Should Singapore Build a Nuclear Power Plant?

Currently, Singapore gets her energy from two main sourcesnatural gas and solar energy. As things stand, there is no pressing need for alternative energy sources such as nuclear power. However, there are issues with our current energy mix.

Singapore is over-reliant on natural gas as a source of energy. Currently, 95% of Singapore’s energy needs are met through natural gas imports. This leaves Singapore vulnerable to supply interruptions and cost increases, which is happening as we speak. Due to rising fuel prices, SP Group increased the electricity tariff by 3.1% from October to December this year – the highest price in 21 months.

Moreover, burning natural gas creates carbon emissions. While natural gas is the cleanest fossil fuel, it is still one anyways. In fact, power was the second-largest source of emissions in 2018, accounting for 39% of all emissions. Given that Singapore aims to combat climate change by halving emissions by 2050, the Government has to find lower-carbon alternatives.

But when it comes to alternative energy sources, Singapore is severely disadvantaged. Firstly, solar energy faces several constraints. Sunlight is intermittent due to heavy cloud cover and land in Singapore is limited, thereby ruling out large-scale deployment. Furthermore, without energy storage infrastructure, solar energy can only meet energy needs in the daytime. These issues could be addressed by importing solar energy from countries such as Australia through undersea cables. Nonetheless, these issues remain in the near-term.

While the government is actively studying hydrogen as a clean energy source, the technology is nascent and costs are very high. As for other renewables, each option has its limitations. Singapore lacks good sources of geothermal, tidal and hydroelectric energy, while average wind speeds are too low to accommodate commercial wind turbines.

There is an alternative, emission-free source of energy that Singapore could produce locally to meet her energy needs – nuclear power. It is not that Singapore needs nuclear power, but that it has the potential to address the aforementioned issues.

What is the Government’s stance on nuclear power?

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The Government’s stance on nuclear power has evolved over the decades. Nuclear power was first raised in Parliament in 1978, when an MP asked if Singapore had plans to develop nuclear energy. At that time, the Ministry of Science and Technology already had a Nuclear Research Unit. Minister for the Environment E. W. Barker responded that Singapore had “not very much” plans, and that the NRU just helped them keep up with developments in the field.

Then, in 1980, Minister for the Environment Lim Kim San revealed that the PUB had considered nuclear power but ruled it out as Singapore was too small. In the event of a nuclear accident, there would be “no place to evacuate our population”. Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong reiterated this point in 1985, adding that the disposal of nuclear waste was another issue.

The Government’s stance remained consistent into the early-2000s. In 2001, the Worker’s Party’s Low Thia Khiang asked if the Government was considering nuclear power. The response was that it was not the Government’s policy to do so. The response given by Minister Yaacob Ibrahim in 2007 and 2009 was similar – though Singapore did not currently have plans, nuclear power could not be ruled out.

There was a revival of interest in 2010, when the Economic Strategies Committee recommended that the Government study the feasibility of nuclear power, which MTI accepted for three reasons. Firstly, nuclear power could increase energy security, reduce carbon emissions and mitigate the volatility in gas prices. Secondly, it had good precedent in several developed countries, and other countries had begun exploring it, including four of Singapore’s ASEAN neighbours – Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam.

Thirdly, technologies were being developed to make reactors smaller, safer, cheaper and produce less high-level waste. The Government had earlier cited constraints in space, safety and waste disposal, all of which could be mitigated with emerging technology.

MTI completed its pre-feasibility study in 2012 and concluded that presently available nuclear technologies were not yet suitable for deployment in Singapore. However, they also acknowledged the need to strengthen capabilities in the field, and committed to training scientists and supporting research in nuclear science.

This manifested in a $63-million Nuclear Safety Research and Education Programme (NSREP) and the establishment of its research arm, the Singapore Nuclear Research and Safety Initiative. The NSREP received a second tranche of funding, worth $30 million, for 2017 to 2021. So far, it has awarded 24 scholarships.

Nine years after the pre-feasibility study, the Government maintains that the current generation of nuclear power plants, or even the next generation, are unsuitable for deployment in Singapore. However, they are also keeping a close eye on developments and staying open to it as a long-term option. Minister Teo Chee Hean mentioned that the Government had even looked at nuclear fusion as an option.

Have there been plans in the past to build a nuclear power plant?

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At a 2008 conference about energy, then Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew made it clear that Singapore had to move away from traditional energy sources. “We are, I believe, pushing the limits of what this planet can hold. We have to accept that we are passengers on this one planet. and if we don’t reduce this consumption of carbon energy, we are in serious trouble,” he said.

In an attempt to diversify energy sources and reduce dependency on oil and gas, Lee remarked that Singapore had considered the possibility of constructing a nuclear power plant. The issue that authorities ran into, was the lack of space for a safety buffer zone – which constitutes  a radius of about 30km around the plant. “So we’ve been thinking this thing through and I said ok, ‘There’s Horsburgh Lighthouse (on Pedra Branca). It’s more than 30km away, we reclaim land there and plonk it there,” he said.

Pedra Branca, which was then a subject of territorial dispute between Singapore and Malaysia, was less than 30km away from the coast of the latter. Building a nuclear power plant on the island would have caused “[the Malaysians to] worry” and hence the idea was scraped.

Lee also remarked that he was “thinking at one time about a floating platform”. “We put a nuclear station (at sea) and, if it blows, then we move it a few kilometres away from us,” he said at the same conference. While the idea might seem far-fetched, there is some precedent for it. Russia, for example, has commissioned a fleet of floating nuclear power stations that can be sent to ports near isolated locations that require electricity. This technology, however, is relatively new, with the first plant only starting to operate in December 2019. With time, the programme has to prove its safety and efficiency.

Two years after Lee delivered his speech at the energy conference, Hooman Peimani, an energy security specialist at the National University of Singapore, suggested that the city-state could bury a small reactor under a shallow layer of bedrock, perhaps 30-50 meters underground. By doing this, he hypothesised that the granite will provide natural containment in case things go south. Then you “simply cement in any access tunnels going down to the facility and walk away”. While the government seems to have authorised a feasibility study for this idea in 2010, little seems to have come from it.

So… what’s the consensus now?

It appears that the Government is not ideologically opposed to nuclear power. Their key concern is safety, and they are waiting for nuclear technology to catch up to stringent safety expectations, which may yet take decades. Nonetheless, they have always been cognizant of the need for expertise in nuclear science – even as far back as 1978.

There is also a political dimension to the issue of nuclear power. A series of focus groups conducted with Singaporeans found that many had misperceptions on the safety of nuclear power plants. These fears may have been amplified by the Fukushima disaster, which in reality sparked the development of safer power plants26. Without proper public awareness, plans for nuclear power could generate significant backlash.

Even if nuclear technology advanced sufficiently, public misperception remains a barrier. Nuclear power is, at best, a distant reality for Singapore.

In a world that is bubbling with clickbait, sensationalism and oversimplifications, Kopi aims to bring long-form journalism back to South-East Asia.

Through deeply analysed articles, we uncover and explain the complex and multifaceted issues facing our societies. Through engaging narratives, we tell stories that are bold and unique.

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