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Singapore exploring use of nuclear energy in densely populated areas; safety study underway

Singapore exploring use of nuclear energy in densely populated areas; safety study underway
Currently, about 95 per cent of Singapore’s energy is generated from burning natural gas.
PHOTO: The Straits Times

SINGAPORE - With limited options for renewable energy, Singapore is not ruling out the use of nuclear energy to cut emissions from its power sector while safeguarding the nation’s energy security – and the Republic is learning from the best minds in the field as part of the decision-making process.

The Straits Times understands that teams from government agencies in Singapore, such as the Energy Market Authority (EMA), have conducted visits to countries like the United States, United Kingdom and Germany to engage international organisations and partners on nuclear energy.

In response to queries, a spokesman for EMA said: “Given the technical complexity and ongoing developments in advanced nuclear energy and fusion technologies, Singapore is building capabilities to better understand the safety implications of deploying such technologies in small and densely populated countries.

“(This includes) engaging international organisations and partners to deepen our understanding of evolving nuclear technologies and facilitate information sharing.”

These organisations include the International Atomic Energy Agency, a United Nations agency that promotes the safe, secure and peaceful use of nuclear technologies; the UK Atomic Energy Authority, which researches fusion energy; and the Max Planck Institute in Germany.

The German institute houses the futuristic Wendelstein-7X – the world’s largest stellarator, an experimental reactor for nuclear fusion reactions.

The EMA spokesman added that Singapore is also working with regional neighbours through Asean platforms to build the region’s capabilities in nuclear safety and emergency preparedness and response.

“As an energy-disadvantaged country, Singapore has limited options for decarbonisation. To achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, Singapore’s electricity supply mix will need to evolve over the coming decades,” the spokesperson added, referring to Singapore’s aim of having the amount of planet-warming emissions it emits taper down to net zero by the middle of the century.

Currently, about 95 per cent of Singapore’s energy is generated from burning natural gas, a fossil fuel. Emissions from this sector make up about 40 per cent of the country’s total emissions.

“We need to study various low-carbon alternatives such as hydrogen, deep geothermal systems, biofuels and new forms of nuclear energy that could potentially enable Singapore to decarbonise the power sector in the longer term,” EMA added.

For example, the authorities will be conducting a nationwide geophysical study to assess Singapore’s deep geothermal resource potential for power generation. The Republic is also moving to import clean generated electricity from its neighbours.

Nuclear energy is considered a low-carbon energy source, since the reactions that produce the energy do not release planet-warming gases, unlike the burning of fossil fuels.

While it is promising, the deployment of nuclear technologies can be controversial, especially after disasters involving nuclear plants in Chernobyl in 1986 and Fukushima in 2011.

In 2022, an EMA-commissioned report on Singapore’s energy future highlighted that nuclear energy could supply about 10 per cent of the country’s energy needs by 2050.

Since then, there has been greater discussion in Singapore about the role of nuclear energy in the nation’s energy mix.

For example, Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Lawrence Wong said during his Budget speech in February that the Republic does not rule out nuclear power, and that it will build capabilities and decide on the feasibility of nuclear deployment in the future.

On March 1, Second Minister for Trade and Industry Tan See Leng told Parliament that Singapore engages with international organisations and countries widely to assess the suitability of advanced nuclear energy technologies for the country when they are proven to be safe and viable.

Dr Tan said then that there remain the issues of engineering challenges for fusion reactors and the low global supply of tritium – a key fuel for fusion – which affects when fusion energy will be commercialised. But Singapore will continue to identify capabilities in the local ecosystem that are fusion-relevant and where the country could play a role in the fusion supply chain, he added.

Currently, operational nuclear plants around the world generate energy from fission reactions, where uranium atoms are split into two to produce heat and radiation.

Nuclear fusion, on the other hand, happens when two nuclei – or masses of protons and neutrons – fuse into a single heavy nucleus, producing massive amounts of energy in the process, with no long-term radioactive waste, a problem with commercial nuclear fission plants.

Other than consultations with international experts, Singapore is also moving ahead on nuclear energy in other fronts.

The Straits Times reported in early March that a new multimillion-dollar research building at the National University of Singapore will have about 100 researchers looking into nuclear tech and safety, from the latest in small modular reactors (SMRs) to how radioactive materials can disperse if there is an accident.

SMRs, which are also not yet commercialised, are smaller and advanced nuclear reactors that promise to be safer than traditional nuclear power plants.

Singapore has also been supporting research into relevant areas of nuclear safety, as well as training a local pool of scientists and experts via the Nuclear Safety Research and Education Programme that was set up in 2014, said EMA.

Dr Victor Nian, chief executive and co-founder of the independent Centre for Strategic Energy and Resources think-tank, noted that Singapore should also move into nuclear engineering, design and supply-chain related research to gain a holistic understanding of the critical issues in nuclear energy.

When asked to comment on the types of nuclear reactors that could be deployed in Singapore, Dr Nian said it is very likely that only SMRs and micro-reactors may be suitable on land. Floating nuclear power plants could be another option, he added.

Factory-built SMRs can be easily shipped to a location for installation.

Dr Nian added: “SMRs and micro-reactors can be deployed in replacement of existing power generation facilities, such as Senoko, Tuas Power and those on Jurong Island.

“However, Singapore will still need to carry out a feasibility study to determine the suitable sites and technologies before a decision can be made.”

ALSO READ: Safer: Singapore may start using nuclear energy in environmental push

This article was first published in The Straits Times. Permission required for reproduction.

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