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Will Indonesia become a nuclear power?

  • 6 Jan 2021

In spite of its nuclear ambitions, Indonesia does not yet have the capacity to manage its nuclear waste disposal, which could prove disastrous for the Southeast Asian region.

Commercial nuclear reactors, like this one in Muehleberg, Switzerland, are made with alloys that resist corroding even after decades of exposure to intense radiation and high-temperature, high-pressure water. ( Ruben Sprich/REUTERS / Reuters )

Indonesia may be taking steps to revive its nuclear ambitions under President Joko Widodo’s government. In February 2020, Luhut Binsar Pandjaitan, Indonesian minister of maritime affairs and former chief of staff to Widodo, publicly proclaimed that powerful nations like the United States do not see Indonesia as a serious international player due to its lack of nuclear weapons. His statement quickly captured local news headlines. The retired four-star army general turned political heavyweight is a major proponent behind recent interest in acquiring nuclear reactor technology to capitalize on Indonesia’s wealth of mineral resources. 

If Indonesia takes the nuclear track, it would be a major departure from its traditional foreign policy footing. Historically, Indonesia organised the Bandung Conference in 1955 which gave rise to a global Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) of African and Asian states who collectively opted out of aligning with either the United States or Russia during the dawn of the cold war. 

Nuclear pivot

What’s changed for Indonesia since then? It's the mineral wealth of thorium.

In June 2020, Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto held meetings with the governor of the Banka Belitung Islands, where they discussed setting up a ministerial regional office there. That’s no coincidence. Not too far from the east coast of Sumatra, the islands in question hold nearly 95 percent of Indonesia’s thorium. Thorium itself can’t be used in traditional nuclear reactors. But if you bombard thorium with neutrons, it will transmute to uranium-233, the fissile material of choice for advanced nuclear reactors. Barely a month later, Indonesia’s Defence Minister met with the governor again — this time to discuss tin and rare earth elements. In July 2020, a meeting between Luhut and Prabowo was reported for their discussions on the use of tin and rare earth elements. 

What’s important about tin, though? Nothing that’s immediately apparent, aside from the fact that thorium and uranium can actually be extracted from a few unconventional sources such as monazite, which naturally appears next to tin deposits; and Indonesia has a lot of tin.

What can we take away from this? For starters, Indonesia’s defence ministry seems interested in pursuing a small-sized molten salt nuclear reactor with a 50 megawatt electric generation output to power a marine vehicle. 

Nuclear-powered propulsion significantly extends the length of naval missions without the need for frequent refueling that diesel-run ships require. 

But beyond the rhetoric, it remains to be seen how Indonesia would tap into its local nuclear expertise and industrial capacity. Despite nuclear molten salt reactors being considerably safe, and both easy and cheap to construct, Indonesia’s energy agency BATAN estimated that it could only be operational after 2040.

Given the relative lack of domestic capacity to realize its nuclear ambitions, Indonesia’s defense ministry signed a deal with US-based nuclear company ThorCon International in July 2020 to jointly research and develop a small thorium molten salt reactor. It was a pricey deal. 

Initially, Thorcon proposed investing $1.2 billion into a larger, 500 megawatt floating nuclear power plant for Indonesia in March 2019. 

Unprepared

But is Indonesia ready for nuclear power? With a recent nuclear waste storage debacle, multiple critics say no. 

In late January 2020, Indonesia’s nuclear regulatory agency began investigating record levels of radiation in a satellite city of Jakarta. The specific area in question was a complex that housed a research reactor owned by the National Nuclear Energy Agency. Radiation levels from dumped caesium-137 were at record 680 millisieverts per hour. To put that into perspective, that is the same as the maximum level of radiation workers responding to Japan’s 2011 Japan Fukushima meltdown were exposed to. Normal radiation levels are 0.03 mSv per hour, according to Indonesia’s regulators. To put that into perspective, nearly one-fourth the discovered amount has the health equivalent of chronically smoking 1.5 packs of cigarettes a day for a year, to say nothing of possible cancer or mutations. 

More dangerously, Indonesia’s nuclear stakeholders have traditionally run into trouble selling the idea of nuclear energy to their constituents given widespread fear over Indonesia being prone to earthquakes and volcanic activity given its unique position within the Pacific’s ‘Ring of Fire’. For policy makers, this is frustrating given the abundant resources available for nuclear energy. 

But given the relative lack of public support, nuclear industries and policy advocates will likely welcome strong government support and rhetoric to realize their ambitions.

Lack of oversight

Indonesia only has three small research reactors with no commercial power reactors, and that balance seemed set in stone for some time. During his term, President Sukarno (1945-1967) considered nuclear weapons briefly during the 1960’s. After his removal from power in 1967, Indonesia agreed to a number of international accords committing it to non-proliferation and the peaceful use of nuclear energy.

But if Indonesia decided to go the full nuclear route, it would likely be difficult to keep track of its actions. Indonesia is one of the few nuclear-determined countries in the developing world that has the resources required to realize it. International safeguards are less effective when it comes to Indonesia. 

Not only do nuclear watchdog and inspection agencies have to identify uranium deposits and track them after they’ve been mined, but they also have to inspect thorium, and alternative uranium resources like phosphate rocks, monazite, black shale, lignite, and other rare-earth elements, which are often mined at the same time as other conventional minerals like tin and coal. It’s a daunting task, and most international nuclear watchdogs don’t have the resources or manpower to keep their eyes on the full picture.

On the other hand, Indonesia is pushing its industrial and scientific bases to the limit as it seeks to master ore purification and separation technology: a coming of passage hurdle every nuclear-capable nation must overcome. Meanwhile, Indonesian scientists are carrying out a significant amount of publicly-available research on extracting uranium and thorium from alternative sources like monazite. Preparing for the path ahead, Indonesia implemented major revisions to its mining laws, while providing for a new license permit that allows for the mining of radioactive materials. 

Traditionally, these alternatives to uranium go unmentioned in standard uranium statistics like the Red Book prepared annually by the International Atomic Energy Agency, Nuclear Energy Agency and the Organization for Economic Development OECD. Indonesia’s alternative path to nuclear energy is raising concerns over what happens if off-the-books nuclear material reaches dangerous third parties, pushing global agencies to keep track of nuclear-ambitious nations with enough resources to realize it, but weak governments and institutions. 

For Indonesia however, it's about more than modernization. 

Indonesia’s demand for electricity continues to grow at an average of 6.2 percent annually, and traditional fuel sources are barely keeping up, at the expense of pollution and impact on public health.

It’s also about proving that it’s a nuclear leader within ASEAN, competing with Malaysia, Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam. Within ASEAN, building a commercial nuclear reactor goes a long way in granting a country regional status and prestige, in spite of the risks involved and its present lack of ability to manage it. 

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