Indonesia fast-forwards nuclear power program

Issue 

By Jon Land

The Indonesian government has fast-forwarded its plans to construct the first of its 12 nuclear reactors. The head of the National Atomic Energy Agency (BATAN), Djali Ahimsa, announced on August 9 that the schedule for building the $US3 billion Mount Muria nuclear power plant in central Java has been brought forward four years to 1996.

Construction of a second plant in central Java, at a cost of $US2 billion, is also expected to start in 1996. The remaining ten reactors are to be completed by 2015.

There has been growing opposition to the projects from a wide range of non-government organisations, environmental activists, academics and many of the tens of millions of people within the proposed plant's 200-kilometre radius. The Indonesian Forum for the Environment (WALHI) has criticised the proposals; it has pointed to the hazards of building nuclear reactors in an earthquake zone and the nuclear waste problem for which no solution has yet been found.

In February, Indonesian environment minister Sarwono Kusumaatmadja, stated that his government was reconsidering going ahead with nuclear power. Speaking at the CSIRO-United Nations Conference on Economic Growth with Clean Production in Melbourne on February 8, Kusumaatmadja said: "Be assured, we are not going nuclear, at least not in my lifetime, I hope".

However President Suharto and Jusef Habibie, his minister for research and technology, are strong supporters of the nuclear power program. At a special meeting of BATAN in March, Suharto championed the development of nuclear power "for our future generations". On April 13, Ahimsa from BATAN again met with Suharto and was given the green light for the nuclear power program. Following that meeting, Ahimsa said that "even though there are groups opposing it, we are determined to build a nuclear power plant. I think that in the future, we will need quite a huge amount of electricity".

But just how much electricity Indonesia needs and who will the nuclear power program benefit are questions opponents of the program have been asking. While overall electricity demand in Bali and Java is expected to double by 2000, the additional 7000 megawatts generated by the nuclear reactors will be used solely by industry. Studies have also shown that energy use in Indonesia is very wasteful. Environment groups, in particular WALHI, are campaigning for industry and the transportation sector to become more energy efficient.

The fact that a significant section of the Australian Labor Party wants to overturn the existing three mine uranium policy ties in neatly with the Indonesian government's nuclear power plans. Foreign Affairs Minister Gareth Evans has remained tight-lipped about Australia's Nuclear Science and Technology Cooperation Program with Indonesia; he has sought to downplay the technical role Australia is playing in Indonesia's nuclear program as well as the fact that Australia could become Indonesia's major uranium supplier.

When questioned last November by WA Greens Senator Dee Margetts, Evans claimed that the "latest Western technology" would be used with "minimal health consequences".

But as Claire Gerson points out in the Summer 1994 Movement Against Uranium Mining's Third Opinion, "it's the tired old argument that if Australia provides Indonesia with expertise on safety and other aspects of nuclear science, then it will help us make the nuclear plants safer. [It is] just like the old safeguards argument which we're told ensures that not a single atom of Australian uranium can ever find its way into a weapon."

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