In the hope of bringing electricity to some of Indonesia’s 90 million people who are currently without it, the country is proceeding with plans to build four nuclear reactors, despite growing opposition sparked by the ongoing nuclear crisis in Japan.
Following a record-setting earthquake and ensuing tsunami that left more than 21,526 people recorded as dead or missing as of 21 March, attempts to cool damaged overheating reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant continue.
For years, Indonesia – the world’s fourth most populous country – has grappled with a power crisis, with even cities like the capital Jakarta frequently hit by blackouts, and is turning to nuclear energy as part of the solution.
“Our law states that nuclear is part of Indonesia’s energy mix,” Ferhat Aziz, a spokesman for the government’s National Atomic Energy Agency (BATAN), told IRIN, referring to a national development plan adopted in 2007.
The government estimates Indonesia will need 450,000 megawatts of electricity by 2050; current capacity is 25,000 megawatts.
“We have to look to the future. Our people need to have access to electricity,” he said. “Other than that, nuclear energy is clean because it doesn’t produce greenhouse gasses or acid rain, even though the initial cost is high.”
In the dark
Despite a national economy that boasted 6.1 percent growth in 2010, only 65 percent of the country has mains electricity, lagging behind most other countries in the region, according to the World Bank.
Two-thirds of Indonesians without electricity live in rural areas, mostly outside Java and Bali islands, the Bank said.
A recently published study using data from 2002-2005, found that for every 1 percent increase in the proportion of households with electricity in Indonesia’s Java Province, the area’s Human Development Index increased by 0.2 percent.
The authors concluded: “Electricity infrastructure has a greater influence on human development than other types of infrastructure, such as clean water, roads or the number of classrooms per student.”
The National Atomic Energy Agency has proposed Bangka island off the coast of Sumatra island as a possible site for the four nuclear plants it is planning, because the area is not located in an earthquake-prone zone, Aziz said.
The government plans to build them by 2025. Feasibility studies are expected to be completed in two or three years, he added.
An earlier proposal to build a nuclear power plant on the Muria Peninsula on Java island was shelved after protests from environmentalists and the local population.
Japan’s nuclear disaster should serve as a warning to Indonesia to abandon its atomic ambitions, said NGOs, scientists and public figures in a joint 16 March statement.
“Even a nation like Japan, known for its strict safety standards, discipline, and disaster preparedness, is struggling to contain the nuclear disaster. How can the public be sure that what will be implemented in Indonesia will be better?”
Nuclear critics say Indonesia should focus, instead, on developing alternative energy sources, such as geothermal and wind. Indonesia estimates it has about 28,000 megawatts of geothermal capacity. It is also the world’s second largest coal exporter.
A wind power plant is being developed in West Java Province and is expected to generate 10 megawatts of electricity annually, according to the state electricity company.
Aziz dismissed wind power in favour of nuclear energy, saying there was not enough wind velocity in the tropical country.
But Iwan Kurniawan, an independent nuclear physicist who graduated from Japan’s University of Tsukuba, said Indonesia lacked the technical capacity to operate a nuclear power plant.
“We only buy the technology. We buy the whole thing. Don’t expect us to master the technology because we [were not the ones to] research and develop it,” he said.
Like Japan, Indonesia is located within the Pacific Ring of Fire where tectonic plates meet, causing frequent earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.
In 2009, 469 earthquakes with a magnitude of five or higher hit Indonesia – more than any other nation, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
It was the country worst hit in the region by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, which killed about 170,000 people (in Aceh Province alone).
Against this backdrop of potential disaster, Aziz said Indonesia’s future nuclear power plants will adopt third or fourth generation technology that will be “a lot safer than the damaged reactors in Japan, which are 40 years old.”
Aziz added that Indonesia had more than 40 years of experience operating three research reactors that are subject to regular inspections by the UN International Atomic Energy Agency.
“It will be better in terms of design because it adopts a passive safety system,” Aziz said. “In the event of an accident, operators will do nothing because the system will take care of itself.”
Passive nuclear safety is a safety feature in which a nuclear reactor does not require a human operator or electronic feedback and shuts down automatically following an emergency.
But nuclear physicist Kurniawan said a passive system was not inherently safe and has yet to be tested by a major earthquake in Indonesia.