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  Today Online 9 Nov 07
No need to quake about Indonesian nuclear plant
Fabio Scarpello

AS Indonesia debates whether to adopt nuclear energy, Mr Ferhat Aziz, public relations chief of the National Nuclear Energy Agency (Batan), the country's nuclear watchdog, says there is nothing to worry about.

He underlined that Jakarta's plan envisages an experienced foreign country taking full responsibility for the project.

Mr Ferhat also stated that those worried about Indonesia being seismically unstable can sleep soundly, as local and foreign experts have carried out extensive feasibility studies.

"A feasibility study recently conducted by a Japanese firm has confirmed that a plant could be safely built in Muria," Mr Ferhat said, referring to the peninsula where Indonesia's proposed first nuclear reactor may be built.

Muria peninsula is situated on the northern coast of Java, 200km from Yogyakarta, the largest city in Central Java. Yogyakarta sustained heavy damage after a 6.2 magnitude earthquake struck last May. The quake killed almost 6,000 people in the area.

Indonesia straddles the so-called "Pacific Ring of Fire" and the "Alpide Belt", the first and second most seismic regions in the world respectively. The Yogyakarta earthquake, as well as those that triggered the December 2004 tsunami in Aceh, were due to movements in the Alpide Belt.

According to a government blueprint, the Muria plant will house a 1,000 megawatt (mw) nuclear reactor capable of producing two per cent of the country's electricity needs. Muria is to be the first of three nuclear plants scheduled to be built by 2020.

First envisaged under former President Suharto, the nuclear programme was resurrected last year when President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono issued a decree calling for the first nuclear reactor to be operative by 2016.

Although supported by most of the government, the program is yet to receive the final go-ahead and a decision is expected next month.

However, Indonesia's Vice-President Jusuf Kalla recently cooled expectations, saying "the project is only an idea" and "the government would still prefer to develop alternative forms of energy".

The debate, however, rages on.

The pro-nuclear lobby will point out that 40 per cent of Indonesia's 240 million people still lack access to electricity and that power cuts are frequent even on Java and Bali, the archipelago's most developed islands.

Moreover, they argue that by 2025, Indonesia's power requirements are expected to hit 100,000mw, five times the current maximum capacity.

On the other side of the divide, environmentalists have warned that building a nuclear plant in Java, one of the world's most densely populated regions, is too risky.

Others have said that Indonesia lacks the know-how. Many more have pointed to the endemic problem of corruption and warned that it could lead to corners being cut, endangering lives.

Mr Ferhat said that such worries are legitimate, but the government is not taking any risks.

"We know we don't have the necessary technical skills to run this project," he said.

"That is why, if the government gives the nod, the plant would be a turnkey project, built and operated by foreign entities with minor local participation," he said.

Among the likely partners he mentioned are Japan, South Korea, the United States and France.

"If Japanese engineers have been able to build nuclear plants in Japan, another highly seismic archipelago, I am sure they could do the same here.

"With proper design, nuclear (plants) are the safest installations that exist," he added.

Mr Ferhat said that the fear of corruption is "groundless", since nuclear plants are placed under international supervision and "no corners can be cut".

"The safety of a nuclear plant is not merely the business of an operator in one country, but also under international scrutiny.

"Indonesia complies with all the international agreements and conventions and our plant would be routinely inspected," he said.

He underlined that Indonesia's nuclear programme is supported by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the world's nuclear watchdog.

During a visit to the Indonesian capital late last year, IAEA director Mohamed ElBaradei said: "I don't see that there would be any political impediment to Indonesia acquiring the technology needed for nuclear power."

The IAEA has granted Indonesia US$1.34 million ($1.93 million) in technical assistance to develop eight schemes this year and the next, involving the safe use of nuclear power.

"People should also remember that Indonesia has more than 40 years' experience in dealing with nuclear (energy) and we have never had problems," he said, pointing to the country's use of nuclear technology in farming, health services and industry.

"And if we were to step up to building a nuclear plant, we would not do it without the necessary precautions," he concluded.

The writer is a freelance journalist based in Jakarta. The opinions expressed are his own.

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