My Jakarta: Djarot, Nuclear Scientist
Djarot decided to study nuclear science because it was a new field and he figured it would be easy to land a job after graduating. And he was right, finding work at the National Atomic Energy Agency (Batan), where he is now the deputy chairman for the development of nuclear material cycle technology and engineering. In addition to finding a career, Djarot also found a wife.
Today, the 49-year-old talks about nuclear waste, the threat of terrorism at our nuclear facilities and what you can do with three badminton courts.
How technologically prepared are we to run a nuclear power plant?
Batan has three active research reactors, in Yogyakarta, Serpong and Bandung, So in terms of infrastructure, reactor technology and human resources, Indonesia is prepared for its own plant. All it takes is the green light from the president. But it should be noted that Batan would only provide counsel and technical guidance, while the management would be fully in the hands of the government.
If the government is still undecided on a nuclear power plant, what has Batan been doing all these years?
Nuclear research does not only result in a nuclear power plant. Our research involving radio isotopes has contributed to the medical sector, farming and industry. As just one example, we have treated crop seeds to make them more resistant to disease and the elements.
Do you personally think we will ever have a nuclear power plant?
Well, in 2010 we conducted a survey, and around 59 percent of respondents had no problem with a nuclear power plant. And I think that with the president saying he aims to reduce carbon emissions through the use of cleaner energy, it implies that the government has no problem with nuclear energy. It’s a clean and massive source of energy.
What happens with the waste?
All the liquid radioactive waste is first be solidified, then mixed with cement and kept in barrels in concrete silos until the radioactive emissions are deemed acceptable for open exposure. I say acceptable instead of gone simply because radiation is everywhere. That’s why some argue that your mobile phone may be dangerous to your health.
What happens if the dump silo reaches full capacity?
Well, technically every storage unit has a built-in capacity, but Batan’s nuclear waste for the last 30 years would only cover an area about three times the size of a badminton court, whereas our silo’s total capacity in Serpong is around 10 times as big. So it will take a very long time before we run out of space. And it’s not like we can’t always build another dump facility.
And some of Batan’s waste had been kept there for so long, that its radioactive level is now deemed safe for release, but the problem is we don’t have a regulation on the release of radioactive waste.
How secure is Batan’s nuclear reactor facility and the dump facility?
If advanced countries are afraid of terrorists sabotaging their nuclear facilities, in Indonesia we only worry about thieves trying to remove any metal parts from our facility to sell [laughs]. So having security guards will suffice.
You wife is also a nuclear scientist. What are the odds.
Yes, we met in Tokyo when we were earning our master’s degrees. We had not met before and it seems that her being the only other Indonesian in our scholarship program there intensified our communications [laughs] .
So what do you talk about at home?
Work-related discussion is inevitable, but we try not to. We try to talk about anything else but work, like our son, for example. It’s really hard seeing him having to memorize all those facts for social studies.
In layman’s terms, what is a meltdown?
When nuclear fuel in a reactor is put to use, it gets really hot, that’s why we need coolant solution. A meltdown is a condition where the coolant system fails, causing the fuel rods to melt and exposing the highly radioactive substance to the open air. So it’s not like a meltdown will directly cause an atomic explosion.
You’ve accompanied the International Atomic Energy Agency during their inspections here. What do they do?
They come in a small team with no prior notification and suddenly just call you saying they’re at Soekarno-Hatta. So you take them to check whatever information they want, like our uranium deposits and how advanced we are in fuel reprocessing. That’s a term for the capability to make weapons-grade nuclear fuel.
We’d be all over the news if we could, but the unique thing is that the trade in raw uranium as fuel for nuclear plants will not create a similar trade dependency between the countries demanding it and those supplying it. That’s because the uranium waste is a step closer to being enriched for other advanced purposes, including weapons. So some countries need to have uranium, and others want their uranium used so they can get more of the uranium waste.
Dr. Djarot was talking to Antonny Saputra.