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 INTERVIEW 'Go nuclear to win energy race' ................

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PostSubject: INTERVIEW 'Go nuclear to win energy race' ................   Thu Mar 19, 2009 12:02 pm



Bangladesh must go nuclear to meet its energy needs as it offers an attractive proposition for the power-starved country, says a top nuclear physicist.

Dr C S Karim, a former chairman of Bangladesh Atomic Energy Commission, argues that benefits from a hugely low cost of operation far outweigh the initial high capital expenses.

"A 600-megawatt N-power plant could cost us US$ 1.2 billion to build, but only 40-45 million a year to buy fuel," Dr Karim told us in an exclusive interview.

"A similar capacity coal-fired plant— at only US$ 600 million—will be a lot cheaper," he says, "but annual fuel cost will be US$ 120 million at current prices."

An oil-fired plant will require a whopping US$ 450 million annually to pay for its fuel, he estimates, based on today's prices. Gas supply crunch is already causing less-than-capacity output from the country's on-stream power plants.

The cost of building a traditional power plant does not vary much. The prices of fuel do, indeed. And they fluctuate too.

The extra capital cost of a nuclear plant is more than compensated by the annual saving on price of fuel. A nuclear plant usually gets a "lifetime assurance" of fuel supply, says Dr Karim, and its price changes do not have much impact on generation cost.

But how long does it take to put a nuclear plant in place?

"It's a bit tricky … heavy equipment transportation is a major issue here, for example," he explains. "If you miss one monsoon, you have to wait one year." Delays also hike the cost.

If everything goes right, Dr Karim says, "from the first pour of concrete to completion, it's roughly 60 months". Add, he says, another one year for decision-making to contract negotiations.

Dr Karim's assertions came on a day the prime minister told a team of top businessmen that the government was in talks with potential partners for a nuclear power plant.

Why 600 megawatts

Very simple, says Dr Karim. "One single source should not supply to the national grid more than a tenth of the peak demand," he argues. "That creates a host of technical problems."

"Anything between 300 and 600 is okay, but probably the optimum option is 600."

The 600-mw option has certain economic advantages, he says, and there could be two similar-capacity plants in the same location.

In fact, Bangladesh needs roughly 6000 megawatts now, whatever the officials say.

Safety

Safety concerns have always dominated discussions on the nuclear option, but Dr Karim dismisses the fears. "This is exactly the reason why a nuclear plant is so expensive."

The world's first nuclear-fuelled power plant was built in 1954, and there have since been only two major accidents, says Dr Karim, whose doctoral research dealt with nuclear safety.

And, he says, so much effort and investment have gone into safety research in 55 years of history, especially since the two accidents, that it is "no longer an insurmountable problem at all".

On Mar 28, 1979, a US plant, in Three Mile Island, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, experienced a major accident. "Consequences could be contained, and no death was reported," Dr Karim recalls.

And, in 1986, the world woke up to the real dangers of nuclear accidents when the Chernobyl plant in Ukrain, part of the then Soviet Union, dominated the news agenda for months. The Apr 26 accident killed about 40, some from radiation and others while fighting the deadly fire.

"These two accidents are Maximum Credible Accident type, and (now) form the basis for design of a nuclear power plant," he says.

As far as safety is concerned, says Dr Karim, any nuclear power plant is now a global headache. The World Association of Nuclear Operators (WANO) and others keep an eye on every move in the industry, and regulates it.

"The new concept for NPPs is a passive safety system, meaning their built-in capabilities mitigate consequences of accidents without outside interventions, including those of operators."

Bangladesh's N-record

Dr Karim, an adviser to the 2007-8 caretaker government, points out Bangladesh is better poised than most countries to win support from the global watchdog International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the industry.

"We have an impeccable non-proliferation history. We have signed all the required non-proliferation protocols."

He also refers to existing cooperation agreements with countries such as the US, China and ready-to-be-renewed deals with France. Some other countries are eager to help, he says.

In France, 78 percent of electricity comes from nuclear plants. Lithuania, a small Baltic state, tops the list—with over 80 per cent of its national needs being met from nuclear source.

There are about 440 nuclear power plants worldwide. Had they all been oil-fuelled, the world would have required "an extra Saudi Arabian production", according to an oft-quoted estimate.

"Economic growth is linked to energy growth," says the man who helmed the agriculture ministry for two difficult years when Bangladesh faced two successive floods, a super cyclone and an unprecedented global panic over food shortages. "The latter must grow at double the rate of the economy."

Other options

Dr Karim, who co-authored the national energy policy in the 1990s, is not convinced that coal is a sound option.

For instance, even for a 300-mw plant, an average daily need of 3,000 tonnes of coal will require 10 barges or 60 rail cargo carriages for transportation. Added to such hazards is the high environmental cost.

Hydro-electricity has not been seen as a good alternative in Bangladesh. "There are environmental consequences, and downstream river flows are affected, with an impact on lives and livelihoods."

Dr. Karim is in favour of a generation mix. "Nuclear, fossil and renewable energy technologies should all be exploited so that Bangladesh's long-term demands are met on a sustainable basis, reliably and at affordable costs.

"All these have their own advantages and disadvantages and capability to respond to particular types of end uses."
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