When Covid-19 forced countries into lockdown for the first time, reports abounded of reduced pollution and clear skies as a result of the sharp reduction in economic activity. This visible change in the environment has increased pressure on policymakers around the world to “build back better” by incorporating low-carbon, renewable energy sources like wind, solar, and hydropower into the energy mix.
As a small, resource-constrained city-state, however, Singapore imports almost all of its energy needs and has limited renewable energy options. Imported natural gas generates 95% of Singapore’s electricity, of which 80% of the total electricity produced is used to power Singapore’s industrial and commercial sectors, with household and transport-related uses accounting for the remainder. Here, the country’s over-reliance on imported natural gas for electricity leaves it vulnerable to price shocks and supply disruptions.
The ongoing pandemic has laid bare the volatility of oil markets and confirmed that electricity supplies are crucial to all aspects of life in a wired economy, including the need to be able to work from home. In order to mitigate the effects of future shocks, Singapore would be well-advised to consider incorporating alternative energy sources suitable for Singapore’s needs. In this regard, nuclear energy warrants a closer look.
Old new ideas
The idea of using nuclear energy for the island state is not new. The late Lee Kuan Yew revealed back in 2008 that he once considered nuclear energy to be the best alternative to fossil fuels for Singapore, and it is easy to see why: situated in the tropics with high dependence on air-conditioning, the variability in Singapore’s electricity demand is much lower as compared to other, which makes the case for low-carbon baseload electricity supply typical of nuclear power generation. Bringing nuclear power into Singapore would also boost the country’s energy and engineering sectors while potentially creating thousands of high-skilled jobs.
Today, nuclear provides 10% of the world’s electricity, but expansion has been slow as the technology faces many formidable obstacles. Nuclear power plants (NPPs)are costly to build, prone to construction delays and cost overruns, and endure exorbitant regulatory costs in addition to negative public perception. Indeed, fear of radiation is widespread, yet the truth is that much of this fear is unfounded. Taking a transcontinental flight, eating bananas or getting medical scans can expose a person to more radiation than living within a 50-mile radius of an NPP.
Neither are NPPs able to explode like atomic bombs because the uranium fuel used for power generation is significantly less reactive than weapons-grade uranium. Exposure to radioactive nuclear waste – scary as it may seem – has never killed anyone. In fact, the fly ash produced by coal power plants is much more radioactive than nuclear waste. Even so, such ash is not considered to hazardous waste in many countries.
New technologies on the horizon
Despite sharply polarised opinions towards nuclear energy post-Fukushima, ASEAN Member States remain interested in it, given its strategic relevance in the region’s energy and climate targets as concluded in a study by the Energy Studies Institute (ESI), National University of Singapore in 2014. After all, nuclear is one of the cleanest forms of energy beside wind and solar, and is the second largest source of low-carbon electricity in the world after hydropower.
Arguably, the upcoming hydrogen revolution alongside carbon capture technologies are among the more publicly acceptable approaches to decarbonisation for the moment. But Singapore faces unique adoption challenges, including a lack of land space. Considering the urgency of the global climate challenge, it would be unwise to exclude available technologies like nuclear power from decarbonisation efforts.
The introduction of small modular reactors (SMRs), then, promises to reinvent nuclear power for the modern era. These are miniaturised NPPs, operating on the same principle as large ones, have several key advantages. Consider a small yacht and a large ocean liner: the yacht would be a lot easier to build, operate and maintain as compared to the ocean liner albeit catering to a similar but slightly different user group.
Because of their small size, SMRs can be mass-produced in a factory environment, thereby reducing lead time and lowering cost while assuring consistency in production quality and regulatory compliance. Some of the advanced SMR concepts could even allow autonomous operations to significantly minimise human error. With enhanced safety features such as passive cooling – a lesson learned from Fukushima – SMR technologies are virtually “Fukushima-proof”.
Since they occupy less space, SMR can be deployed for baseload power closer to urban areas, and complement renewable energy when environmental conditions are not favourable for renewables. Some advanced SMR technologies can be utilised for applications traditionally carried out using fossil fuels, such as water desalination and hydrogen production, potentially furthering decarbonisation efforts and opening up new business opportunities for nuclear power.
Unlike the traditional nuclear power market dominated by large private and/or state-linked corporations such as Rosatom, GE-Hitachi or Westinghouse, SMRs have allowed for start-up companies like NuScale, TerraPower and Flibe Energy – funded by private and institutional entities – to enter the market, with the very first SMR projected to be operational before 2030. Singapore’s Temasek has even invested in General Fusion for their work on modular fusion reactor technology.
The way forward
A pre-feasibility study on nuclear energy conducted by the Singaporean government between 2010 to 2012 concluded that the then-available nuclear technologies were not suitable for deployment in Singapore. Even, the government remains open to the option of nuclear energy while focusing efforts on building up capabilities in nuclear safety.
A more recent study published by ESI in 2017 showed that SMRs could reinvigorate nuclear energy developments in ASEAN. While waiting for emerging low-carbon technologies to be demonstrated and brought into the market, Singapore should conduct another feasibility study considering the new technologies at a time when the idea of employing nuclear has gained momentum in regional frontrunners such as Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand.
Policymakers would have to weigh costs against the greater benefits in building resilience not just in the energy sector, but the industry as a whole, while seeking to transition away from fossil fuels towards a more sustainable economy.