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Will Singapore warm up to nuclear energy to combat climate change?

South China Morning Post logo South China Morning Post 22/7/2019 Samantha Boh
a close up of a mountain: An aerial view of Japan’s Fukushima nuclear power plant. Photo: Kyodo/AP © Kyodo/AP An aerial view of Japan’s Fukushima nuclear power plant. Photo: Kyodo/AP

Eight years since the Fukushima nuclear disaster triggered a global rethink on energy policy, signs have emerged that Singapore may be warming back up to the power source.

Pro-nuclear chatter in the city state was spurred last month when Ho Ching – the chief executive of Singapore state investment fund Temasek Holdings, who is married to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong – published a lengthy Facebook post expressing support for the power source.

"Overall, for a greener earth and to reduce carbon emissions, we must master and adopt nuclear energy as a key solution. For now, it is better [that] developed and more capable nations step up their nuclear power capacity,” she said.

"This will reduce the demand for fossil fuels, and lower the overall carbon emissions.”

Ho’s post came attached to a Bloomberg opinion piece that criticised Germany’s decision to phase out all nuclear power by 2022 – 16 years ahead of coal in 2038. It was a telling sign that Singapore, which has declared twice in the past 12 years that nuclear power is unsuitable, may be changing its tune towards nuclear power. And it’s not alone.

Global fear of nuclear energy flared in the wake of the 2011 accident in Japan. But spurred on by the mounting threat of climate change, pressure to abandon dirtier fossil fuels, advances in nuclear energy research and the prospect of safer reactors, many governments are now having a change of heart.

According to the World Nuclear Association, 30 countries – including the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, Nigeria, Bangladesh, Egypt and Indonesia – are currently considering, planning or starting nuclear power programmes.

Enhanced safety

Singapore’s interest in nuclear energy has ebbed and flowed over the years due to one reason: safety.

In 2007, Prime Minister Lee said nuclear energy was not a feasible alternative energy source because there was simply not enough land to build plants with the necessary 30km safety radius. But three years later, he said the country needed to be prepared for the day it does become necessary and feasible, maybe even in his lifetime.

But interest waned again in 2012 – a year after the Fukushima nuclear disaster – when a two-year pre-feasibility study concluded that present nuclear energy technology was not yet suitable for Singapore.

In her Facebook post, Ho said nuclear power generation had become much safer since Fukushima, noting that Singapore was once a keen supporter of the technology. The city state even sent nuclear scientist-turned-politician Tay Eng Soon to Britain’s Atomic Energy Agency for training, she added.

Unlike second-generation nuclear reactors, third-generation reactors have passive cooling systems. So in the event of a power outage, like at Fukushima, nuclear plants could still be cooled to prevent a core meltdown, said Professor Chung Keng Yeow, director of the Singapore Nuclear Research and Safety Initiative at the National University of Singapore.

Scientists and engineers around the world are now developing the next generation of reactors, promising a close to zero chance of core meltdowns. They are also developing smaller, modular ones, which promise to be safer and easier to manage as they produce less heat.

The prospect of smaller and safer reactors could be the game changer Singapore has been waiting for.

For safety reasons, nuclear plants have always needed surrounding exclusion zones – a hard criterion for an island state. But there had been debate over whether the smaller and safer reactors would need the same safety radius, Chung said.

"In the future, there could be a reactor with a smaller exclusion zone. Then, it could be a different story. At least for now, if you are just looking at technology and safety guidelines, it is difficult for Singapore,” he said.

But the focus on safety had also driven up costs, said Philip Andrews-Speed of the NUS’ Energy Studies Institute.

"The more you demand safety, the more expensive it gets. It’s just like cars, the more things you put in it, the more expensive it gets,” he said.

The climate change factor

As the world moves to keep the rise in global temperature this century well below 2 degrees Celsius, a shift away from fossil fuels to clean energy sources has proved the only way forward. But experts say while renewable energy remains the popular and more established choice, it might not work for all.

"The issue with renewables is intermittency,” said Claude Guet, students & research programme director at Nanyang Technological University’s Energy Research Institute.

"It is a very local, national problem. If you are in Australia, solar is a very good option. If you are in Singapore, which is on the equator, there is not so much wind. And there is no room for enough solar panels.”

Energy independence has also been a driving factor for some nations, namely France, where more than 70 per cent of electricity is generated through nuclear power plants.

"No country wants to rely heavily on another country for its energy supply,” said Guet, who was also senior adviser to the chief executive officer of CEA (French Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission). "The French went nuclear because if we went with oil we would have to rely on the Middle Eastern countries.”

About 95 per cent of Singapore’s electricity is generated using natural gas, piped from Malaysia and Indonesia. Solar energy, Singapore’s best source of renewable energy, contributed only about 0.8 per cent of its total electricity-generation capacity last year – though it has the potential to meet 25 per cent of the city state’s energy demands by 2025, according to a 2014 white paper by the Sustainable Energy Association of Singapore.

"If you were to take a global and balanced view, I would say nuclear could, together with renewables, energy efficiency and carbon capture and use, bring about a net-zero carbon future,” Andrews-Speed said.

All about the messaging

But far more than safety and technology has hampered some countries’ uptake of nuclear power. Much of that decision hinges on public perception.

According to Shirley Ho, associate chair (faculty) at NTU’s Wee Kim Wee School of Information and Communication, public opinion around nuclear power can be based on inaccuracies.

After holding a series of focus groups with 39 Singaporeans, Ho found many participants were misinformed about the operations of well-functioning nuclear power plants; they thought the facilities emitted harmful radiation to the environment and public, and utilised technology that could be weaponised.

In truth, the radiation emitted from a well-functioning nuclear power plant is less than the radiation experienced on an aeroplane flight.

"If the public does not know much about nuclear energy and all they have are misperceptions, policymakers will need to rectify them first before even starting a conversation on nuclear energy,” she said.

The debate on nuclear energy has finally boiled down to messaging. Countries like France did well at communicating the benefits of nuclear energy that struck a chord with the public, she said.

"If saving the environment and mitigating climate change is not on the top of the public’s agenda, it will be very difficult to have that discussion on nuclear energy by highlighting these benefits.”

This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia. For more SCMP stories, please download our mobile app, follow us on Twitter, and like us on Facebook.

Copyright (c) 2019. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

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