Inspection and certification company Bureau Veritas (BV) recently signed an agreement with nuclear power technology developer ThorCon for the Technology Qualification and subsequent development of a 500MW molten salt nuclear power barge intended for operations in Indonesia. Thorcon has been promoting its technology to key Indonesian institutions since 2015, the year that, Indonesia decided to cancel its $8bn plans to construct four nuclear plants with a total capacity of 6GWe by 2025.

In 2014, Thorcon’s parent company Florida-based Martingale, completed the preliminary detailed design of its molten salt reactor, technical details of which were published at “It is the basis for securing feedback, funding, and siting for the project,” it said, adding that “the goal for 2015 is to identify a host country and site for construction of the non-nuclear prototype ThorCon, along with funding to enable construction”. In January 2015 Martingale formally unveiled its ThorCon liquid-fuel nuclear reactor design, which uses uranium and thorium fuel dissolved in molten salt, and these same details are now available on the Thorcon website. At that time, production was expected to start by 2020.

Thorcon’s initial approach to Indonesia took place in October 2015 when the Indonesia Thorium Consortium signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with Martingale to develop thorium molten salt reactors (MSRs). ThorCon's statement said Indonesia planned to commission its first such reactor in 2021. The consortium comprised PT Industry Nuklir Indonesia (INUKI), the state-owned nuclear fuel processing company; PT PLN, a state-owned power generation company; and PT Pertamina, the state oil and gas company.

In 2017, Pertamina, INUKI and PLN completed a preliminary feasibility study on the ThorCon proposal which was positive, and the consortium then sought approval from Indonesia's National Atomic Energy Agency (Batan). Thorcon said that after testing in a full-scale pre-fission test facility, the phase 1 plan is to build a 500MWe ThorConIsle unit (two modules) to prove the design, and then proceed to shipyard construction of further units to provide 3GWe.

In 2019, the state shipbuilding company PT PAL Indonesia, signed an agreement with ThorCon to conduct a development study and build a 500MWe plant. PAL would build the reactor as EPC contractor and put it on a 185-metre-long barge built by Daewoo Shipbuilding & Marine Engineering in Okpo, South Korea. The completed plant would then be towed to a site in Indonesia, ballasted to the seabed and connected to the grid. Thorcon said in a statement it “has expressed seriousness” to invest $1.2 billion to the plant.

The following year, Thorcon and Indonesia’s Defence Ministry signed a MOU to study developing a thorium molten salt reactor for either power generation or marine vehicle propulsion. The head of the Defence Ministry’s Research and Development Agency (DRDA), Dr Anne Kusmayati, said in a statement that thorium-based power R&D in the in DRDA “is in line with the policy of the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources which mandates the need for concrete steps to prepare nuclear power development projects, bearing in mind dwindling fossil energy sources and the length of time needed to construct a nuclear power plant”.

The statement added: "So the thorium-based power development research programme that began in FY 2019 and will last until the Strategic Plan 2020-2024 and may continue represents the Ministry of Defence's efforts to be the initiator or lever in mastering 4th generation nuclear technology that utilises thorium, which is available in abundance in Indonesia." Under the strategic plan, the ministry aimed to have an operational molten salt reactor by 2025, which can be used to either generate electricity or power ships and submarines, according to the ministry’s website.

“We hope Thorcon may be more open toward providing technical support for the Defence Ministry’s R&D body in making the designs and technical preparations for when we enter the construction phase,” the ministry’s statement noted. Thorcon said it would provide technical support to DRDA to develop “a small-scale TMSR (thorium molten salt reactor) under 50 MW", which will “strengthen national security in the outermost, frontier and least developed regions”.

However, Dandang Purwadi, director of National Nuclear Energy Agency (Batan), which had never shown much enthusiasm for the Thorcon project, told The Jakarta Post that thorium nuclear technology is not yet ready for commercial application. “We have to wait around 10 years for the technology to mature, then it takes 10 years to build the facility”, he said.

