Indonesia's nuclear power plans | Connect Asia

Indonesia's nuclear power plans

Indonesia's nuclear power plans

Updated 24 August 2012, 14:44 AEST

Pressure is mounting on Indonesia to push ahead with planning for the country's first nuclear power plant.

Neighbouring Vietnam and Malaysia already have nuclear planning firmly in place, and nuclear power advocates within government are proving to be increasingly vociferous in Jakarta.

But for now at least a long standing scheme to build a nuclear power plant in Central Java is off President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's agenda, and has been ever since the Fukushima disaster in Japan last year.

So where does Indonesia go next ?

Presenter: Richard Ewart

Speaker: Professor Richard Tanter, senior research associate, Nautilus Institute for Security and Sustainability

TANTER: Well there certainly are companies that want to be involved in it, there are certainly also foreign companies where nuclear power vendors, like Mitsubishi in Japan, Kepco in Korea, also Russian companies. Unfortunately though, there's a new factor, a wild card in the election campaign for president which is now beginning to get underway in Indonesia. One of the leading contenders, Prabowo Subianto, who has a very famous or rather infamous record of human rights violations while a Kopassus military leader. He has come out and said Indonesia must get nuclear power, so that's a big new change. He's not in government. Within government is a push from different parts of the government, but it's not a firm government decision yet, but they've been looking at it for 30 years now and so the pressure is mounting up and up. Particularly since in central Java there was as you said a long running plan and that's now apparently, although it's not confirmed off the agenda because of the huge public opposition there and because of the very real seismic risks of putting a nuclear power plant 25 kilometres from a volcano.

EWART: Does the fact that they've been looking at it for so long suggest that there isn't a particular need there?

TANTER: Well indeed, that's a very good question. I mean the two big questions you ask are what is the right answer for Indonesia's energy needs and what are the risks? In terms of what do they need, actually cleaning up the incredibly inefficient power grid would be an extremely good way to go. Secondly, Indonesia's sitting on almost as much gas as, for example, Australia does, that's a lot cheaper than nuclear power. It's a lot better than coal and oil in terms of greenhouse gases. So they've got a lot of other options to consider as well as renewables like geothermal, which is very big in Indonesia on the whole seismic front. It's a very good place for geothermals.

EWART: Would you expect in light of what you said previously that the President will have to think again now about whether it will be on his agenda in the run up to the elections?

TANTER: I don't think he will back nuclear power. However, what was really interesting, is just a few weeks after President Yudhuyono made that statement that we're not going ahead with nuclear power. When he was in Japan expressing his condolences to the people of Fukishima, the Japanese embassy a couple of months later published a comment from the head of the Indonesian Nuclear Power Authority, BATAN, Dr. Hudi Hastow, who said well, that's true. He did say that, but you do know he's only in power for another couple of years. So in other words, there's a long term thinking going on here and there has been a lot of planning for the alternative site on the island of Bangka in the Province of Bangka-Belitung, off the island of Sumatra, that's been pressing ahead. There's been site surveys, certainly the government has been pushing advocacy of that in on the island of Bangka and in the Province of Bangka-Belitung, trying to persuade the population to get on board on this approach. So it's a mixed picture, but there are a lot of pressures still going in that direction.

EWART: Now for those on the outside looking in, we hear a lot of course about Iran and its nuclear ambitions and Iran insists that it only wants nuclear power to generate nuclear energy. But looking at Indonesia, you might think Indonesia nuclear power not a great combination, bearing in mind the recent history of the country, the terrorist activities and the like?

TANTER: Well certainly that comes to mind particularly when you add the name Prabowo into it, that's something that people think of immediately. My own feeling is that the pressures mainly are coming from as you would say before vested interests, people who want to build, people who think this is the answer to the energy fix. But there's no doubt that countries like the United States, certainly Australia, certainly the IEA would be watching very, very carefully. My own feeling is that that's the lower end of the risk at the moment. I think the risk from Indonesia financially in terms of seismic risks are much higher, particularly in a country where there is something of a culture of impunity for not taking accountability, not taking responsibility for disasters like the Sidoarjo mud flow, they're higher up at the moment, but certainly in the back of your mind, particularly with the Prabowo associated with it, you have to think about proliferation risk as being higher than it was before.

EWART: Do you get any sense of what the average Indonesian thinks about this, is it an issue that they would have an opinion on or do they not really care all that much?

TANTER: Most people don't know, but if you go to central Java, if you go to say the Province of Jepara, where this planning has been taking place for a long time, there is a great groundswell of opinion there. People actually know a great deal about it. Certainly, the most powerful Islamic Organisation in Indonesia, Nahdlatul Ulama, actually went through a formal process in Islamic Jurisprudence of assessing the pros and cons of the central Java proposal and came out and said this is Haram, this is not acceptable, mainly on a balance of economic and ecological environmental grounds and wasn't the right answer on energy. Go further away, most people don't know about it. But it's been circulating in the Jakarta newspapers, media aired it for awhile. I think people, especially after Fukishima which got a lot of attention in Indonesia. People are much more aware of it than they were in the past.

EWART: Well bearing in mind the circumstances that led to Fukishima, circumstances which Indonesians know only to well, You would think that that would be enough for people to say well, we don't want to take the risk?

TANTER: Well particularly given the seismic earthquake issues, but also the regulator issues. We now know that Japan, which appeared from the outside to have the best nuclear safety regulation in the world, that turned out to be a myth as the Japanese Prime Minister called it. In Indonesia, where, for example, senior officials from the nuclear regulatory authority, the organisation supposed to control and regulate nuclear activity in Indonesia's research reactors, for example, two of them went to jail for bribery. The implication being you can buy your way into the nuclear regulatory agency, then you want a lot more assurance about what would be regulating any nuclear power developments in the future.

EWART: So 30 years they've been talking about it up to now, it sounds from what you're saying that there's going to be a lot more talking yet before anything is likely to happen if it ever does?

TANTER: Certainly the hard heads in the nuclear industry say look, show us the contracts. On the otherhand, the processes by which this could be decided in Indonesia, it could lurch very quickly in that direction. It's not a sensible answer in terms of either energy needs or environmental costs, certainly not financially, but there are major pressures there and again, that name Prabowo Subianto coming into the equation really does change things I think quite dramatically.

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