Nuclear power plant in Cattenom, France

Singapore’s nuclear future

Nuclear power plant in Cattenom, France
Nuclear power plant in Cattenom, France

“You’re going to continue to need electricity, and renewables will be insufficient. You’re either going to have to continue using natural gas or move to nuclear power,” said Peter Mr Schwartz, futurist and business strategist.

He was speaking at the session on energy, the environment and the resilience of cities at the Singapore at 50: What Lies Ahead conference on 4 June in Singapore.

“In the end, if we’re really serious about climate change, then we’re facing one alternative,” he said. “And that one alternative that we actually have is nuclear power.”

Mr Schwartz said Singapore could consider one of three options:

  • Build the plants on offshore barges
  • Build an underground plant
  • Build one in collaboration with a neighbouring country in a nearby island

The issue of Singapore’s future energy sources has been raised from time to time as the country surges ahead with an increase in population and development. The issue of nuclear power, especially, has come into the fore in recent years.

However, the Government has not given the go-ahead for nuclear power, as it sees the decision to have one still some years away.

Nonetheless, it is worth noting that the Government’s position has changed somewhat in the last 10 years or so.

In 2007, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong unequivocally said that nuclear power was out of the question for Singapore.

Today, 2007
Today, 2007

But in a Wikileaks document which was leaked out in 2008, Lawrence Wong, the then Deputy CEO of the Energy Market Authority, indicated to the US Embassy that the Singapore government does not rule out nuclear power.

Lawrence Wong
Lawrence Wong

Mr Wong is now a Cabinet minister in the Government, holding the portfolio of Culture, Community and Youth (MCCY).

A report published on New Asia Republic (NAR) in 2011 said:

“According to WikiLeaks, as early as November 2008, the then Deputy CEO of the Energy Market Authority Lawrence Wong had indicated to the US Embassy that the Singapore government does not rule out nuclear power.”

“Wong told the US Embassy that the Singapore government would like to take steps to reduce its dependency on piped natural gas (PNG) which originates from neighbouring countries.”

See here: “WikiLeaks: Singapore’s Nuclear Energy Ambition”.

Two years after Mr Wong made those comments reported by Wikileaks, the Straits Times reported that the “Government was preparing for nuclear power option”.

Straits Times, 2010
Straits Times, 2010

This was confirmed in 2012 when the International Advisory Panel to the Ministry of Trade and Industry advised the Government “to keep all options open.”

nuclear advisory

And last year, 2014, the Government announced a special panel and a $63 million fund “to build core of 100 nuclear experts in Singapore.”

Low
Low

Professor Low Teck Seng, the chief executive officer of the National Research Foundation was reported to have said, “Many of our neighbours are looking at nuclear technology and it is important, as the Prime Minister says, for us to be aware, be knowledgeable and, as such, be able to assess the technology and its impact on Singapore — be it in terms of the potential it has for us, in terms of the risk we face, as well as the ability to harness its potential in every aspect.”

Mr Schwartz’s proposal or advice, therefore, comes as no surprise. Singapore has been making plans towards a final decision on nuclear power as an energy option.

But there are serious concerns about nuclear plants being sited in Singapore.

Back in 2007, Professor Simon Tay, an environmentalist who was also chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs then, was cautious about the idea.

He said, for example, housing the massive nuclear reactors would be hardly prudent land use.

“Nuclear waste disposal is the primary problem for Singapore,” he said. “The land area for nuclear energy, including the international guideline on the security perimeter would be another major concern,” he added.

That security perimeter is 30km, which Singapore does not have. This was also acknowledged by Mr Wong in the Wikileaks document.

However, Mr Wong reportedly said that nuclear power is a long-term prospect, perhaps 20 or 30 years down the road.

“The government intends to create the conditions such that the government can respond in an informed manner when the time comes that the private sector determines if it makes economic sense to build a nuclear nuclear power plant in Singapore,” NAR reported then.

“The government believes that technology will one day overcome these 2 short-comings,” NAR said. One of these advances in technology will allow for mini-reactors that need only small buffer areas.

But if (or when) Singapore moves into nuclear power, it won’t be just for its own sake.

There will also be commercial benefits, as the Government sees it.

“The EDB would to like promote investment by foreign firms that offer nuclear-related products or services to develop its own domestic capabilities in this area,” NAR said. “The intent is to develop Singapore as a base for nuclear technology related products or services in Asia.”

With Singapore’s Population White Paper in 2013 projecting a population of 6.9 million, with some experts encouraging Singapore to go for a higher number of 7 million to 10 million people, coupled with the intense development of the island in the next decades, it is almost inevitable that Singapore’s energy sources will increasingly be centered on nuclear power.

For the average Singaporean this is something which requires very serious consideration, and a political safeguard in Parliament is one of the essential oversight mechanisms they should have if and when the Government is to take the decision in going nuclear.

Without such oversight, and given the recent years’ failures of infrastructure and population management by the Government, going nuclear would be suicidal for the country.

For while scientists and “futurists” may recommend it, at the end of the day, it is Singaporeans who will have to live with the shadow of nuclear power everyday, with its ever-present threats and risks.