the combustion of fossil fuels.
Nuclear energy is not only comparatively safe to use when compared to traditional fossil fuels, it is also a long-term source of green energy, one that will enable Bangladesh to achieve a low-carbon footprint. Because of the complications associated with nuclear waste disposal, nuclear is largely perceived to be an environmentally hazardous energy source when infact it is a zero-emission clean source of energy and hence is completely environmentally sustainable. According to a report by IAEA in 2019, over the past 50 years, the use of nuclear power has reduced CO2 emissions by over 60 gigatonnes which is nearly two years’ worth of global energy-related emissions.
Not only this, another environmental benefit of nuclear is that it produces more electricity on less land than any other clean-air source. For comparison, a typical 1,000-megawatt nuclear facility in the United States needs a little more than 1 square mile to operate. Whereas, according to Nuclear Energy Institute, a wind farms require 360 times more land area to produce the same amount of electricity and solar photovoltaic plants require 75 times more space. Hence, for a country as densely populated as Bangladesh, where finding open land spaces often becomes a challenge, nuclear energy can be sought out as the viable option.
There is also a prevailing misconception that setting up a nuclear energy plant is an expensive proposition and hence not very practical. But even as nuclear power plants are indeed expensive to build, they are relatively cheap to run. In places where fossil fuels are not readily available, nuclear energy proves competitive with fossil fuels as a means of electricity generation. Moreover, if the social, health and environmental costs of fossil fuels are taken into account, the competitiveness of nuclear power is improved multifold.
On the issue of misinformation about nuclear power, Dr. Pretam Kumar Das, Associate Professor, Department of Physics, Pabna University of Science and Technology says, “I have encountered different types of concerns from people of various walks of life. While speaking to group of school teachers at Iswardi, Pabna, I was asked about the Padma River being contaminated by radiated water from the nuclear plant. I explained to them that the technology used at RNPP will release no contaminated water into the river. As such, the idea of Padma River being contaminated with radiation has zero possibility.”
Talking about other misplaced concerns about nuclear power among general populace, Dr. Pretam Kumar Das states “the RNPP has five layers to protect the environment from harmful radiation and there is no danger to the population living in the area. In terms of being environment friendly, in coal based power plants three millions tons of coal per year generates seven million tons of CO2 and 0.3 million ton of solid waste whereas in a nuclear power plant twenty seven tons Uranium produces only one ton radio-active waste. This radio-active waste can be reprocessed and use again as nuclear fuel. Most importantly, NPP emits zero greenhouse gas which helps Bangladesh protect its environment.”
Myths and misinformation surrounding nuclear power need to be addressed, and effectively countered with facts so that nuclear power can be accepted not just by a niche crowd of experts and academicians but by the public, who, after all, will be the eventual beneficiaries of a clean, safe and low-costing source of energy.
Writer: Aroup Raton Shaha, Researcher, Head, Department of Law, Cox’s Bazar International University
BDST: 1510 HRS, APR 13, 2021