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Going jittery over nuclear power plans in Southeast Asia

Updated On: Jul 31, 2007

Nuclear energy has become an attractive solution to the rising energy demand and the need for alternative cleaner fuel to fossil fuel, which is the main culprit of global warming.

Although it releases zero carbon dioxide, other environmental risks involved in nuclear power plant are terrifying. These include the risks of reactor leakage, radioactive waste handling and disposal and other safety concerns, including the vulnerability of the area (whether it is prone to earthquake, for instance).

The Southeast Asian region will experience a dramatic development if the plans of several countries among others IndonesiaVietnam and Thailandto build nuclear power plants are realized. So far, Indonesiais going ahead with its nuclear plan, without any assurance of safety standard. President Yudhoyono’s visit to South Korea recently resulted in a huge energy and infrastructure deal between the two countries in amount of US$8.6 billion. Both countries agreed to enhance 11 fields of cooperation, which includes nuclear power plant development. As reported by Antara News Agency, Indonesia`s Medco Energy International Tbk. and Korea Hydro and Nuclear Power Co. Ltd. (KNHP) on Wednesday signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) to build Indonesia`s first nuclear power plant.

The government of Indonesia appeared to be ignoring the voices of local communities in Mount Muria, who reject the existence of nuclear power plant in their neighborhood.  Mount Muria is the site in which the Indonesian government intends to build four to six nuclear power plants.  In recent years, scientists have discovered a small geological fault below the proposed site. The local regency government and business are also worried about the risks of living near nuclear reactors, hence they are also against the plan. However, the plan is backed by most of parliamentarians. So far, only PDI-P fraction has voiced its opposition to the plan.

Indonesia, and other countries intending to build the nuclear power plant, should draw a lesson from what happened in Japan recently, an industrialized country with 30% of its electricity supplied by nuclear power.  Even with its long history and experience in the nuclear industry, the damage to the Kashiwazaki nuclear power plant after a 6.5 richter scale earthquake have raised concerns over safety. After this accident, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has advised Japan to do a complete review of all its nuclear plants.

This nuclear incident in Japan should act as a reminder of the risks of nuclear power plants, particularly in earthquake prone countries. Developing countries in Southeast Asia, with poor safety records and zero experience in nuclear (although Indonesia, for instance claims to have 3 research reactors that have been operated safely for a few decades) must rethink their plans whether they can manage the nuclear plants without causing a real threat to the security of the region and the safety for its people and local environs.

Anti nuclear movement in Indonesia, tugged by some NGOs, slams government’s decision to push through its nuclear plan. According to Greenpeace, nuclear power in Indonesiawill put millions of people under the threat of a nuclear tragedy, as Indonesiawas very prone to volcanic activity. Nuclear also diverts the attention from much safer renewable energy sources such as geothermal, wind and solar. Greenpeace also argued that the price of electricity produced by a nuclear plant is not competitive if there is no price control policy; in fact environmental externalities are not reflected in the price.

Beyond NGOs, Indonesian academics and philosophers are questioning the government’s nuclear energy programme. Rizal Sukma, in his op-ed in Jakarta Post expressed his concern over the destiny of local people in Muria and surrounding areas who are trying to seek justice by staging a number of demonstrations. The safety issue is definitely the main cause of public anxiety over the plan, he said. There is a strong distrust that whoever administers the nuclear plant will have the ability and absolute commitment to ensure the reactor’s safety. He is also worried about corruption that could undermine the safety of the plant.

He also questioned whether Indonesia really needs nuclear, which would only contribute to less than 2% of the total electricity supply, if the 4,000 MW plants were operated. Beside many other energy alternatives such as geothermal and biofuels that Indonesia can explore, there are many countries that are advanced in economy without dependence on nuclear energy from which Indonesia may take examples.

Bangkok Post in its editorial on 25 July also suggested careful thought on nuclear plan. It highlighted the recent accident in Japanand warned the imperative safety requirements of nuclear power plants, whichThailand's Energy Planning and Policy Office is also planning to build.

However, despite all these fears of accidents and opposition from various environmental groups, several Southeast Asian governments have either firm plans to develop nuclear power stations in the coming decade of have begun studies into its potential.  According to Mely Anthony and Sofiah Jamil in a commentary in  Straits Times, international and bilateral support - both technical and financial - has given impetus to regional nuclear development. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has been encouraging Indonesiaand Vietnamon their nuclear plans.  However, failure to do rigorous due diligence, especially when it concerns the safety standards of such high risk infrastructure, could result in real catastrophe. Hence, it is probably a good start that ASEAN has agreed on the need for a regional nuclear safety watchdog to monitor all forthcoming nuclear energy programmes. An early warning system in case of nuclear accidents is to be developed as well as a regional emergency preparedness and response plan. (30 July 2007)

Sources:

Jitters over Jakarta’s nuclear power plans (Straits Times, 30 July 2007)

IndonesiaSouth Korea sign preliminary deal to develop nuclear power plant (Jakarta Post, 25 July 2007)

IndonesiaSouth Korea to sign mining, oil and gas deals worth US$8.5 billion (Jakarta Post, 25 July 2007)

IndonesiaS Korea agree to enhance 11 fields of cooperation (Antara, 26 July 2007)

PDI-P continues rejecting planned nuclear reactor in RI (Antara, 26 July 2007)

MedcoKoreahydro ink MOU to build nuke power plant (Antara, 25 July 2007)

Korean firms to invest up to $8.6b in RI projects (Jakarta Post, 26 July 2007)

Indonesiaand South Korea to sign huge energy deals (Antara, 24 July 2007)

Nuclear power: Lessons from Japan, By Mely Caballero-Anthony & Sofiah Jamil of RSIS (Straits Times, 25 July 2007)

Greenpeace slams govt`s decision to push through nuke power plant project (Antara, 25 July 2007)

National nuclear energy plan needs rethinking, op-ed by Rizal Sukma of CSIS (Jakarta Post, 12 June 2007)

N-option needs careful thought (Bangkok Post, 25 July 2007)