Four Killed in Nickel Plant Explosion, Many Left in Critical Condition

SULAWESI, INDONESIA – In a tragic incident on Sunday, a furnace explosion at a Chinese-owned nickel plant in Indonesia’s Sulawesi island claimed the lives of at least 13 workers, leaving dozens more injured. The blast occurred at PT Indonesia Tsingshan Stainless Steel, a PT Indonesia Morowali Industrial Park (PT IMIP) subsidiary in the Bahodopi neighborhood of Morowali regency.

Central Sulawesi police chief Agus Nugroho reported that the blast was so intense it destroyed the furnace and caused significant damage to the building’s side walls. Approximately 38 workers were hospitalized, some in critical condition. The victims included five Chinese and eight Indonesian workers who were repairing the furnace when it exploded.

This incident is the latest in a series of fatal accidents at nickel smelting plants in Indonesia, integral to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, a vast transnational development program. Nickel is a major component in the global production of batteries for electric vehicles.

Authorities are investigating the cause of the explosion, with a preliminary inquiry indicating the presence of explosive liquids at the furnace’s base. These liquids reportedly ignited a fire and caused an explosion in nearby oxygen cylinders. The company is scrutinized to determine if negligence played a role in the tragedy.

Deddy Kurniawan, a spokesperson for the company, expressed deep regret over the incident and assured that they are cooperating fully with authorities to ascertain the cause of the accident. Rescuers extinguished the fire and evacuated workers after a nearly four-hour operation.

This year alone, three deadly accidents have occurred at Chinese-owned nickel smelting plants in Central Sulawesi province, which boasts the largest nickel reserves in Indonesia. In April, a nickel waste disposal site collapse killed two dump truck operators. In January, riots at an Indonesia-China joint venture in North Morowali regency resulted in two fatalities, including a Chinese national.

The safety record of PT IMIP has been a concern, with nearly 50% of its shares owned by a Chinese holding company and the remainder by two Indonesian companies. Since its establishment in 2013, the plant has become Indonesia’s largest nickel-based industrial area. However, recent complaints by three Chinese workers to Indonesia’s National Commission on Human Rights highlight concerns over health deterioration due to dust and smoke exposure, exacerbated by inadequate safety equipment and continuous seven-day workweeks.

Data from the Mining Advocacy Network, an Indonesian watchdog, reveals a disturbing trend of fatalities at nickel smelting plants in Central Sulawesi province. Since 2019, at least 22 workers, including Chinese and Indonesian nationals, have died in these plants, with two Chinese nationals reportedly committing suicide.

This series of accidents underscores the urgent need for stringent safety measures and regulatory oversight in the rapidly expanding nickel industry, vital for the global shift towards electric vehicles but fraught with risks for those working within it.