Explainer: Why Singapore is exploring nuclear energy and what needs to happen before plans get underway

BY DEBORAH LAU & TAUFIQ ZALIZAN

Published March 21, 2024Updated May 27, 2024

image

This audio is generated by an AI tool.

  • Talks about exploring nuclear power’s feasibility as a green energy source in Singapore have been ongoing for a while
  • Public agencies have been organising overseas study visits to learn more of how the country may safely deploy nuclear energy
  • Experts said that using nuclear energy may be a necessary option to mitigate energy security risks
  • They also said that there are some hurdles to clear before nuclear energy and supporting technology are deemed safe to use here

This has brought the spotlight back on a long-time issue of nuclear power’s feasibility as a green energy source in Singapore.

The option has always been on the table: A 2022 EMA-commissioned report on Singapore’s energy future stated that nuclear energy could supply about a tenth of the country’s energy needs by 2050.

Responding to TODAY’s queries on Thursday (March 21), EMA and the National Environmental Agency (NEA) said that Singapore has not made any decision to deploy nuclear energy.

“Any decision to deploy new energies requires consideration and demonstration of its safety, reliability, affordability and environmental sustainability,” they added.

“Given the technical complexity and ongoing developments in advanced nuclear energy and fusion technologies, there is a need to continue to build capabilities to better understand the safety, security and environmental implications of advanced nuclear energy technologies for Singapore’s context.”

This echoed what Manpower Minister Tan See Leng, who is also Second Minister for Trade and Industry, said in Parliament last month when he pointed to advanced nuclear energy technologies and fusion energy as potential game-changers.

He said then that the Government engages international organisations and countries with deep capabilities in nuclear energy to broaden its understanding of advanced nuclear energy technologies, including small modular reactors.

Small modular reactors are advanced nuclear reactors with about one-third of the generating capacity of traditional nuclear power reactors. Their modular nature makes it possible for its systems and components to be factory-assembled and transported as a unit to a location for installation.

TODAY speaks to experts about how viable nuclear power is as an energy source for Singapore, and what are the pros and cons expected from using it.

WHY IS NUCLEAR ENERGY BEING CONSIDERED?

Singapore relies almost entirely on natural gas for its energy needs. As of June last year, 94.3 per cent of its fuel mix came from natural gas.

However, natural gas is a fossil fuel, and the process of burning it to generate electricity produces large amounts of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas. This traps heat in the atmosphere, contributing to global warming and worsening climate change.

Additionally, Singapore imports its natural gas through pipes from neighbouring Indonesia and Malaysia and also in liquefied forms from various countries. In 2022, it also started importing renewable energy from Laos through Thailand and Malaysia.

However, these may leave Singapore susceptible to energy security and geopolitical risks.

Post-COP28 and as the neighbouring countries move towards their climate commitment, there will be growing demand for green energy and so, Singapore may face competition in securing sufficient green energy imports at justified prices. Dr Victor Nian, co-founder of the Centre for Strategic Energy and Resources

At the same time, experts said that the island’s lack of natural resources and its climate and geographical conditions means that it cannot develop renewable energy such as hydropower or wind energy on a large scale. 

For instance, wind and solar energy require large areas to process and Singapore has space constraints.

To address these, the authorities have looked to other energy sources to meet the nation’s needs.

In 2022, it set out its National Hydrogen Strategy, which outlined plans to turn to low-carbon hydrogen for up to 50 per cent of its power needs by 2050.

Last month, Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong announced in the Budget statement that the Government would set up a Future Energy Fund with an initial injection of S$5 billion to spur Singapore’s “massive” transition to cleaner fuels.

To achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, EMA and NEA told TODAY that Singapore’s electricity supply mix will need to evolve over the coming decades towards the “four switches” of natural gas, solar power, electricity imports, and low-carbon alternatives.

And that “as an energy-disadvantaged country, Singapore has limited options for decarbonisation”.

As Mr Wong said last month, Singapore needs to study various low-carbon alternatives such as hydrogen, deep geothermal systems, biofuels and new forms of nuclear energy that could potentially enable the country to decarbonise the power sector in the longer term.

