Commentary on nuclear energy sparks debate over risks, safety

S'pore is not ready, say experts, following ST Opinion contributor's article advocating it

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.

SAFETY FIRST

Safety should be the main concern. Singapore... is too small and too densely populated to allow for a standard modern nuclear plant.

PROFESSOR CLAUDE GUET, research programme director at the Energy Research Institute at NTU.

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.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 05, 2017, with the headline 'Commentary on nuclear energy sparks debate over risks, safety'. Print Edition | Subscribe