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    Southeast Asia
     May 15, 2007
Indonesia looks to a nuclear future
By Tom McCawley

JAKARTA - Indonesia is moving ahead with controversial plans to build its first nuclear power plant, which if completed on schedule in 2017 would put the country in Southeast Asia's nuclear-energy vanguard.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono last year announced that the government planned to start building the 4,000-megawatt plant by 2010. Construction tenders for the US$1.6 billion facility may be held as early as this year, and the government says it has a

total of $8 billion earmarked for four nuclear plants aimed at generating 6 gigawatts of power by 2025.

Energy Minister Purnomo Yusgiantoro said in a speech last month that Indonesia would have to turn to nuclear power as fossil fuels dwindled, adding that in the future, "nuclear power will play a more important role in our energy mix". According to Energy Ministry projections, total demand in the country is projected to reach 450.3 terawatt-hours by 2026 (a terawatt is a trillion watts, or 1,000 gigawatts).

Under its current energy blueprint, the government is aiming to contribute some 17% of power demand by 2017 from renewable sources, including nuclear and geothermal energy. "The role of nuclear plants is to stabilize and secure the supply of electricity," Yusgiantoro said, "and protect the environment from harmful pollutants as a result of the massive use of fossil fuels."

Indonesia's nuclear watchdog, Badan Tenaga Nuklir Nasional (BATAN), is adamant that constructing the first nuclear plant should go ahead on the foothills of Mount Muria, a dormant volcano on the north coast of Java. BATAN says the plant will be equipped eventually to generate some 2% of national power needs, expected to reach 175 terawatt-hours per year by 2017.

Government officials have consistently brushed away complaints about the region's unstable tectonics and the project's high costs, contending that the country can ill-afford to forgo atomic energy. Environmentalists warn that on top of frequent earthquakes and occasional tsunamis, Indonesia has more environmentally sound sources of alternative power to chose from, including geothermals and natural gas.

Other states in Southeast Asia may not be far behind Indonesia, with the entire region facing a forecast growth in power demand of up to 16% per annum over the next 20 years. Malaysia foresees two nuclear plants by 2020, and Vietnam has plans for its first nuclear power plant by 2017. Thailand began feasibility studies for nuclear power in March, with the apparent aim of having a plant operational by 2020.

Across Asia, energy-hungry countries, including Japan and China, are ramping up their quests for energy security, prompted by record-high oil prices in 2005-06 and rising competition for natural resources. Oil prices of above $60 a barrel were for Indonesia a sharp reminder of the dangers of over-reliance on fossil-fuel imports for national energy needs.

A string of power shortages across Indonesia have already stoked fears that over the longer term the country's ample supplies of coal and natural gas won't be adequate to ensure a steady supply of power for its more than 220 million people. Since 2005, Indonesia's most populous island of Java has been flirting with a power-generation crisis, with the state utility PLN dangerously running into reserve supplies on several occasions.

Safety debate
Dramatic disasters such as the 1986 Chernobyl explosion in the old Soviet Union have shrouded nuclear power with controversy. Plumes of radioactive clouds drifted over Ukraine, Belarus and Russia, resulting in the relocation of more than 336,000 people and radioactive poisoning to this day. The 1979 Three Mile Island nuclear accident near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania (in which no one died), inspired a movement against nuclear power in the United States.

Indonesia's most vocal environmental group, WALHI (Wahana Lingkungan Hidup Indonesia, or the Indonesian Forum for Environment), says even a small leak or nuclear accident at the proposed site of Java's Mount Muria would potentially affect tens of millions of people. (Java, home to 65% of Indonesia's population, is one of the most densely populated islands in the world.)

WALHI's main complaint is that Indonesia sits on the seismically unstable "Pacific Ring of Fire". Meanwhile, geologists note that 83% of Indonesia's total land area is prone to disasters, including earthquakes, landslides and floods. WALHI also says the proposed nuclear plant's operations could result in radioactive waste being pumped into nearby waterways.

Environmental scientists at the Australian National University in Canberra have devised models forecasting possible regional fallout across Singapore, Malaysia and northern Australia in the event of a nuclear meltdown in Indonesia, though they assert they weren't trying to assess the probability of such a disaster.

Sukarman Aminjoyo, head of BATAN, bristles at academic suggestions that nuclear power wouldn't be safe in Indonesia. He points to several other countries with nuclear power programs on the Pacific Ring of Fire, including Japan, China and the US. One of its research facilities, he notes, withstood a 5.9-scale earthquake last year in Yogyakarta, Central Java - where it even served as a temporary shelter for refugees from the quake.

Both Parliament and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) have already approved Indonesia's first designs for a nuclear power plant. "We will assist Indonesia so that all safety considerations will be properly addressed," said IAEA chief and Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei on a visit to Jakarta in December.

The IAEA has so far granted Indonesia a total of $1.34 million in technical assistance to develop eight programs in 2007 and 2008 connected to the safe harnessing of nuclear power. ElBaradei said huge progress in nuclear safety had been made over the past 20 years. "Chernobyl," he said during his Indonesia visit, "was the result of the less-than-optimal reactor design, combined with mismanagement."

However, cost factors have been the main driver behind Indonesia's nuclear-power plans, which were first shelved in 1997 amid the Asian financial crisis. A nuclear power plant can produce 1 kilowatt-hour of power for about 4.3 US cents, less than fuel-oil-generated power at 4.5 cents.

BATAN says several safety systems will be in place to keep Indonesia's plants safe. The International Nuclear Safety Advisory Group claims that pressurized water reactors (PWRs) are currently used by 443 of the nuclear power plants worldwide and have multiple security systems designed to prevent disasters. The group claims that a PWR has a leakage risk of only one in 10,000; in contrast, Chernobyl had a one-in-1,000 possibility of leakage.

For Indonesia's government, however, the safety debate over nuclear power is over. The 550-seat, multi-party Parliament passed the nuclear law last year, including reviewing the current energy blueprint. In the end, however, red tape and unforeseen setup costs could still delay the region's first atomic-energy plant. Potential investors in Indonesia's other large-scale infrastructure projects have complained that only three out of 91 projects tendered two years ago have actually gone ahead.

But in the long term, the pressures on Indonesia, and more broadly Southeast Asia, to find new secure energy sources to power industrialization will only get stronger. "It is inevitable," said one official at Indonesia's nuclear-power agency. "China, India and Russia all have nuclear power plants. Why not Indonesia?"

Tom McCawley is a Jakarta-based journalist.

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