In a country long wary of nuclear, an Indonesian chases the thorium dream

By  on 12 June 2018 -

  • The image of nuclear energy took a huge hit after the catastrophic accident at the Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan in 2011. Some countries are phasing out their nuclear power programs.
  • Around the world, however, proponents of an alternative type of reactor billed as safer and more efficient are gaining steam with their ideas. One of them is Bob Effendi, a native of Indonesia.
  • Indonesia has long been skeptical of nuclear power. But at the country struggles to meet its targets for renewable energy, some within the government appear to be listening to the thorium pitch.

JAKARTA — In 2013, Bob Effendi was at a turning point. He wanted to leave the oil company he was working for. He had growing concerns about climate change and regretted the role his industry was playing in it. “I had internal conflicts with my boss and my conscience,” he recounts.

Effendi, an engineer by training, quit and gave himself one year to study renewable energy. He attended seminars around the world, hoping to learn how to power a cleaner future with wind, solar, hydro and geothermal resources.

Instead, he became a proponent of nuclear energy. But not just any nuclear energy. The ideas of a group of researchers spearheaded by a former NASA engineer named Kirk Sorensen had caught his attention.

In the early 2000s, Sorensen had begun trying to revive interest in an alternative type of reactor, one that uses the element thorium instead of uranium to start the nuclear reaction, and liquid fuel instead of solid rods to sustain it. The technology was decades old, but never brought to commercial maturity. Sorensen came to believe it could make the next generation of nuclear power plants much safer and easier to manage, and provide the world with an abundance of clean, cheap and safe energy.

To Effendi, it sounded too good to be true. But the more he studied the technology, he says, the more he became convinced it could solve the energy problems of his home country, Indonesia.

The world’s fourth-most populous nation, home to some 260 million people, Indonesia is a top greenhouse gas emitter. The main cause is the destruction of its rainforests and peat swamps to make way for plantations and mines. Energy and industrial emissions are also on the rise amid rapid urbanization.

After his one-year deep dive into renewables, Effendi came to believe technologies like wind, solar and hydropower were too expensive, and progressing too slowly, to meet Indonesia’s growing energy demands. This would deepen the nation’s already heavy dependence on coal, with dire consequences for the environment.

Nuclear had been considered before, but plans never materialized due to safety concerns. After all, Indonesia is prone to earthquakes and tsunamis, a country of thousands of islands draped across the seismic Ring of Fire. The potential for a catastrophic accident was seen as too great.

If this alternative reactor really was safer, Effendi decided, perhaps it could help Indonesia overcome these challenges. “Nuclear is the recipe for economic growth and against climate change,” was the mantra he boiled his thoughts down to.

He set out to convince his government to rethink its stance on nuclear, and to consider next-generation reactor types as an option. In doing so, he joined a growing contingent of people around the world who believe thorium-powered, liquid-fueled reactors, while commercially unproven, may hold the key to a global energy revolution.

Thorium atom. Source:

The thorium dream

The reactor type Kirk Sorensen rediscovered dates back to the Cold War. Its design was led by the nuclear physicist Alvin Weinberg, who also helped develop the pressurized water reactor widely in use today.

The typical pressurized water reactor contains uranium fuel rods suspended in water. The rods react in the water, heating it up, which creates steam that powers a turbine. The reactor’s cooling system also relies on water, using pumps to keep it circulating. If the plant is cut off from its power supply for a prolonged period of time, the cooling fails, and the reactor can overheat. That’s what happened at the Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan in 2011. An earthquake and tsunami disabled the power supply, causing one of the worst nuclear accidents of all time.

According to a widely recited account, Sorensen first came across a description of Weinberg’s experiments with a different kind of reactor while leafing through an old book about his research at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, where Weinberg had served as director from 1955 to 1973.

The book described a prototype built by Weinberg’s team for what they called a molten salt reactor. In this design, the nuclear reaction occurred within a bath of liquid fluoride into which the nuclear fuel, ideally thorium, had been dissolved. This meant the reactor could operate under normal atmospheric pressure, because the salt bath, unlike water, could reach very high temperatures without vaporizing. Such a reactor didn’t need thick walls to contain the pressure, and it wasn’t likely to explode.

The molten salt design also allowed for a cooling system without pumps. Instead, in the event of a power outage, the overheated salt bath would naturally expand, forcing it to drain by force of gravity into a containment vessel where it would cool off on its own. Proponents say this makes the reactor immune to meltdowns.

U.S. Senator John F. Kennedy listens to Alvin Weinberg, director of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, in 1959. Image courtesy of the U.S. Department of Energy/Wikimedia Commons.

The experimental molten salt reactor ran for four years in the 1960s, but it was never replicated on a commercial scale — even though Weinberg himself, who raised early alarms about global warming, came to favor the molten salt design over its counterparts.

