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Javanese Muslims oppose nukes

by D+C | E+Z
In Indonesia, non-governmental activists are challenging the government’s plans to introduce nuclear energy. While the authorities speak of economically-attractive and climate-neutral options, environmentalists worry about nuclear waste, the danger of accidents and industry’s exemption from liability in the case of damages. All summed up, the debate in Indonesia reflects that in other countries where civil-society bodies demanded more participation in public decision-making when confronted with dangerous technologies. [ By Edith Koesoemawiria ]

Indonesians are currently discussing the pros and cons of nuclear power. The National Nuclear Power Agency, BATAN, has been promoting the use of this technology for a decade. On its website, it states that “certain parties” have attempted to discourage acceptance of nuclear power by making people believe that Indonesia will build a nuclear plant similar to that in Chernobyl.

For years, the government talked about nuclear options, but did not have any official plans for building facilities. In view of the country’s oil resources, interest in nuclear power was mostly theoretical until 1998. At that time, Indonesia faced a multidimensional crisis, and energy perspectives were re-assessed.

With support from the International Atomic Engergy Agency (IAEA), a national team coordinated by BATAN and the National Technology Agency, BPPT, concluded that nuclear power would become important. Last year the government announced it would invest $ 8 billion in the construction of four 1,000-megawatt reactors by 2016, arguing that otherwise an energy crisis would hit the country’s high-growth regions on the islands of Java, Madura and Bali.

Pelangi, an Indonesian environmental group, does not agree. It expects the islands’ economies to grow at a slower rate than suggested by the government. Moreover, it points out several serious warnings raised by independent experts. These include the costs and risks of nuclear-waste management, which, experts argue, are under-estimated by the government. Nuclear waste remains dangerous for millennia, and even in rich countries like Germany disposal remains an unsolved problem.
The environmentalists also stress that Indonesian islands are prone to be hit by earthquakes and tsunamis, which would, of course, affect the safety of nuclear facilities. “Quake in the Java Sea confirms that the area is unsuitable for a nuclear Power Plant,” was thus the headline of a press release by WALHI (Friends of the Earth Indonesia) in August.

Accordingly, the opposition groups are critical of legislation that exempts the nuclear industry from responsibility in cases of damages due to natural or human-made disasters, conflicts or accidents caused by third parties. Again, the exemption of nuclear industries from such liabilities is a phenomenon well known in other countries too.

The government sticks to its stand, insisting that nuclear energy is cheap and would lessen the nation’s dependence on fossil fuels. According to its calculations, up-to-date nuclear plants will generate electric power at $ 0,015 per kilowatt-hour, almost half the cost of fossil energy and only a third of what electricity consumers pay in Indonesia. Moreover, BATAN as the implementing agency stresses that the technology is safe as well as climate-neutral, and that the IAEA will inspect all projects. Moreover, construction permits would depend on strict supervision and regulation. The underlying message is: leave the matter to professional scientists and engineers.

However, there is reason not to trust officialdom’s experts. In case of disasters, relief and compensations for victims typically remain very poor in Indonesia. For instance, people remember a drilling accident on Java. It caused a mudslide that buried several villages. The affected people are still in dire straits long after the event. There recently was an explosion at a conventional power plant, but the authorities did not publish any official report.

Environmentalists are therefore upset about the low safety standards as well as government agencies’ non-transparency. On top of that, they worry about corruption. Bribe-induced mismanagement, after all, is what makes electricity expensive for Indonesian consumers. Environmental organisations under MANI, the society against nuclear power in Indonesia, therefore promote popular participation in decision-making, and do not only raise awareness of the fortes and deficits of particular technologies.

In early September, members of the Nahdatul Ulama, Indonesia’s largest Muslim organisation, convened in Jepara in central Java. Muslim scholars discussed the viability of nuclear power, examining in detail the arguments of the government and the environmentalists. In the end, they agreed that nuclear power has pros and cons, but that the disadvantages of a facility in Java would outweigh the benefits for the people. Assuming other energy sources can be explored, they decided nuclear energy was “haram” (forbidden by the Muslim faith) on Java’s Muria peninsula. That something can be of some use, they said, does not mean it is necessarily a blessing.

Cross-border concerns

Concerns about nuclear power do not only exist in Indonesia. In late September, Indonesia’s Centre for Strategic and International Studies, CSIS, and the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, SIIA, convened the 1st Regional Workshop on Environment, Energy and Nuclear Safety in Jakarta. It was meant to provide an input to the ASEAN meeting in Singapore in November.

The Chairman’s summary statement tackles several nuclear issues. It states, among other things, that governments should aim to promote sufficient, safe and viable energy to improve the welfare of the people in general. For that purpose, it is said, energy policies should prioritise
– increased energy efficiency in the generation and use of energy;
– investment in alternative and renewable energy, including solar, wave and geothermal sources, especially where there are rich potential sources of such energy;
– opening markets to investment for exploring, using and generating energy, for greater efficiencies and new technologies; and
– consider “micro energy” policies and infrastructure to generate and make power accessible to all communities, including those further away from the capital.

The document warns that nuclear plants create many uncertainties in terms of costs, safety, uranium supply and waste management. In view of the risks, this technology should therefore be considered only a last option for energy. The economic viability of the technology is also said to be uncertain, as, for instance, the cost of uranium may yet escalate.

Moreover, the statement speaks of the danger of “weaponisation”. For instance, terrorists could attack nuclear facilities. Once again, the threat of natural disasters is emphasised. ASEAN members are urged to exercise the greatest caution and all possible measures to ensure safety and security.

As for the projects planned in Indonesia, however, the country’s Parliament and the IAEA have already approved first designs for a nuclear power plant. The IAEA has granted $ 1.34 million for technical assistance. Bureaucracy and unforeseen setup-costs, however, may still stand in the way of a nuclear future in Indonesia – and so may civil-society opposition. History of other countries teaches us that the struggle over nuclear energy can go on for many years.