Wednesday, 25 October 2017

Why Singapore needs to make nuclear power work

Other sources of energy such as natural gas, petrol and solar all have drawbacks here
By Lim Soon Heng, Published The Straits Times, 24 Oct 2017

As a pioneer generation Singaporean, two subjects keep my neurons firing in overdrive: floating structures for space creation, and nuclear power to boost the country's energy resilience.

Following on my article in The Straits Times ("Time for Singapore to say 'Yes' to nuclear"; March 15), here is a breakdown on why nuclear power - in the form of floating power plants - is a viable option for Singapore.

In March this year, Singapore debated passionately in Parliament and on social media about the need to be self-sufficient in water. But what seemed to be forgotten is that energy is even more crucial for our survival.

If we have access to energy, we will have access to potable water; the reverse is not true. We can desalinate water with energy but we cannot make energy out of imported water. Every joule of energy has to be imported - but what if water agreements fall through? However, a resilient energy supply chain will enable us to manufacture potable water.

Unlike other countries, Singapore is woefully short of renewable energy resources. We have no hydro, wave, tidal or geothermal potential. Strong wind occurs only in the monsoon months. Wind turbines require large land areas. Even solar energy cannot be counted on.


Few countries depend on imported energy products as exclusively as Singapore does on natural gas.

Up until 2014, Singapore's economy was kept alive by two pipelines - in effect umbilical cords - supplying energy to gas-fired power plants.

Realising this, the Government has added another supply chain: the import of liquefied gas by ships. However, with the world economy expanding at an exponential pace and fossil fuels a finite resource, importing liquefied natural gas (LNG) is a short-term solution.

The scramble for the remaining reserves of fossil energy such as natural gas and petroleum has already begun. The United States and Russia are fighting proxy wars in the Middle East. China has claimed the lion's share of the South China Sea.

Natural gas, unlike coal and oil, is a hazardous energy to store on a mega scale, especially for a small city-state. It is also risky to transmit in pipelines. Apart from these being an attractive terrorist target, human error can result in massive loss of life and property. Reminders of this include a 97,000-tonne methane leak in California; a gas explosion at a utility resulting in a US$1.6 billion (S$2.2 billion) fine; an explosion in an unfinished plant in Connecticut; and the Taiwan gas explosion in 2014.

To serve east Singapore, as well as to strategically diversify gas terminals, plans are being considered to build more gas terminals there. This is close to flight paths of one of the world's busiest airports, as well as to an air defence base, not to mention the high population density.

All told, it would become a high-value terrorist target. To minimise risks, subsea storage and floating regasification units should be considered.


Solar is hyped as Singapore's renewable solution, but the maths proves otherwise.

A study by the Solar Energy Research Institute of Singapore (SERIS) shows that it would take all the roof spaces, facades of buildings, inland water bodies, islets and MRT tracks in Singapore to generate about 4TWh of electricity - less than 10 per cent of current demand.

It proposes boosting capacity by installing floating systems out at sea. In a busy port that would be impractical. A 40MW floating solar farm in Huainan, China, has a footprint larger than 160 American football fields - 85.6ha - which is 10 times the footprint of a conventional power plant.

Germany, the showpiece for solar energy proponents, produces only 7 per cent of its energy needs with solar in spite of its enormous land mass.


Forecasts of world oil and gas reserves vary wildly, from infinite to total depletion in less than 50 years, based on current rates of extraction.

Singapore has rock caverns with a storage capacity of 1.47 million cubic m in the first phase. This is not large enough for strategic reserves either in the form of gas or oil.

Our limited land makes both solar energy and stockpiling oil meagre solutions for the country's energy security. The last remaining option is to stockpile fissile materials.


Uranium is incredibly energy-dense.

One tonne of 3.5 per cent-enriched uranium has the same energy content as 71,000 tonnes of natural gas.

Singapore imported 19.3 million cubic m of LNG last year. The uranium with the same energy is 104 tonnes in mass and 5.5 cubic m in volume.

Several years' reserves may be packed into a small, sand-shielded bunker underground.

Low-enriched uranium (LEU) may be stored indefinitely and safely with minimal risk of endangering life.

The cost of such a storage facility is insignificant.

LEU is traded around the world. The LEU Bank of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is an assurance of supply mechanism of last resort, and will be a physical reserve available for eligible IAEA member states.

With energy assured, generations of Singaporeans could sleep easy. Electricity would desalinate water for consumption and produce hydrogen for transportation.

Uranium will never be exhausted. There are an estimated 4 billiontonnes of it in the ocean and research is ongoing to mine it economically.


There are more than 450 nuclear power plants (NPPs) in operation and 60 under development. France produces 72 per cent of its energy with nuclear material - and is quietly selling it to Germany. Eleven other European countries produce 29 to 54 per cent of their power with nuclear.

South Korea leads Asia with a figure of 30 per cent. The US leads the world with an NPP capacity of 100GW. Former US president Barack Obama and current President Donald Trump have been reviving NPP initiatives. China leads the world in researching and developing new nuclear technologies. India is not far behind.

