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16 Oct 07
Indonesia's Planned Nuclear Plants: Question mark over safety
By Tom Hyland
IT WAS, in a way, a case of taking the mountain to Muhammad - the mountain being a dormant volcano that looms over the planned site of Indonesia's first nuclear power station.
Last month, 100 clerics and scholars from one of the world's largest Muslim organisations, in the heart of the country with the world's largest Muslim community, met near Mount Muria in Java for two days of deliberations.
The unprecedented gathering, in the town of Jepara, considered the Indonesian government's plans to build four nuclear power plants at the foot of Mount Muria, on the world's most populous island.
Indonesia also sits on the Pacific 'Ring of Fire' that is prone to devastating earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.
The scholars, members of the 30-million strong Nahdlatul Ulama, heard from the Research and Technology Minister, the Australian National University-educated engineer Kusmayanto Kadiman, who urged support for nuclear power.
So did the head of the national atomic energy agency and other government experts.
They heard a different story from non-governmental groups, environmentalists and representatives from the village of Balong, the proposed site of the nuclear plant.
At the end of their deliberations, drawing on Islamic traditions of jurisprudence, the scholars issued a fatwa, a religious legal edict, declaring the Muria plans haram (forbidden).
They declared that Islam neither forbids nor recommends nuclear power. Their edict, instead, was specific to Muria, where they ruled the likely benefits were outweighed by the potential damage. Their main concern was safety.
'As far as we can tell, it's the first time there's been any mainstream Islamic expression of opposition to nuclear power, anywhere,' said Dr Richard Tanter, an Australian academic who observed the gathering.
Despite the fatwa and criticism from other quarters, Jakarta is pressing ahead. It wants construction to start in 2010, and the first station operating by 2016.
Unease is not confined to Indonesia. Its neighbours are watching closely. Australia's position is ambivalent. Indonesia is a potential market for Australian uranium and, under the 2006 Lombok Agreement, the two countries are committed to peaceful nuclear cooperation.
Canberra is also concerned about potential risks, with studies showing a disaster in an Indonesian reactor would send massive fallout across northern Australia.
Earlier plans by Jakarta to go down the nuclear road were killed off by the 1998 Asian financial crisis. But the plans are back on the agenda, backed by powerful and inter-connected business and political interests, including Vice-President Jusuf Kalla. Proponents argue that Indonesia needs to diversify sources of energy for its 224 million people, more than half of whom are crammed onto Java.
Electricity demand is growing by about 10 per cent a year, while supplies of oil, its main energy source, are dwindling.
Indonesia has the backing of the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency, whose director, Dr Mohamed ElBaradei, endorsed the plans while in Jakarta last December. He said Indonesia was a party to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and was committed to safeguards.
Global warming and the need to cut carbon emissions are also being used to support the nuclear option - although most of Indonesia's emissions come from clearing and burning forests.
Government experts insist the Muria site is stable and that modern reactors are earthquake- proof. But such arguments have not silenced opponents, who point out that only last year, an earthquake in southern Java killed more than 5,000 people.
Critics also point to Indonesia's poor safety record in industry and transport, a lack of transparency in government decision-making and the potential for corruption in a project worth about US$10 billion (S$14.6 billion).
Japanese and South Korean companies are keen to secure the contract. The Indonesian firm Medco Energi Internasional, which has links to Vice-President Jusuf, has already signed a preliminary deal with Korea Hydro and Nuclear Power Co to build the plant. Details of the deal are secret, adding to unease in a country where corruption remains endemic.
While the government has decentralised power to provinces, the nuclear plant remains the last of the Suharto-era big projects, imposed from above. If it goes ahead, the local administration will have little say and no capacity to manage it, said Dr Tanter, senior research associate with the Nautilus Institute, a think-tank that focuses on security and sustainability.
'At the local level the impact would be like a kid playing in the middle of a freeway with an 18-wheeler barrelling down on top of them,' Dr Tanter said.
Safety is at the heart of public anxiety, said Mr Rizal Sukma of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, a Jakarta think-tank.
'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 a nuclear plant,' he wrote in the Jakarta Post.
This doubt is shared by Indonesia's neighbours, which already resent the choking haze they endure each year from the burning of the country's forests.
At a seminar in Jakarta last month on energy and nuclear safety, Dr Sukma was joined by Mr Simon Tay, chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, in declaring that the nuclear option was a regional issue.
They said that 'in addition to harm at the local and national levels, nuclear energy plants can potentially cause trans-boundary harm to neighbouring states'.
The potential harm was highlighted by research by Australian National University experts, who warned in a 1998 report that a failure in a reactor on Java 'could be a disaster' for northern Australia, Papua New Guinea and South-east Asia.
A failure during the summer monsoon would send radioactive gas across northern Australia within days, the report said. The north of Western Australia, the Northern Territory and Queensland would be at 'substantial risk' of receiving potentially devastating fallout.
Critics of the plans stress there is no evidence Jakarta wants to develop nuclear weapons. But some observers see a long-term risk of nuclear weapons proliferation in the Indonesian project.
What they fear is an 'A.Q. Khan scenario' - a reference to the founder of Pakistan's nuclear programme, who went on to set up a secret network to supply nuclear technology to Libya, Iran and North Korea.
Some US analysts and officials fear that a group of Indonesian technical experts could form a similar network outside the control of the Jakarta government and working with experts from Iran, which has launched a diplomatic offensive aimed at building ties with Indonesian nuclear researchers.
This is a nightmare scenario for Australia, given the mutual suspicion that complicates relations between the two countries. This suspicion has been compounded by Prime Minister John Howard's call for a 'full-blooded debate' on Australia developing its own nuclear industry, and his refusal to rule out uranium enrichment.
'The consequences of Indonesia and Australia pursuing their somewhat non-rational approaches to the nuclear fuel cycle could have negative consequences for people who are already suspicious of each other,' said Dr Tanter.
Even so, he added that climate change and the nuclear issue present an opportunity for greater cooperation between environmentalists, scientists and non-governmental groups in the two countries.
'These are issues where Australia and Indonesia have common cause, where it's in our shared interests to encourage both governments towards less risky, less threatening energy alternatives. We are in the same boat on this one,' he pointed out.
This article first appeared in The Age in Australia on Sunday.
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