Undeterred, in January this year, Thorcon named Spanish engineering firm Empresarios Agrupados (EA) as architect engineer for the TMSR-500 to be deployed in Indonesia. As architect engineer, EA will support ThorCon across a broad range of activities, including project management, document control, code compliance, site preparation, pre-construction activities and licensing agreements. Additionally, the company will also provide engineering services to ThorCon throughout the lifecycle of the project, from design engineering to construction, operation and eventual decommissioning.

Six months later, Thorcon reached agreement with the National Research and Innovation Agency (BRIN), which had assumed overall control of all research bodies in Indonesia including Batan. BRIN and ThorCon then agreed to jointly develop and build an experimental NPP based on molten salt reactor technology, with ThorCon stating its readiness to provide full funding privately or without the State Budget for this IDR17,000 billion ($1bn) project, on condition that the Indonesian government would provide support in the form of “legal certainty”.

BRIN Chairman Dr Laksana Tri Handoko noted that ThorCon’s molten salt reactor-based technology “is quite promising in terms of safety, efficiency and from an economic standpoint”. He noted that “this technology is a new generation and no one has yet implemented it,” adding: “However, therein lies our opportunity to be able to jointly develop this technology, so that in the future Indonesia will not only become a user of a nuclear power plant, but also play an active role as a developer."

Thorcon’s website notes that its power plant “is encapsulated in a hull, built in a shipyard, towed to a shallow water site, ballasted to the seabed. … [and] requires no new technology. It is “a straightforward scale-up of the successful United States Oak Ridge National Laboratory Molten Salt Reactor Experiment (MSRE). A full-scale 500 MW ThorCon prototype can be operating under test within four years. After proving the plant safely handles multiple potential failures and problems, commercial power plant production can begin.” However, MSRE was shut down in 1969 and is now being prepared for dismantling.

While there is now renewed interest in MSR technology in the US and elsewhere, there are no projects anywhere in the world near realisation – and that includes Thorcon, in spite of its growing list of agreements and MOUs. Moreover, Indonesia appears to be lukewarm about the technology.

Batan has shown more interest in high-temperature gas-cooled reactors (HTRs) than MSRs. In 2014, nuclear co-operation with Japan was extended to research into HTRs and a 2015 agreement with Rusatom Overseas related to small floating plants while a consortium of Russian and Indonesian companies won a contract for the preliminary design of a multi-purpose 10MWt HTR. In 2016 China Nuclear Engineering Corporation also signed a cooperation agreement to develop HTRs. In 2018, Batan launched a roadmap to develop an engineering design for an experimental small pebble-bed HTR and a site licence was received for a 10MWt reactor at Puspiptek.

Meanwhile its interest in conventional nuclear powe is seeing a revival. In June 2022, BRIN said Indonesia’s nuclear energy development plans would need to be supported with the drafting of policies and clear guidelines. "In the field of nuclear energy, sufficient preparation and support are needed, such as policies, human resources, and facility infrastructure, as well as how to utilise Indonesia's natural resources, which can be used as nuclear fuel," BRIN's Development Policy Deputy Mego Pinandito noted. Currently, nuclear power has become a clean energy option for tackling climate change, he added.

On 5 December, Nuclear Energy Regulatory Agency (Bapeten) Director for Nuclear Installation and Material Control, Haendra Subekti, said in a statement that, Indonesia is currently looking for investors to help finance a nuclear plant's construction. "We have drafted regulations on nuclear infrastructure safety, preparing the location for the plant and formulating trial operation. All of these have been nearly completed," Subekti noted, adding that the location of the NPP will not be in earthquake-prone areas. 

Thorcon’s agreement with BV is the latest in a long-line undertakings in Indonesia that have yet to show any concrete results. The scope of the agreement includes the potential development and deployment phases once the Technology Qualification is completed. At this stage, it is anticipated that the Technology Qualification process will take a minimum of three years and if successful, the deployment phase would require an additional two years. This would bring implementation to 2027. It remains to be seen whether Thorcon’s project figures in any of Indonesia’s new plans.

Image: Overview of the ThorCon molten salt fission reactor (courtesy of ThorCon)