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Singapore must be prepared to handle nuclear developments: Experts

By Monica Kotwani/CNA/27 Sept 2015

SINGAPORE: As the region increasingly looks to nuclear power plants to solve its energy woes, experts say it is critical for Singapore to be adequately prepared.

While Singapore has kept its own nuclear plans on the back-burner, authorities need to engage the public and educate them on nuclear developments in the region.

For decades more than 30 countries have been generating power in some 400 nuclear plants. In 2012, about 10 per cent of the world’s electricity was generated from nuclear energy, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute website.

But the shock of the Fukushima disaster in 2011 reverberated across the world and prompted countries with nuclear power to take stock of the safety of their plants.

Some European countries like Germany are taking their plants off the grid, instead importing nuclear-powered electricity from France. In Asia, plans have been delayed but not derailed. China and India, between them, have almost 50 nuclear plants in operation and are building even more.

In Southeast Asia, Vietnam could have its first power reactors by 2020. Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia have also made plans.

“Southeast Asia is quasi-completely dependent on fossil fuels,” said Professor Arnoud De Meyer, President of Singapore Management University. “There are a few exceptions of windmill-generated or other forms of energy but practically all electricity generation is based on fossil fuels, which makes this part of the world very dependent on supply from elsewhere.”

Nuclear-based energy can add security and stability to the region’s source of energy. For Singapore, 95 per cent of its electricity comes from natural gas powered plants. Its cost is tied to oil prices.

CHEAPER ALTERNATIVE?

Experts say Singapore’s choice, although the cleanest among fossil fuels, is also an expensive choice. In homes for example, the cost of electricity is currently 22.41 cents per kilowatt-hour. But this could be three to five times higher than what homeowners pay in the United States. This is because the cost associated with importing natural gas to run Singapore’s power plants is also higher.

Electricity could be cheaper if nuclear-generated energy was added to the mix. Cost savings aside, the region is also under pressure to take stock of its carbon emission levels amidst rapid development.

In recent years, Singapore has been ramping up infrastructure to capitalise on solar energy, but experts say the country’s size limits how much electricity it can derive from solar power. Clean energy from nuclear plants could be an answer.

Inside a nuclear reactor’s pressurised vessel are metal rods containing uranium pellets. Thermal neutrons split uranium atoms in a process called fission reaction.

This process releases energy and more neutrons which in the presence of water are absorbed by other uranium atoms, causing them to split and resulting in more energy being released.

The energy, or radiation, is used to heat up water to produce steam. The steam drives turbines which generate electricity. The steam is then converted back to water for the next cycle.

Through this process, nuclear powered plants release no carbon emissions into the atmosphere. What is usually seen coming out of towers at nuclear plants is water vapour – a by-product of cooling heated water.

Radioactive waste that is produced in the first part of the process is typically buried deep underground.

Unlike nuclear-powered plants, coal-powered plants release massive amounts of greenhouse gases when generating electricity. Natural gas may be the cleanest of all fossil fuels, but plants running on this still release half the amount of carbon dioxide that coal plants emit.

SIZE MATTERS

In 2010, Singapore embarked on an extensive study of whether nuclear-based electricity could be added to its energy mix.  Two years later, it concluded that nuclear risks for Singapore outweighed the benefits.

“It was all to do with size,” said Professor Tim White, co-director of Nanyang Technological University’s Energy Research Institute.

“The first factor was that we did not really need a very large single nuclear reactor. Singapore just does not have that need for energy. So we would have had to look at modular designs, but none of those designs are actually operating at the moment – at least for power. So Singapore did not want to be the first one off the rack to take these new designs.

“The other concern was that after Fukushima, it was realised that the exclusion zone around the reactor was in fact as large as Singapore. So that meant one Fukushima accident in Singapore and that’s the end of the country. Those combined factors meant that the time was not right. And I think that was certainly the correct decision.”

This handout picture released by the Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO) on Aug 2, 2015 shows a large amount of debris being removed by a crane at the unit three reactor building of TEPCO’s Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant near Okuma in Fukushima prefecture. (Photo: AFP/TEPCO)

BUILDING SINGAPORE’S NUCLEAR KNOWLEDGE

But the study also concluded that Singapore needs to build up its nuclear knowledge and capability. In 2014, the government announced it would set aside S$63 million over five years for the Nuclear Safety Research and Education Programme.

The programme would train local scientists and engineers in three key areas – radiochemistry, radiobiology and risk assessment. The programme is being rolled out by the National Research Foundation.

“Even if Singapore would never have electricity generation by nuclear sources, countries around us will do it, or may well do it,” said Prof De Meyer. “But nuclear radiation is not something that stops at borders. If there is an accident or a problem, Singapore will be automatically influenced by it.

“On top of that, nuclear sources of radiation not exclusively used for power generation. We see it in nuclear medicine. We see it in some measurement instruments. Radiation is with us today.

“From that perspective, it’s logical that a country like Singapore prepares itself for measuring nuclear radiation in atmosphere, understands what the impact of nuclear radiation is – even if it is low levels on our bodies and on people – and simulates to figure out what if there is a disaster.”

REGIONAL COLLABORATION

This building up of expertise could well take 15 years. Experts like Prof White and Prof De Meyer are certain the topic of nuclear energy will be revisited and say future options could also include regional collaboration, similar to what Europe is doing.

In this case, Singapore could obtain nuclear-based energy from other Southeast Asian countries.

But first, one expert says ASEAN needs a regulatory framework to address transboundary issues such as the management of nuclear fuel, waste and risk management.

And locally, it is more important than ever for authorities to engage the public on nuclear-related developments and concerns, whether or not Singapore ever hosts nuclear power plants.

“If something happens, for example, in Indonesia’s nuclear facility, which will be built very close to Singapore, it will affect the whole country,” said Associate Professor Sulfikar Amir from NTU’s School of Humanities and Social Sciences.

“The people need to know what kind of risk they are facing if something were to happen, if a Fukushima-like nuclear disaster were to happen in a Southeast Asian country. They need to understand the kind of risk they are dealing with. It is part of disaster resilience that needs to be built in Singapore.”

Professor Amir says this can start by involving schools to create an awareness at an early age and by having more open public discussions at a grassroots level.

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