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Quake-Prone Indonesia Debates Going Nuclear

JAKARTA -- Indonesia says it will press ahead with plans to develop nuclear power, despite the severe risks highlighted this week as Japan struggles to control a meltdown and radiation leaks at its Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

Ferhat Aziz, a spokesman for Indonesia's Nuclear Energy Agency said nuclear power would remain a key part of the country's energy strategy, but opposition from government officials reveals deep divisions on how Indonesia should best meet its energy needs.

Demand for electricity is growing at nearly seven percent per year in Indonesia, the world's fourth-most populous nation. And still more than a third of the country is not connected to the power grid.

Some in government say nuclear power is key to meeting energy shortfalls that cause frequent blackouts. But like Japan, Indonesia sits amid the Pacific Ring of Fire, an area prone to earthquakes and seismic activity.

The country also struggles with corruption, weak governing institutions and a lack of coordination between regulatory agencies - issues nuclear experts fear will prevent the government from adequately monitoring such a fragile source of energy.

Energy campaigners at environmental organization Greenpeace say Indonesia needs to invest in reliable energy sources that don't pose the same risks to human safety as nuclear power. Warning systems and efficient safety mechanisms are not as advanced here as they are in Japan, and Greenpeace fears the country's inability to cope with a crisis like the one at Fukushima would lead to further tragedy.

Aziz says parts of Indonesia - namely the northern part of Java, Borneo and Bangka-Belitung - are safe for nuclear reactors. Though the latter location has stirred debate since it sits near the volatile fault line in Sumatra that witnessed a major 7.6-magnitude earthquake in September 2009.

And with public criticism growing, the government appears to be wavering. "As long as we have alternative energy or mixed energy, nuclear is the last option," Indonesia's chief economic minister Hatta Rajasa told Reuters on March 16.

Indonesia has the world's third-largest potential reserve of geothermal power, at around 27,000MW, but it has developed less than five percent of that amount. Its hydro potential is even greater, at more than 75,000MW.

Analysts are now conducting environmental impact assessments for several nuclear power plant sites and the Nuclear Energy Agency is bidding for up to four nuclear plants with the ability to generate 4,000MW, or a fourth of the country's current energy needs.

But some analysts say Indonesia's desire to master nuclear technology is more about national pride than its potential as a source of power generation.

"In any emerging market, it's a game of upmanship or being part of a club," said Edward Gustely, the head of an infrastructure investment firm, Tusk Advisory, and an advisor to the government on low-carbon investment. He says the government should be looking at new technologies rather than debating if it can bear the costs needed to build plants able to withstand major shocks.

Other possibilities include mini nuclear power facilities similar to a nuclear submarine or aircraft carrier that could mitigate the risks associated with big plants like Fukushima.

Still, Indonesia's drive to pursue nuclear - part of an energy development plan to cut fossil-fuel dependence by around 12 percent by 2025 - is in contrast to the nuclear rethink displayed by most nations last week.

On March 16 China said it would halt plans for new nuclear plants to pursue safety checks, and Thailand also agreed to freeze development for four proposed sites.

A longer version of this story appears at Eco-Business

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