Is Indonesia going for nuclear?

Is Indonesia going for nuclear?

Endowed with the resources of coal, natural gas, and abundant geothermal energy along with other renewable natural resources, the Indonesian nuclear power plant project is likely to face uncertainty.

The Indonesian people worry mostly about the ability of the government to actually operate the plant, and more importantly, implement strict rules against natural disasters. Neighbouring countries like Singapore and Australia are also always worried about possible dangers that arise if Indonesia is really using nuclear, mainly because of the poor record of security that Indonesia has in other fields.

Nuclear energy expert Bob Effendi, a member of the National Committee on Economic and Industrial Industries (KEIN) energy working group, Founder of Indonesia Professional Nuclear Association and Member of Indonesia Chamber of Industry & Commerce, has an answer for the skeptical: mitigating most of the risk of conventional reactors by using thorium-fuelled thermal salt reactors, which are safer, cheaper and produce less waste.

Bob Effendi, a former oil worker, is trying to defy the common view that Indonesia is choosing an unlimited energy resource, claiming that coal and gas reserves will be exhausted by 2035-2040 and that renewable energy potentials such as diesel and wind are only 15 percent general claims.

Indonesia’s previous president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY), was clear regarding nuclear power. “As long as there are other alternatives, we will not use nuclear resources,” SBY said in an election speech in 2009.

His successor, Joko Widodo (Jokowi), by the end of 2015, endorsed a memorandum of understanding between the USA with PT Nuklir Indonesia (INUKI), PT Perusahaan Listrik Negara (PLN) and PT Pertamina to conduct research to see if the thorium liquid salt reactor owned by Indonesia can be utilized to meet Indonesia’s energy needs in the future.

Jokowi was at the signing ceremony of the MoU in Washington, who later said in a statement after he came home that if nuclear power is needed then we should immediately prepare it. This should no longer be delayed. Decisions must be made immediately, but the impact must also be taken into account.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has declared that Indonesia adheres to almost all 21 provisions except for two things-a firm government stance on nuclear power and the development of organizations that implement nuclear power construction. Indonesia has only a small quantity of uranium, but it has about 170,000 tonnes of thorium, concentrated in the tin-rich Bangka-Belitung province, found in monastic sands unearthed during the tin mining process.

The concept of a molten salt means that the reactor does not require thick walls to withstand pressure and will never be damaged because the overheated liquid salt will melt the frozen plug and flow with gravity into the containment vessel where the molten salt will cool itself. Nuclear reactions occur when thorium, a radioactive element similar to uranium, is dissolved in a bath of molten salt that operates under normal atmospheric pressure because unlike water does not evaporate at high temperatures; if it gets too hot, fission will automatically stop.

Indonesia is one of the most advanced nations in Southeast Asia. Founded in 1954 at the height of the Cold War, the National Nuclear Energy Agency (BATAN) used a 30 megawatt (MW) nuclear research reactor in Serpong, west of Jakarta, in the late 1980s.

Since then, BATAN has built two smaller reactors in Yogyakarta and in Bandung and set up a nuclear watchdog, but plans to build a 7,000 MW nuclear power plant in the densely populated Central Java or Central Kalimantan, in Bangka-Belitung, but has been suspended indefinitely.

The strongest opposition to the Central Java plan comes from Nahdlatul Ulama, the 35 million-strong Muslim organization of Indonesia, which issued a fatwa in 2007 stating that the project is haram, or banned under Islamic law.

The nuclear complex on the peninsula may not be at risk of a tsunami, or even a major earthquake. But critics say that the proposed nuclear plant is in the Muria pyroclastic flow path of the nearby Muria volcano and should be built on a compressed ash base, making it vulnerable to melt.

With a location in Muria unlikely to happen, BATAN shifted its focus to Bangka island off the southeast coast of Sumatra. But the new provincial government of Bangka-Belitung, taking over the local government shortly after the Fukashima disaster, disliked the nuclear idea, the same view voiced by energy policy makers.

However, time can change that view. Not affected by security concerns, East Kalimantan is now established as the most likely location for the modular Thorium nuclear reactor, the 500-MW unit will be built in South Korean or Japanese shipyards and shipped to Indonesia.

Although the province is still one of the country’s richest coal and gas sources, the East Kalimantan government has signed a memorandum of understanding with BATAN to build a factory on the coastal site 200 kilometers north of Samarinda, the provincial capital.

Nuclear supporters claim that the 1,000 MW thermal salt reactor can be built with an estimated cost of US $ 1 billion, five times less than the old generation plant, and generate power at 6-7 US cents per kilowatt hour-equal to the current price of coal power.

Only Canadian Terrestrial Energy, an energy technology company, is actively working on thermal salt reactors. But China and 15 other countries are also exploring the feasibility of a similar Generation IV project to meet long-term energy needs.

Although Jokowi seems to agree on that principle, there is a decade-old conflict and ambiguity about the nuclear issue between government agencies and anti-nuclear hardliners at the National Energy Council, led by former environment minister Sonny Keraf.

The National Development Planning Agency (Bappenas) and the Ministry of Industry have always included nuclear in their long-term planning, as specified in the Energy Act 2007. But the National Energy Council continues to drag the option as a last resort-though the 2007 law says all energy options have priority same.

In March 2017, Energy Minister Sudirman Said released a revised National Power Plan, which increased the target of renewable energy use, which includes nuclear, from 5 percent to 23 percent over the next seven years.

“Energy planning is very messy,” said Bob Effendi, noting that the government does not believe in its own agency in managing nuclear power. “We have no plans to achieve the actual plan.”

What ultimately convinces Jokowi to take advantage of nuclear is that the addition of 4,000-MW nuclear power by 2025 will help expel the economy from the fossil fuel market as now world oil prices are starting to rise again and threaten to blow up state subsidized fuel price legislation.

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Arnaud Lefevre

Arnaud Lefevre is the Chief Executive Officer of Dynatom International. Arnaud is in charge of the international development of the business portfolio.