Move to ensure nuclear security

Move to ensure nuclear security

SINGAPORE - Singapore has outlined nine research projects to build up its nuclear expertise, which could help the country protect itself in the event of radioactive fallout from accidents or terrorist attacks.

The projects are in the areas of radiochemistry, radiobiology and safety analysis, and will start in 2016 when temporary laboratories are set up.

Scientists with expertise in radiological sciences - the use of radiation in medical treatment and nuclear radiation studies - will lead the research under the auspices of a National Research Foundation (NRF) unit, The Straits Times has learnt.

They are part of a $63 million, five-year research and education programme launched by the NRF in April this year. A government study in 2012 found current nuclear energy technologies not suitable for Singapore as yet but said it should take part in global and regional talks on nuclear safety.

The research programme will help Singapore take part in these talks, better protect its people, and prepare for the nuclear option "in the distant future", said Dr Yeoh Lean Weng, NRF director for the Energy and Environment Research Directorate.

Projects in radiochemistry, for instance, will collect data on background radiation, enabling the country to monitor radioactive levels and detect unusual levels. In radiobiology, the health effects of low doses of radiation will be studied. Said Dr Yeoh: "People are concerned when they hear about radiation. But our body is quite adaptive."

Safety analyses using modelling and simulations are another priority. These include research on the impact of nuclear accidents, and how radioactive particles can travel.

Mr Joe Eades, council member and chairman of the Institution of Engineers Singapore's process safety sub-committee, said the projects will help Singapore develop protocols to handle incidents such as terrorist strikes or accidents in the transport of nuclear material through Singapore waters.

Professor Andrew Palmer, of the civil and environmental engineering department at the National University of Singapore (NUS), called for ways to improve public perception of nuclear energy. "This could clear up misconceptions, such as associating nuclear power stations with nuclear bombs."

The $63 million effort, which includes a fund to train people in nuclear sciences, has received 10 applications for postgraduate scholarships. Said Dr Yeoh: "This is a specialised area, and we need to ensure a critical mass of scientists to build expertise."

In line with Singapore's advancing capabilities in nuclear research, NUS will introduce a new minor in medical physics in January. The NRF said it is in talks with the Nanyang Technological University to set up a similar minor or summer programme.

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