Molten salt reactors don’t have to be fueled by thorium, but proponents say using it instead of uranium has additional benefits. For one thing, waste produced by the thorium fuel cycle can’t be weaponized as easily as waste from the uranium fuel cycle. The thorium chain reaction does not produce plutonium, the key ingredient in atomic bombs.

And waste from thorium is said to be far less toxic. This is because it is more efficient than uranium; most of the active material is used up. The waste is still radioactive, but it needs only a few hundred years to decay to safe levels, a fraction of the time taken by conventional nuclear waste.

Thorium has another selling point: it’s far more abundant than uranium, which means more countries have easy access to it.

“As abundant as lead,” Effendi says. Indonesia has plenty of it.

Thorium is a natural radioactive chemical element with the symbol Th and atomic number 90. It was discovered in 1828 and named after Thor, the Norse god of thunder. Image by Rui Costa/Flickr.

The thorium salt design has its believers, but overall, the image of nuclear energy took a huge hit after Fukushima. Germany, Spain and Italy are just some of the countries phasing out their nuclear power programs.

The mainstream environmental movement tends to oppose nuclear on the grounds that it’s too dangerous. But thorium salt reactors are barely a part of the conversation. To the extent that the technology is acknowledged, the most common argument against it seems to be that it remains unproven on a commercial scale.

After Fukushima, the industry was forced to acknowledge dangerous flaws in current reactor designs. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) issued an action plancalling for measures to improve reactor safety. Thorium salt proponents saw the potential for renewed interest in their ideas, and some labs began to invest in reviving the technology.

Nearly a decade later, that work has started to bear fruit. Last year the Netherlands became the first country to fire up an experimental thorium salt reactor in almost 50 years. China is reportedly spending $3.3 billion on its molten salt program in the Gobi Desert; it hopes to become the first nation to operate this type of reactor commercially. Countries like India are on track to use thorium, but in conventional reactors without liquid fuel.

It appears, too, that some within the Indonesian government are listening to the thorium pitch.

Nuclear energy startups

In 2015, three state-owned companies in Indonesia signed a memorandum of understanding with a U.S.-based firm called Martingale. They agreed to conduct a feasibility study on how Martingale’s design for a thorium salt reactor it calls ThorCon could be brought to the Southeast Asian nation.

Martingale is one of a growing number of firms trying to bring innovation to the nuclear industry post-Fukushima. This goes beyond the design of the reactor, with new methods being applied to the layout, assembly and operation of the entire plant. The next generation of nuclear plants is billed as smaller and more efficient, with individual components designed to be mass-produced in one place and assembled in another. The idea is to cut costs and increase flexibility.

The IAEA lists some 50 companies working on these small “modular” reactor designs. These include thorium salt reactors and conventionally powered ones. When Effendi became interested in thorium and liquid-fuel reactors, he studied the companies on the IAEA’s list, searching for one whose design would be robust enough for earthquake-prone Indonesia. Martingale, he says, stood out.

Martingale’s ThorCon design resembles a ship. Co-founder David Devanney, a naval engineer, worked with a team of nuclear experts, including an Oak Ridge alumnus, to design a plant whose components, he says, can be mass-produced in a shipyard and assembled in under a year.

Sequence of Thorcon block assembly progression. Source: Author: Jack Devanney, Thorcon Power.

No matter the efficacy of their design, companies like Martingale face the same challenge as startups in other highly regulated industries: It’s tough to get a foot in the door. Industry incumbents tend to defend their own interests, while countries with an established nuclear sector have little incentive to spur a major shift in technology, at least not until existing reactors reach decommissioning age. That’s why Martingale isn’t expecting to fire up its first ThorCon plant in the U.S., according to Devanney.

“We are willing to go anywhere in the world,” he declared. “We need a host nation.” When Effendi signaled interest from Indonesia, it clicked.

Lobbying for Martingale, Effendi managed to get the ear of three Indonesian state-owned firms: nuclear fuel processor INUKI, electricity generator PLN, and oil and gas company Pertamina. The four companies agreed to conduct a feasibility study on how ThorCon could be brought to Indonesia. This coincided with a spike in interest in thorium at several government institutions, including the ministries of energy and industry and the national atomic research agency.

But overall, concrete plans have failed to materialize. It’s no surprise, considering Indonesia’s longstanding skepticism of nuclear power.

Even though Indonesia has had its own nuclear research agency since the 1950s, no plan to build a commercial plant has ever reached maturity, a common trajectory across Southeast Asia.

“There was a concept to build Indonesia’s first nuclear power plant on Java island in 1997, but it received a lot of rejection from society over safety concerns, considering Indonesia has many earthquakes and volcanic eruptions,” said Ery Wijaya, an analyst at the Climate Policy Initiative, a global think tank. Other common arguments brought against nuclear, he added, were the high development costs and the lack of capable human resources in Indonesia.

The Merapi volcano in Indonesia. Source: Wiki.

After the Fukushima accident, Indonesia’s National Energy Council, or DEN, which is chaired by the country’s president, decided that in all upcoming energy plans, nuclear was to be relegated to the status of “last option.” The council, whose members include cabinet ministers, scientists, industry representatives and environmentalists, plays the lead role in formulating the country’s energy policy.

