Quake-Prone Indonesia Pursues Nuclear Power

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ROMEO GACAD / AFP / Getty Images

An activist carries a portraits of victims from the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster during an anti-nuclear protest in Jakarta in April 2010

Rising alarm at the spread of radiation throughout Japan's water supply has not deterred one of its major trading partners from going ahead with its nuclear ambitions. Indonesia's National Nuclear Energy Agency, also known as Batan, announced on Monday that it had narrowed down the list of bidders for a feasibility study it plans to conduct for two nuclear reactors. The winner of the tender, either PT Surveyor Indonesia or PT Wiratman Associates, will be decided by the end of April, says Batan spokesman Ferhat Aziz. "It should take around three years for the study to be completed," he added. "After that, if the plan gets approved, another tender process to build it will take place."

More than two weeks into Japan's nuclear crisis, Indonesia's decision to press ahead with its nuclear power plans has rattled many here. A 2006 regulation stipulates that 5% of the country's electricity should come from nuclear and other renewable sources but energy experts and politicians say there are far safer alternatives than nuclear. "We should think twice in light of the catastrophe in Japan. If it can happen there imagine what would happen here where standards are lower and corruption is still rampant," says Bara Hasibuan, the National Mandate Party's head of foreign relations. "On top of it all this country is very prone to earthquakes."

Indeed, more than 170,000 Indonesians lost their lives in the 2004 tsunami caused by an earthquake smaller than the 9.0 quake that jolted the northeast of Japan. On average, the country experiences 90 natural disasters per year and, in 2010, recorded 110 disasters, according to Sujana Royat, deputy to the Coordinating Minister for People's Welfare.

There are questions, too, about whether the country can bear the cost of expensive reactors. Developing an Indonesian nuclear program is expected to cost up to $4 billion. "Indonesia has enough energy sources that could not only take care of domestic consumption but could eventually be exported as well," said Al Hilal Hamdi, the former head of the government's task force on biofuel development, who is now developing a number of mini-hydro plants around the country. He added that it made little sense to build the plants in Bangka-Belitung, off the coast of Sumatra, when 80% of the country's electricity is consumed on Java, the country's most-populous island. "Indonesia is not like Japan which has very little in the way of renewable energy sources," he said. "Indonesia has billions of tons of coals still left in the ground along with tremendous geothermal and hydro potential." Batan's spokesman says the location off Sumatra was chosen for safety reasons and that underwater cables would eventually transmit the electricity, depending on the study's conclusions.

The prospect of dealing with radioactive waste is another cause for concern in a country that is already struggling to cope with mountains of garbage, much of which clogs major city streets and waterways. "Indonesia is considering the use of fissile materials in its power plants and dealing with hazardous waste is going to be a problem," adds Hilal. "Everybody is in favor of more electricity but when it comes to building a nuclear power plant, nobody wants one in their backyard."

Batan officials say the amount of waste would be "minimal" and contained safely in the reactor. They also see the disaster in Japan as an anomaly and one unlikely to be repeated here. "We believe the area would be safe as our data shows that the proposed area is not prone to natural disasters like the one in Japan," says Surip Widodo, the agency's head of reactor safety and analysis. "But the decision to build is still not final so if there are protests and it turns out that the majority are against the idea, the government should listen to the people."

But Sujana Royat, who was involved in budgetary planning for reconstruction after the 2004 tsunami, cautions that Indonesia needs to think carefully before going nuclear. "There is no standard operating procedure for a nuclear disaster and no clear policy," he warns. "After what happened in Japan I think we need to re-evaluate the idea because we have to be ready and at the moment we are not."