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Nuclear energy: The options for Singapore by Michael Richardson

If Singapore is to go nuclear, how could it prepare for such a big change in meeting national energy needs, particularly for electricity? And what kind of reactors might be best for the small island-state?

When a country decides to use nuclear power to generate electricity, drive desalination plants or produce heat for industry, it is ‘a 100-year-long-commitment’, says Mr Yury Sokolov, a senior official of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the United Nations body responsible for helping nations harness nuclear power and ensuring they do so only for peaceful purposes.

It takes at least 15 years from the time a government approves a nuclear programme to the start of power generation. The operating life of many commercial reactors in the United States, Japan and Europe has been extended from around 40 years to as much as 70 or 80 years. Safely managing the high-level radioactive waste from nuclear plants extends this commitment for many more years.

Just to build a national nuclear power infrastructure is complex, requiring more than 10 years of planning according to the IAEA. ‘When we talk about infrastructure… we mean a system that provides legal, regulatory, technological, human and industrial support to ensure the effectiveness of the nuclear power programme and ensure that obligations for safety, security and safeguards are met,’ Mr Sokolov says.

Singapore is one of over 60 countries examining whether, and if so how, to include nuclear power in their energy plans. The IAEA says almost 35 countries in Asia, Africa and South America are considering or already launching a nuclear power programme. It expects that as many as 20 could have reactors running by 2030, adding to the 31 that already generate varying proportions of their electricity from nuclear energy.

France gets 76 per cent of its electricity from nuclear power, Lithuania 73 per cent, Slovakia 56 per cent and Belgium 54 per cent. But most nuclear economies get less than half, and often less than one-third, partly because they do not want to become too reliant on any single energy source.

One of the attractions of nuclear power is that although the capital cost is high, running costs are low, global supplies of uranium fuel are plentiful, and the amount of imported fuel for an average-sized plant is usually not more than 150 tonnes - enough to produce a supply of electricity for one or two years before some of the fuel has to be replaced.

In Asia, 36 per cent of South Korea’s electricity is nuclear-generated, 25 per cent of Japan’s, and 17 per cent of Taiwan’s. China, India and Pakistan get just 2 per cent of their electricity from nuclear power, though China and India plan to boost those shares in coming decades.

Chile is one country studying its long-term energy options. It turned to the Finnish nuclear safety regulator for advice and was told that the general rule in power grid management is that no single electricity generator should make up more than 10 per cent of capacity.

In Singapore, peak demand is no more than 6,000 megawatts. So if the 10 per cent of capacity guideline was followed, this would rule out most of the nuclear power plants available today because they each generate more than 600 MW. The largest reactors are rated at 1,650 MW and may cost as much as US$10 billion (S$14 billion) to finance and build.

Choosing a safe site for a power reactor in a densely-populated island-state is also a problem.

Singapore may have to wait for a new generation of smaller, less expensive and inherently safer technologies to be proven. The recent energy subcommittee report to the government made this point but added that there are ‘modular designs which allow smaller reactors to be produced and fuel-efficient designs that reduce the amount of waste produced’.

Unfortunately, while small reactors hold great promise, one of the most advanced designs has just suffered a serious setback. The South African government last month stopped funding the firm developing so-called pebble bed modular reactors of between 80 MW and 165 MW, forcing the company to consider stringent staff cuts and restructuring.

Meanwhile, what more could Singapore do to prepare for a possible nuclear future? One option is to consider a research reactor. There are 283 such reactors in 56 countries, including several South-east Asian countries. They are much smaller than power reactors. In fact, the total power of the world’s research reactors combined is little more than a single large power reactor.

Many research reactors are on university campuses where they are used for research and training, materials testing, or the production of radioisotopes. There is currently a global shortage of technetium-99, the most widely used isotope in nuclear medicine.

A power reactor produces and controls the release of energy from splitting the atoms of certain elements, usually derived from uranium. In a research reactor, the main purpose is to use the neutrons released from fission. It becomes a very useful neutron factory.

The energy subcommittee report made no direct reference to research reactors when it recommended that Singapore should begin studying the feasibility of nuclear energy. However, the subcommittee added: ‘At the same time, developing expertise in the evolving nuclear energy technologies will have economic spin-offs and applications in fields such as research and nuclear medicine.’

The writer is a visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of South East Asian Studies. This article was first published in The Straits Times.

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