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The controversy and dilemma of nuclear energy in Indonesia

Several deadly nuclear-related incidents have shaped a negative image about nuclear power plants

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JAKARTA, INDONESIA — The inclusion of nuclear energy in Indonesia’s new and renewable energy draft (RUU EBT) has sparked controversy, given the energy source’s different characteristics compared to other alternative energy sources and existing legislation that governs its use.

Bisman Bhaktiar, Executive Director of the Center for Energy and Mining Law Studies (PUSHEP), spoke to TOC about the differences between new and renewable energy sources.

He explained that nuclear power can be categorized as a new type of energy. The definition of renewable energy is energy sources that can be reproduced and renewed such as solar power, wind power, and biomass from palm oil.

“We admit that there are different interpretations of what new energy is. “New” here is in terms of technology, and the meaning may vary. For example, nuclear as an energy source is common outside Indonesia. But here, nuclear is used in the health sector, but still new for energy,” Mr Bisman said in a phone interview on 23 September.

Indonesia’s National Energy Policy (KEN) in the Government Regulation (PP) No.79/2014 mentions that nuclear is the last option for energy in Indonesia.

“Rather than include nuclear in the renewable energy draft, it would be better to revise the nuclear law in 1997 as it has yet to include nuclear as a source of electricity,” Mr Bisman stated.

Hidden interests behind the nuclear issue?

Many eco-friendly energy advocates suspect that there is a hidden agenda in Indonesia’s legislative House to paint nuclear power as an excellent solution to reduce Indonesia’s reliance on fossil fuels.

Yayasan Indonesia Cerah — a non-profit organization advocating the use of clean energy — highlighted that Indonesia’s geographical position in the “Ring of Fire” — being surrounded by hundreds of volcanoes — makes the archipelagic nation vulnerable to earthquakes and tsunamis.

The foundation’s researcher Mahawira Singh Dillon stated in a virtual discussion that such a geographical location would disrupt a nuclear power plant.

Mr Mahawira also added that it would result in Indonesia relying on imported uranium while underutilizing the potential of the country’s abundant renewable energy sources.

Mr Bisman admitted that nuclear can be an energy source that can cost human lives without supporting technology.

However, unpredictable natural disasters such as the earthquake that severely damaged the nuclear infrastructure in Fukushima in Japan in 2011, or human error such as the Chernobyl tragedy in Ukraine in 1986 demonstrate how a nuclear power plant can pose great hazard to human lives and the environment.

How safe is a nuclear power plant?

The Fukushima and Chernobyl tragedies, as well as the incident at Three Mile Island in the U.S in 1979 which was triggered by the failure in the reactor’s cooling mechanism, serve as stark reminders of the potential dangers of nuclear energy.

Hendrikus Adam, an anti-nuclear activist in West Kalimantan province, in a written response to TOC’s query on Wednesday (23 September) questioned the province’s intention to set up a nuclear power plant in the region to generate electricity.

The activist highlighted that several related institutions such as the National Nuclear Power Agency (BATAN) have turned a blind eye to the risk of a nuclear power plant despite protests from residents.

Mr Hendrikus criticized the BATAN for categorizing nuclear power as renewable energy, stating that such a claim is misleading.

Several activists alongside the West Kalimantan Alliance to Oppose Nuclear Power Plant (Aliansi Kalbar Tolak PLTN) submitted documents to the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources (ESDM).

BATAN told Bisnis on 21 July that it had started a feasibility study for a commercial-scale nuclear power plant in West Kalimantan.

Previously, the nuclear agency stated that it would not be making the final decision whether or not to build a nuclear plant.

BATAN is reportedly only responsible for conducting a study and preparing supporting documents needed by the government. Meanwhile, Mr Bisman admitted that the quality of manpower tasked to operate a nuclear station will determine the safety.

“I have met with Indonesian nuclear experts and I am sure they have quality [manpower]. Maybe it will take time to change people’s perception of nuclear as an energy source. We can learn from other countries’ nuclear technology to ensure safety [in operations],” he said.

Indonesia has abundant renewable energy sources

Indonesia’s renewable energy potential reaches 442.4 gigawatt (GW), Kontan reported Programme Manager of Energy Transformation Institute for Essential Service Reform (IESR) Jannata Giwangkara as saying. However, only 2 per cent of that potential has been utilized.

Indonesia has yet to optimize its wave energy potential due to technology-related obstacles, Mr Jannata added in a webinar.

Mr Bisman stated that as a vast archipelagic country, Indonesia could maximize the use of clean energy sources, depending on the potential in each region.

“For example, in Sidrap, South Sulawesi, there is a wind power station. And in areas such as Sumatera and Kalimantan, biomass made from palm fruits, and solar cell in East Nusa Tenggara,” Mr Bisman said.

As Indonesia is turning to renewable energy sources, some obstacles remain in the development of renewable energy in Indonesia such as high investment costs and reliance on imported. technology.

The mindset about fossil fuels as energy sources has hampered the development of renewable energy. Also, subsidy schemes are different from the current electricity subsidies, President Director of Geo Dipa Energi, Riki Firmandha Ibrahim told Tirto in 2019.

“You cannot compete, of course. Renewable energy is facing the current energy source with a power plant. We are not familiar with the market price as we always rely on subsidies,” Mr Riki said.