Promised, but not prioritised: Indonesia still unclear on vision for nuclear

Image: Naufal Shidqi

By Ardi Wirdana

Indonesia’s nuclear agency claims that Indonesia is the country with best nuclear know-how in the region. It has stressed that Indonesia has the knowledge, technology and management skills to successfully operate a nuclear reactor and has urged the cautious government to allow the construction of the country’s first nuclear power plant.

The National Nuclear Energy Agency (Batan) has for some time been waiting for the green light from the government to fund the construction of a nuclear plant. Meanwhile, it has been overtaken by its neighbours Vietnam and Thailand.

Vietnam is the country in the region most active when it comes to nuclear power plan projects. The country has signed a bilateral cooperation agreement – including financial funding – with Russia to build its first nuclear power plant, which is scheduled to be completed and operational by 2020.

According to world-nuclear.org, Vietnam currently has four nuclear reactors planned, six proposed, and one research reactor in operation.

Batan deputy chairman Dr Tawasnda Taryo regretted the fact that Indonesia is behind Vietnam in nuclear plant development despite being better equipped in almost all regards to be the leaders of nuclear development in the region.

“Some ASEAN countries are building nuclear power plants like the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam, but they are actually not ready. Take Vietnam for example, they learned technology from us, they copied how we process uranium as a basic material for nuclear,” he said recently, as quoted by Suara Merdeka.

Indonesia currently only has three small nuclear reactors or mini power plants located in Bandung in West Java, Yogyakarta, and Serpong. The government is also eyeing building two new reactors, in Bangka-Belitung and in Muria, Central Java.

These small reactors can produce 10-15 megavolts (MV) of electricity, but can only be used only for research and education purposes.

Overcoming nuclear fear

Having a nuclear power plant in operation would tremendously boost energy supply in a country which has seen rapid growth in its demand for electricity.

According to data from the ministry of energy and mineral resources, the electrification ratio in Indonesia in 2014 reached 84.35%, growing approximately 4% every year since 2011. Meanwhile, the electricity demand growth in the country between 2015 and 2024 is projected to average about 8.7% per year.

The current government has set a target of adding 35,000 megawatts (MW) of power capacity nationwide by 2019 to add to the current available production capacity of only around 50,000 MW.

However, despite the obvious advantages of having a nuclear power plant in operation, the government seems to struggle to shake off the lingering potential dangers posed by nuclear energy.

Like the rest of the world, Indonesia has developed concerns about the safety of nuclear technology following the Fukushima nuclear plant meltdown in Japan in March 2011.

Though the negative perception of nuclear energy has slightly shifted in recent years, it is still not enough. A survey in November 2014 showed that 72% of Indonesians were in favour of nuclear energy, but that acceptance of people near potential reactor sites was only about 50%.

Batan has on many occasions assured the government and the people of Indonesia that nuclear power plants would not have negative impacts on the environment or residents living nearby. The agency has argued that the fact that there has been no serious problems caused by the three reactors proves that it is able to ensure the safety of a nuclear power plant.

However, even if Batan manages to convince the people of the safety of nuclear plants, there is still the issue of political hurdle to overcome.

“In Indonesia, the construction of a nuclear power plant is still hindered by a lack of political willingness by the government that is half-hearted [in its support], as well as the legislators,” Dr Taryo said.

The construction of a power plant could take seven to ten years, which means that even if the current government agrees to the nuclear plans, there is no guarantee that the next government will take the same position on nuclear energy.

For the time being the government of President Joko Widodo has said that it is not ruling out nuclear as an alternative source of energy but said that it has classed nuclear energy as the “last option” in its energy production policy.

No stopping nuclear development

Despite the lack of government support, Batan continues to develop its facilities and expertise. Apart from undergoing continues construction of its mini power plants, Batan has also recently started the construction of a gamma irradiator at the Science and Technology Development Centre (Puspiptek) near Jakarta.

The irradiator facility, a project worth around Rp 96 billion (US$7.36 million), will be used to preserve and sterilise food, drug and cosmetics using nuclear radiation.

The construction of the facility, which will be completed in 2018, is another show of Indonesian expertise in the development of nuclear technology, says Research and Technology Minister Muhammad Nasir.

“It is important that in the future we can create our own sources [of energy]. Indonesia has a lot engineers,” the minister said, as quoted by bisnis.com.