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Indonesia civil society groups raise concerns over proposed Borneo nuclear reactor

Mongabay - May 14, 2024

Irfan Maulana, Jakarta – Civil society organizations in Indonesia staged protests in late April to raise awareness of a planned nuclear plant near Pontianak, capital of West Kalimantan province on the island of Borneo.

"We are advocating that West Kalimantan be kept away from the threat of a nuclear radiation disaster. Indonesia is not Chernobyl," said Hendrikus Adam, executive director of the West Kalimantan chapter of the Indonesia Forum for the Environment, a national NGO known as Walhi, referring to the site of a notorious 1986 nuclear meltdown in the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic.

Indonesia's first experimental nuclear reactor, the TRIGA Mark II, opened in the city of Bandung in February 1965. Since then, however, the world's fourth-largest country has yet to open a full-fledged nuclear power station.

In March 2023, Indonesia and the U.S. Trade and Development Agency (USTDA) signed a partnership agreement to develop small modular reactor technology for the archipelago's power network. The agreement included a $1 million grant to PLN, the state-owned power utility, to carry out feasibility studies on a nuclear reactor.

PLN has proposed a 462-megawatt facility in West Kalimantan, which would use technology supplied by NuScale Power OVS, a publicly traded company based in Oregon in the U.S.

In capacity terms, that represents almost one-tenth of the giant Paiton coal-fired complex in East Java province, a mainstay of the Java-Bali power grid.

NuScale says the modular design of its technology has additional resilience to earthquakes – a significant consideration for civil engineering projects in Indonesia, one of the most seismically active countries in the world.

However, the technology encountered controversy after John Ma, a senior structural engineer with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), questioned the commission's approval of the design's earthquake resistance. That "differing professional opinion" was subsequently dismissed on review.

In 2021, Indonesia's national research agency, known as BRIN, carried out a seismic study on a prospective site in the West Kalimantan district of Bengkayang.

That early work is part of research under the internationally agreed Probabilistic Seismic Hazard Assessment, which is recommended by the International Atomic Energy Agency as part of its safety regimen.

Risk assessment

At Walhi's demonstration on April 26 in Jakarta, volunteers with the environmental group unfurled banners stating "Indonesia is not Chernobyl." Lessons from the Chernobyl incident, as well as the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant meltdown in Japan – the latter triggered by an earthquake – inform much of the civil society campaign in Indonesia.

"The number of human and environmental tragedies shows that human-created technology such as nuclear power plants cannot be completely controlled," Adam said.

He also questioned the government's choice of Indonesian Borneo, known locally as Kalimantan, on the basis that it isn't as seismically active as islands like Java, Sumatra and Sulawesi.

"The assumption that Kalimantan is safe from this disaster is of course not true," Adam said. "Kalimantan has earthquake sources, such as the Meratus Fault, Mangkabayar Fault, Tarakan Fault, Sampurna Fault and Paternoster Fault."

Walhi also pointed to slow uptake of solar and other renewable energy sources in Indonesia, which haven't received the kinds of subsidies seen in other countries transitioning to clean energy.

"We have so many choices for energy transition, why do we have to choose technology that is actually dangerous?" said Fanny Tri Jamboree Christianto, Walhi's energy campaign lead.

The West Kalimantan Alliance Against Nuclear Power Plants rejects plans to build a nuclear power plant in West Kalimantan, taking action in front of the Gegulis Monument, Pontianak.

President Joko Widodo has committed to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change to reduce Indonesia's greenhouse gas emissions by 31.9% by 2030.

Most of these target emissions reductions originate in changes in the land-use sector, such as development curbs on carbon-rich peatlands. However, a large share of Indonesia's international commitment relies on energy transition.

Abit Nibras Trilanang, coordinator of the West Kalimantan Alliance Against Nuclear Power Plants, a campaign group, said construction of such a plant would prove expensive and time-consuming. Abit also questioned the capacity of state institutions to provide oversight of a reactor.

"It has been packaged as a solution to national energy security," Abit said.

Another company, PT ThorCon Power Indonesia plans to build an experimental nuclear reactor on a small island off Sumatra, in Bangka-Belitung province.

Suparman, the principal expert at BRIN, the national research agency, noted that 28 areas are being investigated for nuclear energy, with the main area of focus being in West Kalimantan.

"In the future, large nuclear power plants and micro reactors can be built in stages as a substitute for biodiesel for remote areas," Suparman said.

Source: https://news.mongabay.com/2024/05/indonesia-civil-society-groups-raise-concerns-over-proposed-borneo-nuclear-reactor