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Today Online 29 Sep 07
Can Singapore say no to nuclear energy?
The urge to turn to the arguably cheaper source of energy may be hard to resist
Loh Chee Kong
LIKE skinny leg denims and pants, nuclear energy is back in vogue after going out of fashion in the late 1980s.
The 1979 scare at Three Mile Island, which involved a partial meltdown of a nuclear reactor near Pennsylvania, and the Chernobyl disaster seven years later were enough to make Western countries, except France, stay clear of nuclear energy as the public became fearful and governments tightened regulations.
For two decades, nuclear energy became almost taboo.
But thanks to growing concern over global warming, skyrocketing global oil prices and unstable geopolitics in the oil kingdoms, nuclear energy is back with a vengeance.
Its revival, especially in the United States, is so strong that even a recent earthquake in Japan that damaged one of the world's largest nuclear reactors and caused radiation leakage has not dampened the world's new-found infatuation with nuclear energy.
With nuclear energy, say its advocates, the world can say goodbye to carbon dioxide emissions generated from burning coal and fossil fuels.
Compared to the other green alternatives, "nuclear energy is here, now, in industrial quantities", as Peter Schwartz and Spencer Reiss wrote in Wired magazine two years ago.
The writers added: "Radiation containment, waste disposal and nuclear weapons proliferation are manageable problems in a way that global warming is not."
Even in South-east Asia, where nuclear reactors would probably seem out of place in areas where millions still live below the poverty line, several countries are jumping on the nuclear energy bandwagon.
Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand have all announced plans to use nuclear technology by 2021 while Malaysia has shelved its plans for nuclear power at least until 2030.
Further south, even Australia, which shunned nuclear energy for decades, has made a U- turn. Recently, the country with the world's largest source of uranium ore secured a commitment from Japan to provide reactor technology and expertise.
So, will Singapore be the next member of the nuclear energy club?
The country has at least one good reason to join the crowd — its high-energy consumption. Just look at the amount of electricity we use to turn some of our shopping centres and offices into freezers; and with oil prices ever rising, the temptation to turn to an arguably cheaper source of energy may be hard to resist.
And given Singapore's relatively safe security climate, its highly-skilled human capital, the policy-makers' obsession with detail and the fact that it is protected from natural disasters, there should be no real reason to stop the Republic from embracing nuclear energy.
The clearest official stand came in January when Minister for Environment and Water Resources, Dr Yaacob Ibrahim, responded to a question in Parliament about the possibility of Singapore going nuclear.
"At the moment, I do not think so," he said. "But at the same time, it is important for us to build up knowledge in this area. While I agree ... that renewables are the way to go, we must keep all options on the table, in terms of understanding the environment around us and the things we can do."
While holding its cards close to the chest, the Government's cautious stance could very much lie in the safety concerns — given that one of its first moves in relation to nuclear energy was to consolidate resources under the National Environment Agency to build up "terrain decontamination" (measures to nullify radiation health hazards) capacities.
Professor Simon Tay, an environmentalist who is also chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, is lukewarm to the idea of Singapore embracing nuclear energy.
For one thing, housing the massive nuclear reactors is hardly prudent land use, Prof Tay said.
"Nuclear waste disposal is the primary problem for Singapore. The land area for nuclear energy, including the international guideline on the security perimeter would be another major concern," he added.
He also does not subscribe to the view that nuclear energy is a relatively cheaper alternative source of fuel. With the high initial outlay and "hidden" costs for storage of waste and decommissioning of the plant in future, nuclear energy has "proved to be much more expensive … than its proponents promise", Prof Tay said.
Apart from practical concerns over waste disposal or reactor meltdowns, nuclear energy plants, as well as the ships carrying nuclear-related materials that ply the busy waterways around Singapore, could also become prime targets for terrorist attacks.
"The Straits of Malacca is a very congested waterway," said EnergyAsia editor Ng Weng Hoong. "Vessels carrying uranium, plutonium and nuclear wastes would make a juicy target for terrorists. Someone will get lucky one day — imagine the consequences,"
But even if Singapore prefers to stick to renewable energy technologies, ranging from solar power to hydroelectricity to biofuels, it may not be immune to the possible dangers, which will arise from living in a region that will be dotted with nuclear power plants in the near future.
If all goes as planned, Indonesia will have the region's first nuclear power reactor in 2017 at the foot of the dormant Mount Muria volcano on Central Java's Muria Peninsula. Given that Indonesia is prone to volcanic eruptions and earthquakes because of its location near the so-called Pacific Ring of Fire, there are fears that any natural disaster could be made even more catastrophic when a nuclear plant gets in the way of Mother Nature's wrath.
"If the safety-conscious Japanese can't guarantee the safety of their nuclear plants, what are the chances that South-east Asians can do so?" asked Mr Ng.
An Australian National University study in the 1990s showed that a Chernobyl-like explosion in Java would see Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei, Thailand and parts of Australia swathed in a radioactive fallout.
The real Chernobyl disaster in 1986 saw the radioactive plume drifting over parts of the western part of the Soviet Union, Europe and parts of United States. Large areas of Ukraine, Belarus and Russia were badly contaminated, with more than 336,000 people evacuated and resettled — even though the long-term health effects were found to be less harmful than initial evaluations.
In other words, Singaporeans will have nowhere to hide in the event of an accident or a terrorist attack on a nuclear power facilty in the region.
Even a radioactive leak would be costly. Nuclear security expert Dr Rajesh Basrur, a visiting research fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, said: "In case of a major radiation release, there can be high clean-up costs and corresponding effects on insurance costs and inflow of direct investment."
According to Prof Tay, a recent Jakarta workshop on nuclear safety, which he chaired, concluded that nuclear energy should be the "last option" for South-east Asian countries.
"When nuclear energy is only meant to contribute a small percentage of the overall energy mix, then nuclear energy takes on risks that are disproportionate to its rewards," he said.
Still, the renewed fascination with nuclear energy in the region — and the rest of the world — is not likely to end soon.
"The fading of fears with the passage of time, the world's rising hunger for energy, and growing concerns over climate change have combined to generate a perception that nuclear energy may not be such a bad thing because it is inexpensive and 'clean'," said Dr Rajesh.
Of course, that perception could change very quickly if there were to be another major accident or a terrorist attack on a nuclear facility, he added.
But until that happens — and nuclear energy supporters say the great improvements in plant design and operations have made the nuclear energy industry safer than ever — the momentum to build nuclear energy reactors in the region is unlikely to slow down.
And Singapore, in the near future, might have to re-examine the options it has on the table.
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