Fears about radioactive waste and reactor meltdowns are founded on ignorance. Sadly, little is done to correct the misconceptions. Schools and universities need to introduce modules on carbon emission and climate change, dispel misconceived notions of radiation and inculcate awareness that fossil fuels could be depleted before the end of this century.

Contrary to popular belief, nuclear is the safest of all energy. NPPs cause 90 deaths per trillion-kWh (including Fukushima and Chernobyl). The corresponding figures for oil, natural gas and solar plants are 36,000, 4,000 and 440 deaths respectively. The low rate of death is all the more remarkable considering half the reactors surveyed are older than the average hydrocarbon power plant.


Unless vast empty land is available, floating NPPs are the solution of choice.

It is faster and less costly to move an NPP than to evacuate thousands of people around it. Besides, tsunamis, earthquakes and rising sea levels make land-based NPPs vulnerable. NPPs mounted on floating structures are feasible.

An NPP submerged in water has no possibility of incurring a runaway heat escalation in its reactor core since it is easy to include redundant passive cooling systems that activate naturally by laws of physics. There are also robust solutions to address issues of terrorism, spent fuel disposal, proliferation, tsunamis, and objections from neighbouring countries, radiation poisoning and danger to port activities.

Floating NPPs are on drawing boards, production lines and launching berths in China, Russia, the US, France and South Korea. The myths about the oceans being radioactively poisoned are just that: myths. The reality is that conventional power plants are wreaking havoc in our biosphere.

Can Singapore build these?

Singapore has the necessary expertise and facilities to collaborate with an organisation in the US, France or China to develop, construct, manage and deliver such assets globally. The Economic Development Board could play an important role to forge links between these potential partners and our shipyards, which badly need a second wind.

The writer is the managing director of Emas Consultants, a shipyard planning company.

* Commentary on nuclear energy sparks debate over risks, safety
Singapore is not ready, say experts, following ST Opinion contributor's article advocating it
By Sue-Ann Tan, The Sunday Times, 5 Nov 2017

Singapore is not ready to tap nuclear energy - this is the stance of the Government and experts in the field whom The Sunday Times spoke to.

Their responses come after a debate in the past two weeks between writers to The Straits Times Forum page and ST Opinion contributor Lim Soon Heng.

Mr Lim, managing director of shipyard planning company Emas Consultants, said Singapore should move towards nuclear power. In a commentary on Oct 24, he pointed out that there are "more than 450 nuclear power plants in operation and 60 under development" worldwide.

In an interview with The Sunday Times, Mr Lim advocated building a floating plant offshore. This would keep it away from residential areas and also reduce the risk of the reactor overheating.

"Accidents happen when coolants are not circulating properly and there is a meltdown," he said. "If the nuclear plant is floating, the surrounding water will provide additional coolants that can keep it from overheating."

Mr Lim is also the managing director of Floating Solutions, a firm that provides help for those involved with offshore, floating structures.

In response, Forum writers argued that nuclear reactors carried the risk of accidents, which would have vast consequences for a small country like Singapore. Letter writer Teoh Woi Khon suggested Singapore should adopt a "wait-and-see approach" instead of rushing into harnessing nuclear energy.

Experts agree that nuclear energy is not currently suitable for Singapore, but this could change when new and safer technologies are developed.

Professor Claude Guet, research programme director at the Energy Research Institute at Nanyang Technological University (NTU), said: "Safety should be the main concern. Singapore... is too small and too densely populated to allow for a standard modern nuclear plant."

He added that moving towards nuclear energy is also a multi-step process, including building up "excellent engineers" and setting up a legal framework and safety authority.

"We have to be well aware that it is a long-term commitment requiring a political consensus to a large extent," he said.

National University of Singapore (NUS) professor Lim Hock, director of the Singapore Nuclear Research and Safety Initiative, said: "With the current technology where the reactor core can overheat and release radioactive elements into the environment, it is a real risk.

"There can be many layers of protection, but nothing is ever 100 per cent (foolproof).

"In the case of Fukushima, it was triggered by a natural disaster beyond human control."

Prof Lim was referring to the 2011 Fukushima nuclear power plant accident. He added that the initiative's mission is to learn more about nuclear energy and develop expertise in the area, so that if there is any nuclear fallout in the region, Singapore will be able to deal with it.

Aside from concerns about the environmental and health impacts of using nuclear energy, "people are also concerned over where a nuclear power plant can be located", said NTU communications professor Shirley Ho.

"There is the fear of nuclear technologies being weaponised," she added.

The Government's stance on nuclear power has not changed since the Ministry of Trade and Industry's statements in 2012. At the time, it concluded that current nuclear energy technologies were not suitable for Singapore.

In a statement to The Sunday Times, the National Research Foundation (NRF) said: "We will continue to monitor the progress of these nuclear energy technologies to keep our energy options open for the future."

NRF said that it would also keep strengthening its capabilities to understand nuclear science by supporting research in these areas.

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