Blessed with copious amounts of coal, huge reserves of natural gas and a rich store of geothermal energy and other climate-friendly renewables, Indonesia’s frequent talk over the years about venturing into the nuclear age has always appeared to lack conviction.

What concerns many Indonesians is not only the threat posed to a nuclear power plant by earthquakes and tsunamis in one of the world’s most geothermally active nations, but also whether authorities are capable of putting in place and, more importantly, strictly enforcing safeguards against disasters.

Neighbors like Singapore and Australia have always shared serious concerns of a potential disaster if Indonesia goes nuclear, given its suspect safety record in other fields. Why then, the skeptics ask, would a new specially appointed industry watchdog allay any of those concerns?

Nuclear energy advocate Bob Effendi, a member of President Joko Widodo’s National Economic and Industry Committee (KEIN), has a ready answer for the nuclear naysayers: mitigate much of the risk of conventional reactors by using a thorium-fueled molten salt reactor, which is not only immune to meltdown but is cheaper and produces less toxic waste.

Thermal salt reactor

Why Indonesia’s thermal salt reactor is being revisited 60 years after it was first developed but not brought online requires an understanding of the complex political, industrial and military reasons that drove the United States to choose uranium-fed water-cooled water reactors in the first place.

Effenndi, a former oilman, challenges the widely held perception that Indonesia has limitless sources of energy, claiming that coal and gas reserves will be depleted by 2035-2040 and that the potential for renewables like solar and wind is only 15% of what it is generally claimed to be.

Nuclear energy’s image took a huge hit after the tsunami-triggered accident at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi plant in 2011 – the worst since the 1986 Chernobyl meltdown disaster – which caused Germany, Spain, Italy and Belgium to resolve to phase out their own nuclear power programs.

Then Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono already had reservations about nuclear power when so much else was on offer. “As long as there are other alternatives, we will not use nuclear resources, Yudhoyono declared in a 2009 election speech.

His successor, Widodo, initially seemed to embrace that no-nuke sentiment as well, telling a Japanese newspaper during the 2014 election campaign that he thought there were plenty of other options before Indonesia should consider going nuclear.

Then, in late 2015, US energy firm Martingale signed an MoU with state-owned PT Industry Nuklir Indonesia (INUKI), PT Perusahaan Listrik Negara (PLN) and PT Pertamina to conduct a feasibility study into whether its ThorCon molten salt reactor could help meet Indonesia’s future energy needs.

Widodo was there for the MOU’s signing in Washington, later saying in a statement on his return home that if nuclear is needed “we must immediately start preparing for it. This should not be allowed to drift. A decision must be made, but the cost has to be ascertained.”

Alternative design

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has already declared Indonesia nuclear compliant on all but two of 21 conditions – for a firm government position on nuclear power and the establishment of an organization to implement the construction of a power plant.

The typical nuclear reactor uses uranium rods suspended in pressurized water, which are fission-heated and generate the steam to drive a turbine. The water also acts as a cooling system, with pumps to keep it circulating. Any loss of power leads to overheating and a meltdown, as happened during the Fukushima tsunami.

In the alternative design, the nuclear reaction occurs when thorium, a similar radioactive element to uranium, is dissolved in a bath of molten salt which works under normal atmospheric pressure because unlike water it does not vaporize at high temperatures; if it overheats, fission will automatically stop.

The molten salt concept means the reactor doesn’t require thick walls to contain the pressure and will never be in danger of a meltdown because an overheated salt bath will melt the freeze plug and drain by force of gravity into a containment vessel where it will cool on its own.

National Nuclear Energy Agency

Indonesia has only modest quantities of uranium, but it does have an estimated 170,000 tons of thorium, concentrated in the tin-rich Sumatran province of Bangka-Belitung, which is found in the monazite sands unearthed during the tin-mining process.

Indonesia already leads Southeast Asia in nuclear experience. Established in 1954 at the height of the Cold War, Indonesia’s National Nuclear Energy Agency (BATAN) commissioned a 30-megawatt (MW) nuclear research reactor at Serpong, on the outskirts of Jakarta, in the late 1980s.

Since then, it has built two smaller reactors in Jogjakarta and in Bandung and established a nuclear regulatory agency, but plans for a 7,000-MW nuclear power station on the Muria Peninsula in heavily populated Central Java or in Bangka-Belitung, south of Singapore, have been deferred indefinitely.

The strongest opposition to the Central Java plan comes from Nahdlatul Ulama, Indonesia’s 35-million-strong Muslim organization, which went so far as to issue a fatwa in 2007 declaring the project to be haram, or forbidden under Islamic law.

A nuclear complex on the peninsula may not be at risk of a tsunami, or even a major quake. But critics say the proposed plant lies in the path of potential pyroclastic flows from the nearby Muria volcano and would have to be built on a bed of compressed ash, making it vulnerable to liquefaction.

With Muria looking increasingly unlikely, BATAN shifted its focus to Bangka island off Sumatra’s southeast coast. But a new Bangka-Belitung provincial government, taking office soon after the Fukashima disaster, didn’t like that idea either, a view shared by many energy policy-makers.

Times may be changing, however. Apparently unfazed by safety concerns, East Kalimantan is now shaping up as the most likely location for a modular ThorCon nuclear reactor, which would be built in 500-MW units in a South Korean or Japanese shipyard and shipped to Indonesia.

Despite the province still being one of the country’s richest sources of coal and gas, the East Kalimantan government has already signed an MoU with BATAN to build the plant at a coastal site 200 kilometers north of Samarinda, the province capital.

In pressing their case, nuclear advocates claim a 1,000-MW thermal salt reactor can be built for an estimated US$1 billion, five times less than an old-generation plant, and produce power at an acceptable 6-7 US cents per kilowatt hour – the same as the current price of coal-fired power.

Only Canada’s Terrestrial Energy, an energy technology company, is actively working on a thermal salt reactor. But China and 15 other countries are also exploring the feasibility of similar Generation IV projects to meet long-term energy needs.

While Widodo appears to be on board in principle, there has been a decade-long history of conflict and ambiguity over the nuclear issue between government agencies and anti-nuclear hardliners on the National Energy Council, led by former environment minister Sonny Keraf.

The National Development Planning Agency (Bappenas) and the Industry Ministry have always included nuclear in their long-term planning, as prescribed in the 2007 Energy Law. But the NEC has continued to drag its feet and calls it a last option – even though the 2007 law says all energy options are equal.

In March 2017, Energy Minister Sudirman Said unveiled a revised National Power Plan, which increased the targeted use of renewables, of which nuclear is considered one, from 5% to a highly-ambitious 23% over the next seven years.

That – and the need to boost installed capacity from 55,000-MW to 125,000-MW in the same time frame – appears impossible unless nuclear becomes an integral part of the mix.

“Energy planning is so chaotic,” says Effendi, noting that the government is mistrustful of its own agencies in managing nuclear power. “We don’t have a plan to achieve the actual plan.”

What may finally persuade Widodo to go nuclear is that adding 4,000-MW of nuclear power by 2025 will help wean the economy away from the fossil fuel market now that global oil prices are rising again and threatening to blow out the country’s fuel price subsidy bill.