Indonesian 'Chernobyl' on the ring of fire?


By Steve Painter

The risk of a nuclear disaster in one of the most densely populated parts of the world is about to increase dramatically as the Indonesian government presses ahead with a nuclear power program to build up to 12 reactors on the seismically unstable island of Java by early next century.

A Japanese firm associated with Mitsubishi and Kansai Electric (also involved in the Ranger uranium mine in the Northern Territory) has been commissioned to do an $11 million survey for the first reactor, in central Java about 300 km from Jakarta.

Greenpeace nuclear researcher Jean McSorley says that about 45,000 people live in the immediate vicinity of the proposed reactor, which is only 30 km from Mt Muria, a volcano said to be extinct. McSorley points out that Mt Pinatubo in the Philippines, dormant for 700 years, had also been considered extinct after extensive seismic testing with advanced equipment, yet that didn't stop it erupting last year, destroying several villages and forcing the USA to abandon its giant Clark air base.

But even if Muria is truly extinct, there are other perils. Located on the Pacific "ring of fire", Java is also earthquake prone, experiencing two or three tremors daily. The island has 28 active volcanoes and more than 100 dormant ones in an area smaller than Tasmania. The ring of fire, which borders the Pacific in a huge arc from New Zealand through Japan and Alaska to South America, includes some of the world's most active volcanoes.

Eighty years ago, Java was the scene of one of the largest volcanic eruptions in recorded history when Krakatoa exploded just off the coast, scattering dust over the entire planet and creating huge tidal waves. Around 30,000 people died. Java today is home to about 100 million people, more than half of Indonesia's entire population of 180 million.

If a nuclear accident released a radioactive cloud similar to the one resulting from the Chernobyl disaster, all of Java including Jakarta with its 8 million people, would quickly be irradiated, and very likely Singapore as well. Other large cities such as Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok and Saigon would be threatened, as would densely populated Mindanao in the Philippines.

All of Indonesia lies within range of such a cloud, as do vast areas of northern Australia (including Darwin and Broome), most of Papua New Guinea, and large parts of Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines, Cambodia and Vietnam. Even Sri Lanka and parts of India could be threatened.

Ironically, if a radioactive cloud does eventually find its way to northern Australia following an accident on Java, it might merely be ly the Ranger and Roxby Downs mines will supply uranium for the Indonesian program. An Indonesian delegation has already visited Ranger.

In the event of a Chernobyl-type accident, it would be impossible to evacuate or even adequately shelter the people of Java, let alone the millions more in Singapore, Malaysia and surrounding areas. In the relatively lightly populated Ukraine, more than six years after Chernobyl, tens of thousands are still awaiting evacuation from the worst contaminated areas up to 150 km around the plant. Eventually, around 300,000 will have been forced from their homes, and around 7 million hectares of farmland and forest will be unusable for at least 100 years.

In Java, with its much denser population, the social and economic dislocation would be far greater, even from a nuclear accident smaller than Chernobyl. Java's intensive agriculture and growing industry are vital to the entire Indonesian economy.

The reactor favoured by Indonesian authorities is a Westinghouse-Mitsubishi pressurised water type (PWR) similar to the one involved in the 1979 Three Mile Island disaster in the USA. More recently, in February 1991, a Westinghouse-Mitsubishi PWR almost melted down at Mihama in Japan. Fifteen of Japan's 17 PWR plants are known to have suffered less serious failures similar to the one that caused the Three Mile Island near-meltdown.

Indonesia is moving into nuclear power at a time when enormous costs, faulty technology and problems of waste disposal have led to closure of about one-sixth of the world's reactors. About 76 have shut down, mostly in North America, Europe and Japan, after an average service life of less than 17 years.

But as the advanced countries move out of nuclear power, it seems nuclear companies are targeting the Third World; Indonesia, with its corrupt politicians and a growing energy crisis, is one of the easiest targets. Electricity demand is growing by around 17% annually, and Jakarta, absorbing about 200,000 internal migrants a year, already faces frequent, lengthy brown-outs. As well, there has been rapid industrial growth on Java and other islands in recent years.

Indonesian authorities are facing the need for a rapid expansion of power generating capacity, but Jean McSorley points out that it takes 10-16 years to get a nuclear plant built and operating, and then it is far more expensive to run than a coal, oil, gas, hydro or geothermal plant. Even the World Bank has said a nuclear program can't be justified in Indonesia in the short to medium term. Add to that the cost and difficulty of dismantling the plant and disposing of the waste at the end of the plant's life span, and nuclear is clearly the least efficient option, even without the safety considerations, and even with the serious problems associated with other technologies.

All this leaves aside the possibilities for small-scale hydro, solar, wind and biomass power, particularly for the many small or isolated nesian archipelago. The technologies in all of these fields are advancing rapidly, with wind power making particularly quick progress towards commercial viability.

Meanwhile, as the Indonesian government prepares to buy an expensive nuclear plant from a Japanese company, the country exports large amounts of oil, coal and natural gas at relatively cheap prices, mainly to Japan. Indonesian research and technology minister B.J. Habibie and some other supporters of the program want it simply because they think the country should have nuclear technology. "The more technology we can get, the better off we will be", says Mursid Djokolelono, a director in Batan, the Indonesian nuclear authority.

Besides the danger of accidents, the proposed Indonesian nuclear program also has other problems. Already there have been discussions on using an uninhabited island for nuclear waste storage. This, and the location of the first plant near the coast, will certainly increase the risk of nuclear contamination of the sea, as has happened in the Irish Sea near the British plant of Sellafield. Another possibility is the export of waste for storage in Australia. John Hewson has indicated that a Liberal government would be amenable to the establishment of a nuclear waste facility in a desert region.

As well, there could be a long-term danger of nuclear weapons proliferation and a regional arms race. While the Indonesian program is designed for power generation, once the technology is available, it is likely that at least some elements in the ruthless and very powerful Indonesian military forces will want a nuclear weapons program.

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