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  Straits Times 20 Jul 07
Indonesia's energy plan: Is nuclear power really the only option?
By Rizal Sukma

FOR most Indonesians, the government's plan to start using nuclear energy by 2016 is still a distant issue.

But for the people of Central Java, the prospect of living next to a nuclear power plant is regarded as a nightmare that could become a worrying reality.

That is why thousands of people from Jepara, Pati and Kudus staged a large demonstration recently to oppose the plan. It is heartening to see that grassroots-based resistance to the plan has gradually built up.

It is true that the role played by activists from various non-governmental organisations has been instrumental in raising public awareness to the potential dangers of nuclear energy. It is also true that the issue of safety has been at the core of public anxiety over the plan.

No one denies that the lack of energy constitutes one of the key problems hampering economic development in Indonesia. Everyone in his or her right mind would also recognise the growing demand for energy if Indonesia is to sustain its economic growth. We all understand that the demand for electricity, and the need to secure a long-term electricity supply, is more pressing in Java. We all know that after 2016, Java and Bali alone will need an additional 1,500 to 2,000MW annually.

However, dismissing the people's concerns - as voiced by some government officials - by accusing them of lacking understanding and information is indeed a display of arrogance.

They do not fear the prospect of living next to a nuclear power plant simply because of the Chernobyl nuclear accident. The opposition displayed by the people of Central Java, and by others across the nation, is in fact based on very rational grounds.

First and foremost, there are safety fears. To be precise, there is strong doubt - even distrust - that whoever administers the nuclear plant will have the ability and absolute commitment to ensure the safety of the plant. After all, there have been many cases that demonstrate that negligence is in fact still a serious problem in the country.

Second, the concern over safety is also based on the fact that Indonesia is sitting on the 'Ring of Fire'. As earthquakes have become more and more frequent, it is clear that any plan to build a nuclear power plant needs to take this concern seriously. We do not want to hear the government say, 'don't blame me, blame the earthquake' if an accident occurs. Indeed, it is not difficult to envision that some government officials would certainly resort to such an excuse.

Third, there are also concerns over corruption that could undermine the safety of the plant. Who can guarantee that the project would be corruption free and that therefore the nuclear power plant would be 100 per cent safe?

Fourth, do we really need nuclear energy as a source of electricity? We often hear politicians proudly claim that Indonesia is a country rich in natural resources. True, our traditional sources of energy - oil and gas - are being depleted.

But the people also need to know why we cannot think about other alternatives beside nuclear energy? What about geothermal, biofuel and other energy sources?

If the government insists on building the plant, ignoring the people's concerns, then we are clearly witnessing a problem in the making.

The people's resistance could increase and that is of course a recipe for new tension in society-state relations. If the tension escalates, we definitely do not want to see a repetition of the Pasuruan incident in Jepara.

Therefore, the government needs to rethink its plan. The future of economic growth and progress should not merely be based on the availability of nuclear energy. We need to learn from countries that continue to advance economically without resorting to nuclear energy. And there are examples out there.

We should not see the people's opposition to the nuclear power plant as an obstruction to economic progress. The people should be allowed to determine their interests and they deserve to be heard and accommodated.

More importantly, do not simply blame the people's view and aspirations on the lack of economic progress in this country.

The problem facing Indonesia is not 'too much democracy', as Vice-President Jusuf Kalla said during his visit to Beijing. In fact, the key problem is 'not enough democracy'.

After all, democracy will work if we stop using democracy as a tool for personal interests.

We should now begin to concentrate on how to consolidate democracy further so that democracy becomes a catalyst for, not an impediment to, progress.

Rizal Sukma is deputy executive director of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Jakarta. CSIS is a member of the Consortium of Non-Traditional Security Studies in Asia (NTS-Asia). This article previously appeared in its NTS Alert.

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