Updated at 2:01 p.m. ET on 2019-05-10
Three Chinese companies have started lobbying Bangladesh for a contract to build the nation’s second nuclear power plant, officials said, as the government pushed to finish its first multibillion-dollar Russian-backed nuclear reactor within five years.
Mahbubul Hoq, chairman of Bangladesh Atomic Energy Commission, told BenarNews that officials of three Chinese companies met with him during the past few months and expressed interest in building the second nuclear plant, which is expected to cost 1.5 trillion taka (U.S. $18 billion).
“The project is at the formative stage,” Hoq said Wednesday. “We are yet to decide who would build the plant.”
“But the officials of Chinese companies came to my office and did show their interest in building the second nuclear power plant,” he said.
In November 2018, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina formally inaugurated construction of the first nuclear plant – estimated to cost more than 1 trillion taka (U.S. $13 billion) – in Rooppur in northwestern Pabna district, about 160 km (100 miles) from Dhaka.
Officials expect it to become operational by 2024, about a year from its original target date of completion. Previously, officials said the two reactors would be expected to produce a combined output of 2,400 megawatts per day.
“Hopefully, we will start producing electricity by December 2024,” Hoq said, referring to the first power plant.
He said representatives of the China National Nuclear Corp. (CNNC) handed him brochures about the state-owned company during their meeting at his office in Dhaka.
“Besides, two more representatives of the Chinese companies saw me in this regard. They assured us that they could build the nuclear plant using state-of-the-art technology,” Hoq said while declining to name the other companies.
The Chinese embassy in Dhaka did not respond to BenarNews emails seeking comments.
Hoq said Hasina, during a recent public event, pledged to build the second plant in the southern coastal districts.
“In line with her announcement, the authorities last year tasked us to find a suitable place to build the second nuclear power plant,” Hoq said.
Project director Mizanur Rahman confirmed to BenarNews that the government had approved plans to build the second plant in one of the country’s southern coastal districts.
“Currently, we have been working on site selection,” he said, adding that the officials of the Chinese companies formally expressed their intent through letters sent to the ministry of science and technology and the chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission.
Bangladesh has not decided on how it would finance the construction of the second plant. Officials previously told BenarNews that Russia was providing 90 percent of the funds for the first plant through soft loans, while the Bangladeshi government would shoulder the remaining 10 percent of the construction cost.
Getting dragged in China-India regional power play
China is one of Bangladesh’s largest trading partners, with bilateral trade reaching about U.S. $12 billion annually, with imbalance tilted heavily in Beijing’s favor. The Bangladeshi Army has been equipped with Chinese tanks, its navy uses Chinese frigates and its air force flies Chinese fighter jets.
There are 400 Chinese companies in Bangladesh, according to Chinese envoy Zhang Zuo during a speech at a Dhaka business event last month.
Bangladesh officially joined China’s massive One Belt One Road (OBOR) infrastructure initiative in 2016 when it signed agreements for implementing 27 projects, including 10 infrastructure initiatives that would be financed by Beijing, according to documents from the Bangladesh finance ministry.
“Of the total 27 projects, 10 are Belt-and-Road initiative projects,” a ministry official told BenarNews on the condition of anonymity. “But we do not mention in official papers due to political sensitivity about the BRI.”
OBOR, also known in other countries as Belt-and-Road Initiative (BRI), is Beijing’s globe-spanning project with a price tag of at least U.S. $1 trillion. It stretches across 70 countries and aims to become a 21st Century Silk Road by weaving a network of railways, ports and bridges, linking China with Africa, Europe and Southeast Asia.
But involving Beijing in the construction of nuclear plants in Bangladesh may drag Hasina’s government into the power tussle between Beijing and New Delhi over dominance in South Asia, an analyst told BenarNews.
“The influence of Chinese companies has been on the rise,” said Hossain Zillur Rahman, an economist and former commerce adviser. “Now they want to implement nuclear power project in Bangladesh.”
Updated to correct that China's bilateral trade with Bangladesh was about U.S. $12 billion annually instead of $18 billion.