Although hydrogen may serve as a cleaner alternative to natural gas, experts told TODAY that Singapore is now unable to sustain domestic production of the zero-carbon energy.

It would likely have to continue importing the gas, which would lead back to the perennial concern of energy security.

Dr Christopher Toh, the chief editor of Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS) alumni relations whose doctorate focused on coal mining and renewable energy, said energy security — the uninterrupted availability of energy sources at an affordable price — is important because it enables countries and businesses to meet their energy needs reliably and sustainably, while reducing economic risk, geopolitical risk and environmental risk.

Should Singapore generate its own nuclear energy while securing other possible sources of clean energy, these could serve as safeguards towards ensuring energy security, added Dr Toh.

Dr Victor Nian, co-founder and chief executive officer at the non-profit Centre for Strategic Energy and Resources, said: “Post-COP28 and as the neighbouring countries move towards their climate commitment, there will be growing demand for green energy and so, Singapore may face competition in securing sufficient green energy imports at justified prices.”

COP28 is the 2023 edition of the annual United Nations Climate Change Conference.

Dr Nian also said: “In a possible future with rising fossil fuel prices, uncertainties with the global hydrogen development and the need to grow our economy, nuclear energy is very likely a needed low-carbon energy source.”

WHAT ARE BENEFITS OF USING NUCLEAR ENERGY

A clear advantage of deploying nuclear energy is its low — or almost zero — carbon emission during operation, experts told TODAY.

It is also an energy-dense source, which means that it can produce a large amount of energy within each reactor without needing a large land area. It is also not subjected to weather conditions.

Nuclear energy is derived from the nucleus or core of an atom, where a huge amount of energy holds the atom’s dense nucleus together. A high amount of heat energy is harnessed on altering the atomic structure of radioactive elements such as uranium.

Dr Chung Keng Yeow, director of the Singapore Nuclear Research and Safety Initiative at the National University of Singapore (NUS), said: “I think one of the biggest pros (of deploying nuclear power) for Singapore is energy security. There is less dependence on imports of clean energy.

“The uranium fuel is so energy-dense that it is possible to safely keep a few years of supply of the fuel within the plant itself, which is something that is quite impossible for fossil fuel.”

“There will be a need to rethink strategically what is the future industrial economic development pathways Singapore wants to embark on if nuclear energy is going to enter the fuel mix.Dr Victor Nian, co-founder of the Centre for Strategic Energy and Resources”

Agreeing, Dr Alvin Chew, a senior fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), said that advancements in technology and digitalisation would only mean that modern societies such as Singapore would consume more energy going forward.

Nuclear power would be the “only solution” to solve both national energy security concerns and global climate change issues, he added.

Besides, there are potential economic benefits.

Dr Chew, whose areas of research include nuclear energy developments and reactor technology, said that the nuclear industry may tap Singapore’s leanings in research and development and its infrastructure, as well as create job opportunities for the domestic market in industries complementing the energy sector.

However, Dr Nian said that the nuclear industry may also be seen as competing with some existing domestic industries such as the fossil fuel industries in this regard.

“There will be a need to rethink strategically what is the future industrial economic development pathways Singapore wants to embark on if nuclear energy is going to enter the fuel mix,” he added.

WHAT ARE DOWNSIDES OF USING NUCLEAR ENERGY AND HOW TO WORK AROUND THEM

Although nuclear energy has been lauded as a zero-emission clean energy source, concerns have also been raised about the processing and disposal of radioactive waste.

Naysayers also point to the 1986 Chernobyl disaster and the more recent 2011 power plant accident in Fukushima, Japan, to highlight the terrors of potential nuclear catastrophes.

This is usually linked to conventional large reactors that require a relatively big safety radius of about 20km around the plant where there is to be a low human population for quick evacuation in case of radioactive leaks.

Experts said that there are now newer reactors and technologies such as small modular reactors, which require a smaller emergency planning zone due to its higher levels of safety.

