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Politics

Bangladesh accepts first uranium for Russian-backed nuclear power plant

Nature

Bangladesh on Thursday received the first delivery of uranium for its Russian-backed nuclear power plant, a project aimed at strengthening its overburdened energy network but complicated by sanctions against Moscow.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has courted ties with Russia with renewed vigor after Western criticism of her government’s rights record.

Moscow is financing the $12.65 billion plant with a loan worth 90% of its cost, hoping it will ease the chronic power outages plaguing the South Asian country.

“Today is a day of pride and joy for the people of Bangladesh,” Hasina said in a video conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin to mark the handover of power.

Hasina thanked Putin for “his advice and help in implementing this project.”

Construction of the nuclear power plant in Rooppur, a village located on the banks of the Ganges 175 kilometers west of the capital Dhaka, began in 2017.

The first of its twin 1,200-megawatt units is expected to come online next year and both reactors are expected to be fully operational in 2025, Bangladesh Technology Minister Yeafesh Osman told reporters during a Wednesday visit to the installation.

Sanctions imposed by Washington on major Russian companies since last year’s invasion of Ukraine, including the country’s nuclear agency Rosatom, have delayed construction work because Dhaka was unable to repay its loans in American currency.

In April, Bangladesh agreed to make payments of more than $300 million in Chinese yuan to circumvent sanctions.

But central bank officials said the money had not yet been released.

“The whole world is facing this payment problem and we are no exception,” Osman said. “However, we are trying to resolve the problem.”

Hasina’s government is hungry for new friends ahead of a general election scheduled for late January, with Western governments and rights groups warning that her government is silencing critics and stamping out political dissent.

Washington imposed sanctions against Bangladesh’s elite Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) police force in 2021, accused of its involvement in the extrajudicial killing of opposition activists.

The lack of payment has not outwardly affected Bangladesh’s desire to strengthen relations with Moscow.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov visited Dhaka for the first time last month and used the opportunity to criticize “the pressure exerted on Bangladesh by the United States and its allies.”

The Rooppur power plant is the costliest infrastructure project undertaken by Hasina, in power since 2009, and will be the country’s largest power plant in terms of generation capacity once fully operational.

Bangladesh has several more coal and gas plants under construction, but is desperate to reduce its near-total dependence on fossil fuels.

Its power grid has shown increasing signs of strain, with a surge in energy prices precipitated by the war in Ukraine forcing the government to suspend imports of gas and diesel last year.

The result was months of daily power outages lasting up to 13 hours. Another grid outage last October cut power to more than 80 percent of the country’s 169 million residents.

Last summer, Bangladesh was forced to close its current largest power plant because it could not afford coal to power it during a sweltering heatwave.

Bangladesh is also planning to build a second nuclear power plant in the south of the country, although the final site has not yet been decided.

Officials have touted Bangladesh’s atomic energy ambitions as a key part of fighting climate change in a low-lying country more vulnerable than most to extreme weather.

“This will help Bangladesh significantly reduce its carbon emissions by 2030,” Shawkat Akbar, director of the Roppur plant, told AFP.

Nuclear power is one of the largest sources of emissions-free energy in the world.

But there are lingering concerns about safety risks and nuclear waste disposal, and opponents point out that building nuclear plants takes many years compared to more rapidly deployable renewable energy sources.

Nature
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