An Asian Chernobyl?

PUBLISHED : Friday, 19 October, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 19 October, 2007, 12:00am

In the nightmare scenario painted by Australian writer Kerry B. Collison, Indonesia is stricken by a meltdown at one of its nuclear reactors. The deadly radioactive fallout spreads quickly, devastating the archipelago and other parts of the region.

A former Indonesia-based diplomat and businessman, Collison wrote Jakarta as a work of fiction, but events in the novel closely resemble the projections of a 1994 study carried out by the Australian National University. The university's research indicated that a release of radioactive gas could spread within days from Java to other parts of Southeast Asia and Australia, leaving a trail of environmental destruction and widespread loss of human life.

That study is today being revised as Indonesia comes close to deciding whether it will restart its stalled nuclear programme.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono issued a decree in January last year calling for a nuclear-powered electricity industry by 2016. A decision on its feasibility is being debated in Jakarta and a decision is due by the end of the year. If approved, the programme would involve building a 1,000MW reactor on northern Java's Muria peninsula, at the foot of a 1,600-metre volcano. The peninsula is a picturesque landscape of paddy fields and rubber plantations. The site is the same as the one chosen for the country's original nuclear project, supported by former dictator Suharto but shelved after 1997's Asian financial crisis.

A government blueprint also shows proposed plans for three more nuclear plants to generate 6 gigawatts of power by 2025. A total of US$8 billion has reportedly been earmarked for the scheme.

Indonesian environmental group Forum for Environment (Walhi) said a nuclear reactor would be nothing less than a time bomb, with a small accident at the site potentially affecting tens of millions of people and dwarfing the 1986 Chernobyl disaster in the former Soviet Union.

At the time of that catastrophe, the town of Chernobyl had about 14,000 inhabitants. The radioactive clouds that drifted over Ukraine, Belarus and Russia resulted in more than 336,000 people being relocated and radioactive poisoning in the area persists to this day.

The villages of Jepara and Kadus, the two communities closest to Muria, have populations of 67,000 and 95,000 respectively, and their residents have staged public rallies to oppose the nuclear programme. Semarang, the nearest large city, is home to around one million people.

With 65 per cent of Indonesia's 240 million people, Java is one of the most densely populated regions in the world. The island is also Indonesia's rice bowl and a radioactive leak could ruin its rich agricultural sector.

Walhi's main concern is that Indonesia is situated on the seismically unstable Pacific 'ring of fire'. Muria is only 200km from Yogyakarta, the biggest city in central Java, which was severely damaged by a 6.2-magnitude earthquake that killed more than 5,800 people in the city and nearby areas in May last year.

But fears of a natural disaster causing a radiation leak are only one reason why many regard the prospect of a nuclear Indonesia with trepidation. Transparency International rates Indonesia as one of the most corrupt countries in the world and experts warn that the country's endemic graft could lead to poor choices of building materials for any nuclear project. Shoddy construction and corner-cutting on maintenance work could compromise safety standards.

Concerns have also been raised over whether Indonesia has the technical expertise to look after a nuclear plant and handle radioactive waste.

Walhi warns that a nuclear plant may pump radioactive waste into nearby waterways. Others have pointed to the risk of terrorists getting hold of radioactive materials. Indonesia is considered a target as well as a recruiting ground for several terrorist groups.

An article in biweekly newsletter The Van Zorge Report said the plan could be undermined by foreign investors' aversion to bureaucracy. 'Investors will have to deal with two national energy agencies, the energy ministry and local and provincial governments,' it said.

On the political front, the government's nuclear ambitions have been criticised by an opposition led by former president Megawati Sukarnoputri's party, the Democratic Party of Struggle, and by Abdurrahman Wahid, another former president.

Mr Wahid has threatened to sleep at the building site to block construction works. Even the government's environment minister, Rachmat Witoelar, has raised doubts and has asked for the project to be frozen until it is certain it will be safe, or until there are no objections from local residents.