Dr Claude Guet, a visiting professor at the Nanyang Technological University (NTU), told TODAY that even when nuclear reactors are stopped, there could be remnant heat from its decaying fission product.

Therefore, the reactor must be cooled down even after it has stopped.

In the case of small modular reactors, this cooling down is done through internal systems, so external systems are not needed to cool it down. The design of such reactors thus allow for significantly smaller safety perimeters compared to the larger, traditional reactors.

Dr Guet, who has done research in nuclear physics, said that in some cases, the safety perimeters for these newer and smaller reactors may only measure 500m to 1km.

American news channel CNN reported that China, Russia and the United States are battling for dominance to build and sell these newer reactors as countries scramble to reduce the use of fossil fuels.

As for radioactive waste generated from a nuclear power plant, Dr Guet said that a way to possibly combat this would be by exploring an underground set-up.

A reactor below ground could confine such radiation leaks underground, and act as a form of “insurance” or safeguard against any radioactive releases.

However, careful studies must be done to see how it can be set up in Singapore, he added.

Besides radioactive exposure and environmental contamination considerations, experts also flagged other possible risks such as security threats like terrorist attacks.

Said Dr Toh from SUSS: "The risks associated with nuclear energy are not solely technological, but also sociological and environmental.”

Another hurdle is that developing a nuclear power programme would take time for a newcomer state such as Singapore.

Dr Chew from RSIS referred to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which takes a milestones approach and has guidelines for developing a nuclear power programme. The agency comes under the United Nations and serves as the international centre for nuclear cooperation.

Dr Chew reckoned that it could take between 10 and 15 years to establish a nuclear power plant here.

“The challenge is that present technology available (such as large conventional nuclear power plants) might not be suitable for deployment in Singapore.”

They require a significant emergency planning zone that even could go up to a 50km or 100km radius from the plant, Dr Chew said.

He added that these are just planning parameters outlined by IAEA and the reality is that the safety radius could be even bigger, which raises questions on where Singapore could house such a nuclear power plant that would fulfil the radius required.

“And advanced technologies or novel platforms will take time to clock substantive operating track records for them to be developed into safety, security and safeguards standards by the IAEA,” he explained.

“This is the primary challenge for Singapore to make a commitment towards nuclear energy, but too long a deliberation could dampen its political will to deploy nuclear energy in the future.”

“The safeguard component of nuclear energy is critical, which is why several advanced reactors that are not designed in accordance with the safeguard principles will never be commercialised and deployed in Singapore.Dr Alvin Chew, a senior fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies”

Should Singapore eventually embark on using nuclear energy, the experts said that there has to be some necessary safeguards.

Dr Chew said: “For civilian nuclear energy, the safeguard component is actually prescribed by adhering to the IAEA Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement as well as the Additional Protocol to ensure that nuclear materials will not be diverted for military purposes.”

Singapore is a signatory of the Non-Proliferation Treaty and it has to comply and develop safeguard arrangements with IAEA. The treaty aims to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and weapons technology, as well as to promote cooperation in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy.

“Therefore, the safeguard component of nuclear energy is critical, which is why several advanced reactors that are not designed in accordance with the safeguard principles will never be commercialised and deployed in Singapore.” Dr Chew added.

Experts also pointed to the need to deepen the public’s understanding of the technology to build acceptance.

A 2021 study by NTU found that only about one in five (22 per cent) of Singapore’s respondents were in favour of nuclear energy development.

Dr Nian from the Centre for Strategic Energy and Resources said: “At the moment, public sentiment against nuclear energy remains strong because the fear of nuclear accident, but this is more likely due to misinformation and lack of communication of facts.”

Misinformation aside, Dr Chung from NUS said that with Singapore’s limited area and dense population, any reactors must be “so safe that there is basically no chance of widespread leak of radioactivity under any foreseeable circumstances".

“Reactor designs have to be carefully evaluated and tested and such reactors should have operated for a number of years. Additional safety features could also be implemented, (such as in building) the reactor or in adding extra protective layers.

“The operators and the regulators must also be of top grade and well-trained in all aspects of nuclear safety in operating the plant and regulating its operation.”