Is there light at the end of the tunnel?

Mutti Anggitta, Lecturer in Department of International Relations, Bina Nusantara University

The development of civilian nuclear programs in Southeast Asia has been very difficult. The region is not only subject to large-scale and frequent natural disasters, but has also faced various technical, financial and political difficulties. This may explain why five projects to construct nuclear research or power reactors in Indonesia, Myanmar, Thailand and the Philippines have remained canceled since 1971. Despite this gloomy past, the states in the region have not ended their interests in nuclear power. This may be due to rapid regional economic growth that led to a steady increase in electricity demand, which then further increased the need to reduce a reliance on oil and gas as main energy sources.

Indonesia, according to its long-term national development planning, claims to have plans for four nuclear power plants by 2024. How far is the country from achieving the goal?

The first civilian nuclear reactor was supposed to begin three years ago in 2010. Considering the positive assessments and reports by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on the Indonesian nuclear infrastructure necessary for a nuclear power program, the major barriers to our nuclear program over the last half century have been political, not technical. As a study by the International Institute for Strategic Studies notes, Indonesia has more nuclear science expertise than any other ASEAN member considering that the state has three nuclear research reactors, a range of other nuclear facilities, and a cadre of trained engineers and scientists.

One of the political barriers appears to be the Fukushima incident in Japan. It reinforced local opposition in the area where the plants were to be built and negative public opinion on the safety of nuclear power in Indonesia.

A press release by GlobeScan states that since 2005, public opinion in many states that have nuclear power programs has also become more opposed to the technology. Later in 2011, a poll demonstrated how the Fukushima incident negatively influenced public opinion of nuclear power in Indonesia.

The poll indicated that 66 percent of Indonesians opposed the nuclear program. Approximately 27 percent of the opponents linked their perceptions to the Fukushima disaster.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, at the closing of the 2011 ASEAN Summit, expressed strong preference for water, solar, and geothermal rather than nuclear, as
alternative energy sources for Indonesia’s future. However, there should still be light at the end of the tunnel. The government is not planning to make any changes to its nuclear plan. Proponents of the nuclear program claim that the four nuclear power plants will be safe. They argue that more advanced nuclear technology than the 40-year-old Fukushima reactors will be used; therefore, it would considerably mitigate the risks of a Fukushima-type incident in Indonesia.

Another positive development, according to the National Nuclear Energy Agency (Badan Tenaga Nuklir Nasional, BATAN), is that Indonesia has not only been upgrading its nuclear regulatory framework but has also developed new rules and regulations on nuclear and radioactive materials safety and security, physical protection as well as emergency preparedness and response since 2007. Besides being actively involved in the Nuclear Security Summit process, Indonesia has chaired a working group focused on accelerating ratification and adherence to nuclear security-related agreements and
conventions since 2012.

Unfortunately, inter-agency coordination and cooperation with regards to the summit appeared insufficient. As a study by James Martin Center for Non-Proliferation Studies notes, Indonesia’s nuclear authorities have not been regularly involved in the discussions.

The Foreign Affairs Ministry seems to play a dominant role in areas where foreign policy comes into play. This lack of coordination and cooperation between the policy-making agencies and technical nuclear authorities in Indonesia needs to be seriously addressed by the government, not only to successfully lead the working group to form a model legislation to assist states in implementing the security-related agreements but also to accelerate the progress of our nuclear program itself.

The Foreign Affairs Ministry, which has many opportunities to interact far more intensely with the international actors than the technical nuclear authorities, should take the initiative to reach out more to the technical agencies, not only BATAN, but also to the nuclear power supervisory body, Badan Pengawas Tenaga Nuklir (BAPETEN) and other relevant agencies. Moreover, the issue of corruption in the government also has a potentially strong negative impact on the country’s nuclear program. Strong commitment to fighting corruption bodes well for the progress of the program.

The article was published in Jakarta Post, Friday, November 15, 2013