The ‘last option’

Just because something is the last option, however, does not mean it is totally out of play. In fact, current policy leaves open a window for nuclear to be considered. It all has to do with whether Indonesia can meet an ambitious new target for renewable energy — something it is currently struggling to do.

In order to reduce Indonesia’s dependence on oil, President Joko Widodo has declared that renewables should account for 23 percent of Indonesia’s energy mix by 2025. This is reflected in recent versions of the national electricity procurement plan, which is updated annually.

The current version actually scales back overall demand expectations for electricity by 30 percent, adjusting for slower-than-anticipated economic growth. While this makes adding new capacity a less pressing issue at the moment, the plan still aims for a 23 percent share of “new and renewable” energy in the overall mix by 2025. By 2050, that share is set to grow to 31 percent.

The plan lists nuclear in the “new and renewables” category, along with energy sources like wind, solar and geothermal — a fact often overlooked in media reports and secondhand references that tend to label the category simply as “renewables.”

In accordance with the energy council’s decision, the electricity plan says nuclear can only be considered as a last option. But by most assessments, Indonesia is falling behind on the 23 percent “new and renewables” target with sources like solar and geothermal alone.

For example, a 2017 energy outlook report by a state-funded technology assessment agency says it expects only a 13 percent share of “new and renewable” energy in Indonesia by 2025 if the current course of development continues.

Agus Puji Prasetyono, a senior adviser at the Ministry of Research, Technology and Higher Education, thinks pressure to achieve the 23 percent goal might push policymakers toward nuclear.

“At this point, the achievement is far lower than we hoped for,” he said. “If I am not mistaken only 10 to 12 percent [of the 23 percent goal] has been achieved.”

On top of that, says Widjaja, the analyst, a recent policy change has made it less attractive to invest in renewables, with more focus on producing electricity at affordable prices to increase industrial competitiveness.

In short, while the national electricity plan includes no concrete plan to add nuclear capacity, it does allow for the possibility of considering it if renewables continue to underperform. The document even makes special mention of small modular reactors — the type that can be assembled from readymade parts — and describes a molten salt-like reactor, citing improvements in the safety of these designs. It also points out that thorium is abundant in Indonesia. It lists as a disadvantage that no country has yet to operate such a reactor commercially.

 Photo of a molten-salt reactor (MSR) at Oak Ridge National Laboratory before their thorium energy research ended.  "Image courtesy of Oak Ridge National Laboratory".

Gaining momentum?

Effendi found a new platform to push his thorium dream when he was asked to join the energy working group of the National Economic and Industry Committee, or KEIN. The committee reports to the president and helps formulate a long-term strategy for economic growth. Effendi says the committee was asked by the energy ministry to develop a nuclear roadmap that focuses on economic feasibility and takes into account new technologies.

A roadmap does not mean a concrete plan is in place — especially in Indonesia. At best, it constitutes a small step in what may give rise to a more robust debate.

“The dispute between those who are pro and contra nuclear in Indonesia is very strong,” said Prasetyono, the adviser at the research and technology ministry.

Pramudya Sikumbang, section head for evaluation of electricity provision at the energy ministry, said the government was looking at every option, including nuclear. “There is great potential for thorium in Bangka,” he said, referring to the Indonesian island known for its tin mines. But he said it would be highly unlikely for any nuclear project to move forward as long as DEN, the National Energy Council, which had labeled nuclear a “last option,” kept its stance.

Syamsir Abduh, an electricity expert who joined DEN in 2009, chose his words carefully when asked whether the council might change its stance on nuclear under the present circumstances.

“Take note of the requirements that go along with nuclear power as the ‘last option,’” he said. He was referring to the language that says nuclear can be considered if Indonesia fails to meet the 23 percent target with renewables alone.

“To reach a decision on this takes relatively long, and would ultimately be decided in a plenary meeting led by the president in his role as the head of DEN,” Syamsir said.

Much of this conversation has happened without public scrutiny. Analysts haven’t been paying much attention. Given the many failed attempts in Indonesia to plan for a nuclear plant, Wijaya, the analyst, sees little reason to believe things might change.

Planning and testing alone would take over a decade, Wijaya says, while the costs are uncertain. He doubts molten salt reactors will find their way to the archipelago any time soon.

“In 2019, [President Joko Widodo] will run for his second term,” he said. “I think he will play safe on his energy policy in order to keep his electability rate high.” Wijaya thinks it unlikely that Jokowi, as the president is known, will make such a far-reaching decision that could stir public debate.

But as Zulnahar Usman, another KEIN member and thorium proponent, pointed out at a recent event in Bali, “President Jokowi has never said a word against nuclear.”

Effendi agrees that the matter is very much up in the air.

“The push [for nuclear] is gaining so much momentum,” he says. “Even if the president and ministers change, this is still here.”

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