Overcoming US sanctions against Russia following the Ukraine war, Moscow, on October 5, transferred uranium fuel for Bangladesh’s first nuclear power plant at Rooppur. This brought the South Asian country one step closer to becoming the 33rd nuclear-power-producing country in the world.
Washington levied sanctions on key Russian firms, including the state nuclear agency Rosatom, following Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022. This threw a spanner in Bangladesh’s nuclear power ambition as Dhaka was unable to make loan repayments in US dollars, which in turn delayed the construction work.
In April 2023, Bangladesh acquiesced to make payments of more than US $300 million in Chinese currency to circumvent the sanctions. The money is yet to be paid; however, this has not spoilt the Russia-Bangladesh relations.
On October 5, Russian President Vladimir Putin joined Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina virtually to transfer the fuel.
“Bangladesh is our long-term friend and partner,” President Putin said during a video conference with Prime Minister Hasina to mark the handover. Putin also pledged assistance for uranium supply, maintenance, and management of spent fuel.
Hasina hailed the milestone as “a day of pride and joy for the people of Bangladesh” in a speech thanking Putin for “his guidance and assistance.” Once the nuclear fuel is loaded into the power plant’s reactors, power can be produced for one year. After that, the fuel will have to be reloaded into the reactor.
Bangladesh’s Quest For Nuclear Power
The first batch of uranium arrived in Bangladesh on September 28. It was transported to the nuclear power plant site by road under heavy security the next day.
The second shipment of uranium, the nuclear fuel of the first unit of Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant, from Russia arrived in Dhaka on a special plane on Thursday (5 October) at 11:40 am at Dhaka Shahjalal International Airport.
Moscow is financing the US $12.65-billion plant by providing a loan for 90 percent of its cost. The construction of the nuclear plant at Rooppur, a village on the banks of the Ganges River 175 kilometers (110 miles) west of the capital Dhaka, began in 2017.
The first of its twin 1,200-megawatt units is slated to begin operations next year, and both reactors should be fully online in 2025, Bangladesh technology minister Yeafesh Osman told reporters in Bangladesh. The nuclear reactor is powered by a VVER-1200 nuclear reactor, belonging to the latest 3+ generation.
Rosatom Director General Aleksey Likhachev handed over the fuel at the function presided over by Science and Technology Minister Architect Yeafesh Osman. Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Rafael Mariano Grossi, also joined the ceremony through video conference.
Nuclear Powered Growth For Bangladesh
The eighth largest country in the world in terms of population and one of the most densely populated countries, with nearly 19,500 people living in one square mile, Bangladesh has pinned its hope on the atom for peace to feed its energy-starved population and industry.
As per World Nuclear Association statistics, Bangladesh’s demand for energy is increasing at around 9 percent per year, and a sizable population equal to that of Australia remains without electricity either from the grid or local solar installations.
With its first nuclear power plant at Rooppur, Bangladesh will become the third South Asian country – after India and Pakistan – to harness nuclear power.
“This power plant will play a leading role in ensuring energy security in the economic development of Bangladesh. Bangladesh is one of the most vulnerable countries to climate change. Nuclear energy will also help in reducing carbon emissions in Bangladesh,” Rafiqul Bashar, a senior journalist from Bangladesh, told the EurAsian Times.
The Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant has emerged as a rare example of collaboration in the field of nuclear energy as it is the result of a trilateral agreement between Russia-Bangladesh-India. Russia is helping India build its largest nuclear power plant at Kudankulam, Tamil Nadu.
The cooperation agreement with Russia has cleared the route for sourcing material for the Rooppur nuclear reactor from the Indian Industry. The cooperation is powered by the December 2014 “Strategic Vision for Strengthening Cooperation in Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy” between India and Russia, in which the two sides agreed “to explore opportunities for sourcing materials, equipment and services from Indian industry for the construction of the Russian- designed nuclear power plants in third countries.”
Circumventing US Sanctions
The fuel transfer, called the “Graduation Ceremony,” comes at a time when the US is doubling down on the Sheikh Hasina government to hold “free and fair” elections.
In September, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced a policy that reserves the right to deny visas to individuals in Bangladesh who will hinder free and fair elections in the country and undermine the democratic process. Bangladesh’s national elections are scheduled for January 2024.
In December 2021, Washington sanctioned Bangladesh’s elite security force, the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), over alleged extrajudicial killings and other human rights violations. The Biden administration denied Bangladesh an invitation to its 2021 and 2023 global democracy summits. In May 2023, the United States announced it would refuse visas to any Bangladeshi implicated in “undermining the democratic election process in Bangladesh.”
The US has made Bangladesh the focal point of its promoting democracy agenda, and Dhaka hasn’t responded kindly to Washington’s implied criticism. The chasm between the US leadership and Hasina’s ruling Awami League party is increasing, and the US would prefer that the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party win in January. In a parliamentary speech in April, Hasina indirectly accused Washington of trying to oust her government.
Amidst all this, Dhaka has decided to partially pay back the Russian loan for the Rooppur nuclear power plant in Chinese currency. In his first visit to Bangladesh early last month, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov blamed US sanctions on Moscow for disrupting the payment and supply chain for the Rooppur plant project.
He vowed, however, that the flagship project would continue “in a consistent manner” as Russia seeks alternative payment options.
Bangladesh leadership also reiterates that Moscow was a notable ally of Bangladesh in its 1971 war of independence against Pakistan, which the US opposed. The South Asian country, sitting at an important geo-strategic location in the Indo-Pacific, is now also dallying openly with China.
- Ritu Sharma has been a journalist for over a decade, writing on defense, foreign affairs, and nuclear technology.
- She can be reached at ritu.sharma (at) mail.com