Transparency on Nuclear Energy

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  • TEMPO.CO, JakartaThe government needs to carefully study the plan to build a thorium power station in Bangka Belitung. Environmentally friendly energy sources must be prioritized.

    THE construction of a thorium nuclear power station in Bangka Belitung looks very promising. Indonesia indeed has plenty of reserves of nuclear fuel, the second largest in the world after India. However, the government needs to provide a comprehensive and transparent explanation about the plan to use this energy source.

    Indonesia has long had plans to build nuclear power stations, including in Muria Mountain, Central Java in 2007. This region was seen as ideal because there is no danger from earthquakes or tsunamis. However, the plan was not continued because of the strength of public opposition.

    The main reason for this opposition was safety. The explosion at the nuclear facilities in Chernobyl, Ukraine, on April 27, 1986, and the similar incident at the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan on March 11, 2011, were bad propaganda for nuclear power. The Chernobyl explosion released radiation and lead to more than 400,000 people being evacuated. The abandoned regions turned into ghost towns and are unsuitable for human habitation.

    Until today, Indonesia's energy policy has avoided nuclear power. In 2014, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono issued a government regulation stating that uranium-fueled nuclear power stations were "the last option."

    After the opposition to the plan to build the reactor in Muria, the government switched to thorium, of which there are substantial amounts in Bangka Belitung. According to the National Nuclear Energy Agency in 2005, Indonesia has 133,000 tons of thorium reserves. This is two percent of global reserves. India has reserves of 846,000 tons.

    A company from the United States, ThorCon International Pte Ltd., is prepared to build a 500-megawatt thorium power station in Indonesia and will provide an initial investment of Rp17 trillion. The company is also certain that the production of electricity would be much cheaper at around 3 US cents per kilowatt-hour (KWh). This is far less than the costs of production by coal-fired power stations at 5.6 US cents per KWh.

    ThorCon signed an agreement with the Bangka Belitung provincial government on July 30, 2020. They are already working with shipbuilding company PAL Surabaya to build the reactor. Construction of the power station is planned for completion in 2025 or 2026.

    Although it looks very promising economically, the government needs to carefully consider this. Like uranium, thorium is a radioactive element. It needs uranium-235 to convert it to the uranium-232 that can be used as fuel. One of the most important differences is that thorium does not produce plutonium as a byproduct of the nuclear reaction, so it cannot be used to make nuclear weapons.

    The government needs to be transparent with the public, especially in the area where the plant is to be built, so that people know the benefits and risks. It is these people who will be the victims if there is a disaster similar to those in Chernobyl and Fukushima. The government must also be aware of the high risks so it can prepare mitigation strategies.

    At present, there are no commercial-scale thorium power stations in operation, meaning the economic benefits are still uncertain, as are the risks. And neither are there any studies of how to deal with thorium waste products. Moreover, Indonesia's experience of managing reactors is limited to research interests.

    It also needs to be said that Indonesia is not currently facing an electricity supply shortage. This means there is no pressing need to build nuclear reactors. The government needs to prioritize the development of clean energy from abundant sources, such as solar, wind and geothermal.

    Read the Complete Story in Tempo English Magazine