Singapore needs to beef up nuclear knowledge

World leaders are gathered in Washington, DC this week for talks at the Nuclear Security Summit. Taking part in the conversation will be the Singapore delegation led by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

It may not be obvious at first glance just what Singapore's interest might be in a nuclear summit - there are no nuclear plants here - but a closer look at the issue reminds us of the importance of the Republic, a major seaport, developing its own expertise in this area.

Beyond the hush-hush discussions and networking among the 51 nations represented, the real work to safeguard Singapore from the threat of nuclear-armed terrorists extends beyond the ambit of the summit. Indeed, it is a 24/365 effort that demands deep expertise in the specialised domains of nuclear safety, science, engineering and policy matters.

Singapore's capabilities in these fields are now embryonic. With so much at stake if radioactive material falls into the wrong hands, it is vital that Singapore build up its capabilities in nuclear matters - and do so quickly.

Even with no nuclear power plants in Singapore, our scientific community needs to study radioactive material to understand the nature of the beast.


Nuclear waste in an evacuation zone in Fukushima Prefecture, Japan. Just as the haze from Sumatra affected Singapore, radioactive clouds that emerge from nuclear disasters in our region could adversely affect life here. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

If forewarned is forearmed, our defence planners must be kept informed and updated of developments in nuclear matters so that they know what to look for and how to deal with crisis situations involving radioactive material.

Counter-terrorist units the world over keep their trade secrets to themselves to preserve the element of surprise. The more so for tactics and special expertise needed to deal with nuclear incidents where effects are potentially far deadlier than conventional attacks.

As foreign defence forces will not teach you everything, Singapore needs its own experts in nuclear matters who can advise and implement plans, programmes and operational procedures to meet, defeat or mitigate the threat from nuclear-armed terrorists.

Singapore's Nuclear Safety Research and Education Programme (NSREP), launched in April 2014, is a step in the right direction. This programme faces a steep learning curve in building, retaining and growing a team of Singaporeans with the know-how in this specialised field.

Its endeavours involve juggling between building capabilities to protect Singaporeans from nuclear incidents and finding the time to join like-minded professionals at regional and international safety fora to exchange ideas and learn best practices.

Nuclear matters evoke strong emotions because nuclear accidents from Three Mile Island to Chernobyl to Fukushima all resulted in health risks to people. These incidents underscore why the NSREP's job is even more pressing.

News out in the United States this past week on water pollution in the city of Flint in Michigan illustrates how poor expertise in understanding one's environment can harm people's lives. The water authorities supplied contaminated drinking water drawn from the Flint River to city folk, who then fell ill after the polluted water caused lead from old water pipes to leach into the water system. Several people died and thousands more suffered from ill health as a result of the water crisis.

The report of the official inquiry released last week noted: "The Flint water crisis is a story of government failure, intransigence, unpreparedness, delay, inaction and environmental injustice. The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality failed in its fundamental responsibility to effectively enforce drinking water regulations."

The same could be said if Singapore's lack of expertise in nuclear science and engineering results in planners caught blindsided, unable to recognise emerging challenges or threats in the nuclear arena from lack of knowledge, experience or organisational structure to deal with such matters. You don't know what you don't know.

The danger is more real than you think. We may not have nuclear power plants here that can be compromised, but the threat could emerge in other ways.

Nuclear-powered warships and submarines make port visits to Singapore or sail through the Singapore Strait several times a year. Such vessels, which are floating nuclear power plants, require additional armed protection when in Singapore and detection/crisis management capabilities in the event of a nuclear incident.

As a major seaport, Singapore's security watchers are on the alert for dirty bombs (explosives packed with radioactive material to enhance the deadliness of the bombs) that may be smuggled into Singapore hidden among the thousands of shipping containers that come into port daily.

A large and more organised network of Singaporean nuclear experts is needed for Singapore to better understand the implications of nuclear developments in our waters and around the region.

At the same time, the security scare in Belgium last week where a nuclear scientist was targeted for video surveillance by suspected terrorists means that we must be clear how to protect our network of experts from similar threats - a difficult task, considering that such individuals will need to present a public face at scientific conferences and in academic literature.

Bear in mind that fallout from a nuclear disaster has a long reach. The no-go zone around the Chernobyl nuclear power plant that exploded in 1986 is several times bigger than Singapore. Fallout from that disaster was detected in European countries thousands of miles away.

Objecting to a nuclear plant next to one's home isn't the same as raising a hue and cry when a columbarium may be built in one's housing estate.

Just as the haze from Sumatra resulted in health woes for many Singaporeans, radioactive clouds that emerge from nuclear disasters in our region could adversely affect life in Singapore.

Singapore's focus on developing its capabilities in nuclear matters will put the Lion City on a stronger footing when it needs the expertise to study the implications of nuclear power plants that are being considered by our neighbours.

A nuclear forensics capability would also improve our security capabilities against threats from radioactive material.

One cannot un-invent nuclear science and technology. So even if Singapore does not choose to use nuclear technology as a form of clean, renewable energy, there is nothing to stop its neighbours from doing so.

The indigenous community of professionals in nuclear issues that Singapore aims to nurture will therefore serve an essential role in national security and in horizon scanning for emerging challenges.

•David Boey, a former defence correspondent of The Straits Times, is a member of the Advisory Council on Community Relations in Defence (Accord).

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 01, 2016, with the headline 'S'pore needs to beef up nuclear knowledge'. Print Edition | Subscribe