By Invitation

Why Singapore needs to make nuclear power work

Other sources of energy such as natural gas, petrol and solar all have drawbacks here

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 S'pore 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.

NATURAL GAS VULNERABILITY

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


ST ILLUSTRATION: MIEL

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.

IS SOLAR ENERGY A VIABLE SOLUTION?

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

A study by the Solar Energy Research Institute of Singapore 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.

STRATEGIC PETROL RESERVES

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.

ADVANTAGES OF URANIUM

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.

NUCLEAR IS SAFE

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.

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.

DEPLOYABLE NPP

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.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 24, 2017, with the headline 'Why Singapore needs to make nuclear power work'. Print Edition | Subscribe