'As long as there is opposition from the local community, a nuclear reactor cannot be built there,' Mr Rachmat has been quoted as saying.

Yet the government claims it has 'everything covered' and that 'there is nothing to worry about'.

Ferhat Aziz, chief of the public relations, legal and co-operation bureau at Batan, Indonesia's nuclear watchdog, said the country does not have the know-how to build and maintain a nuclear plant.

'We know what we can and cannot do,' he said. 'If the government gives the nod, the plant would be a turnkey project, which will basically be built and operated by foreign entities with minor local participation.'

In the past two years, Jakarta has signed preliminary agreements on nuclear power co-operation with South Korea, Russia and Japan.

Other countries have also been quick to seize the economic and diplomatic opportunities the project offers. In a security deal agreed last year, Australia included provisions to sell enriched uranium to Indonesia, and Iran has proposed sending experts to develop homegrown fissile technology. Indonesian scientists have begun studying reactor designs from foreign manufacturers and legislators have gone on study trips.

'We have not decided who we will eventually go with, but it is likely to be France, South Korea, the US or Japan,' Mr Ferhat said.

Amid fears that corruption could undermine security, he said the Muria plant would be under international supervision.

'Indonesia complies with all the international agreements and conventions, and the global checks and balances imposed since Chernobyl make nuclear energy much safer than it used to be,' Mr Ferhat said. 'No corners can be cut.'

Jakarta's nuclear plans have also received backing from the International Atomic Energy Agency. During a visit to the Indonesian capital late last year, IAEA director Mohamed ElBaradei said: 'I don't see that there would be any political impediment to Indonesia acquiring the technology needed for nuclear power.'

The IAEA has granted Indonesia US$1.34 million in technical assistance to develop eight schemes this year and next involving the safe use of nuclear power.

Mr Ferhat said some foreign countries, including the US, had offered to take care of Indonesian nuclear waste. 'Of course this would require us to sign certain agreements, and we have not decided on it yet, but it is certainly a possibility,' he said.

Mr Ferhat said 'Indonesia has already some experience with nuclear waste', and 'has been running nuclear facilities safely for the past 42 years'. The country uses nuclear technology in farming, health services and industry.

He said a feasibility study by a Japanese firm had confirmed a plant could be safely built in Muria.

'The Japanese study confirmed what we had already established. It is just a matter of building the plant in such a way that it can withstand earthquakes,' he said. 'If it can be safely done in Japan and Taiwan, I do not see why Japanese, Koreans or whoever else should not be able to do it in Indonesia.'

Mr Ferhat stressed that the nuclear reactor 'must be built on Java, because this is where it is needed most'. The government has been arguing that it has no other option but to go nuclear in order to provide enough electricity to meet the country's growing needs.

Last April, Energy Minister Purnomo Yusgiantoro said: 'Indonesia will have to turn to nuclear power as fossil fuels dwindle.' He added that in the future, 'nuclear power will play a more important role in our energy mix'.

Indonesia is Southeast Asia's only member of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries, but its oil output has fallen in recent years to about 1 million barrels per day, and the country is now a net importer of oil. The country also has large reservoirs of natural gas.

More than 90 million Indonesians - about 40 per cent of the population - lack access to electricity and power cuts are frequent even on Java and Bali, the archipelago's most developed islands. Indonesia's energy needs are forecast to grow by up to 9 per cent annually between now and 2020. Agoes Triboesono, director of electricity development at the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources, said: 'Such a spike in demand would require US$41.4 billion in new electricity generation projects by 2015.'

By 2025, Indonesia's power requirements are expected to hit 100,000MW, about five times the current maximum capacity.

According to Batan, a nuclear plant at Muria would supply 2 per cent of the country's power needs - a percentage that local environmentalists say doesn't justify the risks the project would entail.

As the government approaches a decision, some experts remain sceptical, NGOs keep ringing alarm bells and the people living on the Muria peninsula feel uneasy.