Quake-prone Indonesia pushes ahead with nuclear despite the danger

Indonesia says it will press ahead with plans to develop nuclear power, despite the severe risks highlighted this week as Japan struggles to control a meltdown and radiation leaks at its Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

Ferhat Aziz, a spokesman for Indonesia’s Nuclear Energy Agency said nuclear power would remain a key part of the country’s energy strategy, but opposition from government officials, including Environment Minister Gusti Muhammad Hatta, reveals deep divisions on how Indonesia should best meet its energy needs.

Demand for electricity is growing at nearly seven percent per year in Indonesia, the world’s fourth-most populous nation. As a region, Southeast Asia’s energy demands will grow by more than 75 percent by 2030, according to the International Energy Agency.

As countries seek to diversify their sources of energy on the back of oil price hikes and dwindling supplies, nuclear power’s benefits have again become a point of discussion, sometimes displacing talks on cleaner technologies, such as hydro and geothermal.

Officials in Indonesia say nuclear power is key to meeting energy shortfalls that cause frequent blackouts. But like Japan, Indonesia sits amid the Pacific Ring of Fire, an area prone to earthquakes and seismic activity.

The country also struggles with corruption, weak governing institutions and a lack of coordination between regulatory agencies – issues nuclear experts fear will prevent the government from adequately monitoring such a fragile source of energy.

Current divisions are telling. The Environment Ministry issues approvals for environmental impact analysis, several of which are being conducted on potential nuclear power plant sites. On Friday Hatta told the Jakarta Post that Indonesia was not ready for nuclear power because of public opposition and a lack of human resources. But his

comments directly challenge a presidential regulation calling for two percent of Indonesia’s total energy needs be met by nuclear power by 2025.

Hatta said public concerns over safety also need to be addressed. Even Japan has struggled to determine the safety measures needed to protect citizens from varying levels of radiation, emboldening environmental groups that say nuclear power is too vulnerable to human error and natural disaster.

Japan has advanced technology, but Indonesia, which is prone to earthquakes and other weather-related disasters needs more time to develop warning systems and safety mechanisms that make nuclear power a safe option, said Hindun Mulaita, an energy campaigner with Greenpeace Indonesia, which is urging the government to invest in reliable renewable energy sources instead of nuclear.

Energy advisors say Jakarta has pursued nuclear power partly under pressure from countries eager to sign nuclear technology sharing agreements, such as Japan and Russia.

“Countries that have nuclear technology are pushing the technology from their own markets,” said Edward Gustely, the head of an infrastructure investment firm, Tusk Advisory, and an advisor to the government on low-carbon investment. “France, Japan and the US are very supportive [of nuclear development] because they love the idea of

bidding on a government-sponsored nuclear project,” he said.

For now, the crisis in Japan will likely stem nuclear power’s future as a viable source of clean energy.

“Nuclear energy supporters will need to provide conclusive evidence of effective safety systems before countries will be able to garner the political support to move forward,” said Ernest Bower, director of the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Aziz says parts of Indonesia – namely the northern part of Java, Borneo and Bangka-Belitung – are safe for nuclear reactors. Though the latter location has stirred debate since it sits near the volatile fault line in Sumatra that witnessed a major 7.6-magnitude earthquake in September 2009.

And with public criticism growing, the government appears to be wavering. “As long as we have alternative energy or mixed energy, nuclear is the last option,” Indonesia’s chief economic minister Hatta Rajasa told Reuters on Wednesday.

Indonesia has the world’s third-largest potential reserve of geothermal power, at around 27,000MW, but it has developed less than five percent of that amount. Its hydro potential is even greater, at more than 75,000MW.

The fossil-fuel dependent country has set a target of increasing renewable energy from four percent of its current energy mix to 17 percent by 2025. Gustely says the target is achievable, but infrastructure bottlenecks and the lack of price controls have kept producers from fully exploiting clean energy.

The risk is implementation, he said. Until recently producers had no guarantee that the government would buy their power, which made investing in the upfront costs of development extremely risky.

A regulation passed in mid-February may change that. The Energy Ministry decree orders state-owned utility PT Perusahaan Listrik Negara (PLN) to purchase power from geothermal producers at a ceiling price of 9.7 US cents per kilowatt-hour, paving the way for dozens of long-delayed geothermal projects.

Like many countries, including Japan and the United States, Indonesia’s energy policy is formulated in reaction to energy crises. In 2004 it announced a crash program that relied mostly on coal to add 10,000MW of power to a grid that currently reaches only 60 percent of the country.

The Indonesian government now says it has earmarked $8 billion for four nuclear plants that could provide Indonesia with 4,000MW, or nearly a quarter of it energy needs, according to the World Nuclear Association, an organization that supports the nuclear industry.

But it takes five to 10 years to build a nuclear plant, and some analysts say Indonesia’s desire to master nuclear technology is more about national pride than its potential as a source of power generation.

“In any emerging market, it’s a game of upmanship or being part of a club,” said Gustely, who notes that the government should be looking at new technologies rather than debating if it can bear the costs needed to build plants able to withstand major shocks.

“We may not need to build a $5 billion or $10 billion power site,” he said. There are other possibilities such as mini nuclear power facilities similar to a nuclear submarine or aircraft carrier that could mitigate the risks associated with big plants like Fukushima.

As of Sunday workers at Fukushima continued to battle pressure buildups that could force the release of radioactive steam, though efforts to prevent fuel rods from overheating appeared to be working. The Japanese government has ordered all people within 30 kilometers of the site to evacuate.

TerraPower, a start-up backed by Bill Gates, is developing small-scale traveling-wave reactors that would produce enough electricity to power a few thousand communities at a cost of around $200 million.

New third-generation technologies have also advanced significantly since the last of the Fukushima’s reactors was installed in 1987. China and Germany are currently developing reactors with rapid shutdown systems and passive safety measures that don’t depend on operator intervention.

Still, even those countries are rethinking their nuclear pursuits. This week China said it would halt plans for new nuclear plants to pursue safety checks, and Thailand also agreed to freeze development for four proposed sites.

There are currently no operating nuclear reactors in Southeast Asia, but Vietnam, Indonesia and Thailand all have plans to develop the energy source. Thailand’s power development plan calls for the development of up to five 1,000MW plants, according to a recent report in the Bangkok Post, but issues of safety and government transparency have put a temporary halt to that program.

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