The Nuke Frontier in Indonesia

By McSorley, Jean | Multinational Monitor, September 1995 | Go to article overview

The Nuke Frontier in Indonesia


McSorley, Jean, Multinational Monitor


SYDNEY - With a de facto moratorium on new nuclear reactor orders in place in many Western countries, the nuclear power industry is desperately seeking new markets, particularly in developing countries. Although Taiwan, China and South Korea are still expanding their nuclear programs, they are not placing enough orders to sustain the nuclear construction industry. And so the nuclear industry has turned its sights elsewhere in the Third World, especially to Indonesia, the largest potential new market.

"We will build 12 nuclear power plants, with the first coming on line in 2003," Iyos Subki, of the Indonesian National Atomic Energy Agency (BATAN), told the Ninth Pacific Nuclear Basin conference last year. "Nuclear power is a necessary part of an energy diversification policy in which we hope to reduce domestic oil consumption and promote other energy sources."

Companies from Canada, Japan, the United States and France have put forward proposals to build Indonesia's nuclear plants. The two leading contenders that have emerged are Mitsubishi and Westinghouse, which are submitting a joint bid. Mitsubishi, struggling to get new orders in Japan, is counting on offshore markets to see it through the next decade, when it hopes sales will improve back home. With 80 percent of Indonesia's aid coming from Japan, the company is optimistic about its chance of getting the Indonesian order. For its part, Westinghouse has set up a nuclear engineering school in Jakarta as part of its efforts to win the Indonesian government's approval.

With a rapidly growing economy, Indonesian planners insist that nuclear power is vital to the country's future.

Estimates of how much energy Indonesia will need vary greatly. Critics say that claims by Western utilities that massive energy use is an inevitable byproduct of economic growth have proven false.

"Another Chernobyl"

Agus P. Sari is an independent Indonesian environmentalist and energy expert who has written extensively on the issue. "I think that we really have to assess what the needs are with independent specialist advice." Agus told a regional meeting of environmental and aid groups in Japan in 1993. "At present, there are too many competing interests from the coal, oil and nuclear industry to get a clear picture of what's really needed."

Like many environmentalists, Agus advocates energy conservation and efficiency before the building of new power plants. Then, he says, "We should look at what renewable energy we have available. It is estimated that geothermal energy, which Indonesia has a massive amount of, could easily offset the 7,000 megawatts of electricity the nuclear plants will produce."

Mitsubishi and Westinghouse have said that they can build safe and reliable plants that will deliver electricity at competitive prices. Community groups, academics and religious leaders are skeptical.

"People here fear another Chernobyl," says a resident of Ujung Watu, a village on the Muria Peninsula, the proposed site of the first two plants. The resident says that people are scared to voice their fears. Speaking on the condition of anonymity, he says that, "a number of people who live here have publicly expressed their concerns, and have been taken to the local police station for questioning. Only those living in the big cities are really free to discuss the issue."

Jakarta-based WALHI, Indonesia's largest environmental coalition, has entered the debate in a low-key and non-confrontational way. WALHI is distributing educational leaflets on the risks of nuclear power at regional centers such as universities and libraries.

"We suspect this issue will be decided at an elite level," said Mohammed Anung, WALHI's nuclear campaign coordinator, "but we still feel that the public needs to be informed so that they can take part in this discussion if the opportunity arises."

Calls for an open public debate on the nuclear question have already come from some powerful quarters.

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