BANGLADESH received the first uranium delivery last Thursday (5) for its Russia-backed nuclear plant, a project aimed at bolstering its overstretched energy grid, but complicated by sanctions on Moscow.
Prime minister Sheikh Hasina has courted Russian ties with renewed vigour amid Western criticism over her government’s rights record.
Moscow is bankrolling the $12.65- billion (£10.3bn) plant with a loan for 90 per cent of its cost, with hopes it will alleviate the chronic blackouts plaguing the south Asian nation.
“Bangladesh is our long-term friend and partner,” Russian president Vladimir Putin said during a videoconference with Hasina to mark the handover.
Putin also pledged assistance for uranium supply, maintenance and management of spent fuel.
Hasina described the milestone in her country’s nuclear ambitions as “a day of pride and joy for the people of Bangladesh” in a speech thanking Putin for “his guidance and assistance”.
Construction on the nuclear plant at Rooppur, a village on the banks of the Ganges river 175 km (110 miles) west of Dhaka, began in 2017.
The first of its twin 1,200-megawatt units is slated to begin operations next year. Both reactors should be fully online in 2025, Bangladesh technology minister Yeafesh Osman said on a tour of the facility last Wednesday (4).
Washington’s sanctions on key Russian companies since Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine last year, including state nuclear agency Rosatom, delayed construction work because Dhaka was unable to make loan repayments in US currency.
Bangladesh agreed in April to make payments of more than $300 million (£244.39m) in Chinese yuan in an effort to circumvent the sanctions.
But central bank officials have said the money has yet to be paid.
“The whole world is facing this payment problem and we’re no exception,” Osman said. “However, we are trying to solve the problem.”
The lack of payment has not outwardly affected Bangladesh’s pursuit of a closer relationship with Moscow. Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov visited Dhaka for the first time last month and used the occasion to criticise “the pressure exerted on Bangladesh by the United States and its allies”.
The Rooppur plant is the most expensive infrastructure project undertaken by Hasina, who has been in power since 2009.
It will be Bangladesh’s largest power station by generating capacity once fully operational.
Bangladesh has several more coaland gas-fired plants under construction, but is desperate to reduce its near-total reliance on fossil fuels.
Its electricity grid has shown increasing signs of stress, with a spike in energy prices precipitated by the Ukraine war, forcing the government to suspend gas and diesel imports last year. The result was months of daily power blackouts, sometimes lasting up to 13 hours.
A separate grid failure last October cut power to more than 80 per cent of the country’s 169 million people.
This past summer, Bangladesh was forced to shut its current biggest power plant because it was unable to afford the coal to fuel it during a sweltering heatwave.
Bangladesh also plans to build a second nuclear power station in the south, although a final site has not been decided.
Officials have cast the country’s atomic energy ambitions as a key plank of the fight against climate change in a low-lying country that is more vulnerable than most to extreme weather.
“It will help Bangladesh cut carbon emissions significantly by 2030,” Shawkat Akbar, head of the Rooppur plant, said.
Nuclear energy is considered to be one of the world’s largest sources of emissions-free energy.
However, there are persistent concerns about the safety risks and disposal of nuclear waste and opponents point out nuclear plants take many years to build compared to more quickly deployable renewable energy sources. (AFP)