What it means to have nuclear energy in Singapore power sector’s net zero emission aim
A recently report commissioned by the Energy Market Authority highlighted that nuclear energy could be part of Singapore’s energy mix by 2050.
A recent report commissioned by the Energy Market Authority highlighted that nuclear energy could be part of Singapore’s energy mix by 2050.
Deemed unsuitable due to safety and reliability concerns in a pre-feasibility study conducted in 2012 by the Ministry of Trade and Industry, the Energy 2050 committee projects that nuclear energy could supply about 10 percent of Singapore’s power needs by 2050 due to technological advancement.
Postulated as one of three scenarios by the Energy 2050 Committee — made up of nine academics as well as public and private sector experts — nuclear energy could be viable when technological advancements coupled with geopolitical fragmentation occur in the later decades.
This scenario means Singapore will have to be less dependent on regional cooperation and electricity imports to drive its climate targets and more reliant on technological investments towards decarbonisation.
NUCLEAR TECHNOLOGY ADVANCEMENT
Nuclear technology and safety have seen significant advancements over the years. Countries like France and China have been designing and building nuclear plants that continually enhance their safety aspects.
The world has moved on from the days of the Fukushima nuclear disaster and fears of radiation have alleviated in recent years.
In fact, the radiation from a medical X-ray can expose an individual to more radiation than a nuclear power plant that is located in close proximity, according to the World Nuclear Association and United Nations Environment Programme.
While larger nuclear plant plants will not be suitable given Singapore’s land scarcity and highly urbanised terrain, small modular reactors provide a huge opportunity for Singapore’s ambition to explore nuclear feasibility in its energy mix.
The smaller size of these modular reactors makes them suitable to be planted closer to residential areas or inserted within pockets of spaces in industrial areas.
These small modular reactors can also be designed and built faster for commercial scalability resulting in cost optimisation.
France, for instance, plans to build such reactors by 2030, with an eye on exporting them.
A small modular reactor can generate approximately 300 megawatts of electricity that can power approximately 50,000 homes a year.
NUCLEAR ENERGY IN SINGAPORE
In the case of Singapore, the small modular reactors can have a variety of use cases.
For instance, they could be used to power integrated waste management facilities or incineration plants. They could also be used to potentially power wastewater treatment or sea water desalination plants.
The feasibility of these use cases has to be further studied. More resources towards these studies have to be allocated.
Singapore has already taken steps to beef up its know-how on nuclear power.
In 2014, a programme for research and education in the space of nuclear science, safety and engineering was launched.
In the same vein, the Singapore Nuclear Research & Safety Initiative has been awarding scholarships for studies related to nuclear energy over the last couple of years.
These initiatives will have to be continued or even scaled.
Nuclear energy has the potential to create more jobs in the energy sector with more research and development required to assess commercial feasibility and implementation.
Within the education sector, institutions of higher learning can introduce more curriculum around nuclear energy.
Being a regional hub for technology and innovation, Singapore is also well placed to attract talent and investment in the nuclear power sector in the near and long term.
DRIVE TOWARDS DECARBONISATION
The Energy 2050 Committee also said that it is “technically viable” for Singapore’s power sector to achieve net-zero carbon emissions and “realistic” to aspire to do so by 2050.
This will require “transformational changes” across the entire energy value chain — from supply and demand to the development of the country’s power grid.
The committee acknowledges that these changes could be challenging to carry out due to uncertainties such as geopolitical trends and technological advancements.
Nonetheless, the committee’s findings are significant given that the power sector accounts for 40 per cent of Singapore’s carbon emissions.
Nuclear energy remains one of the cleanest forms of energy besides solar and wind energy.
More importantly, besides hydropower, it is the second largest source of low-carbon intensive electricity in the world.
Based on the Energy 2050 Committee report, besides solar, geothermal energy and electricity imports, hydrogen features prominently as a source of energy in Singapore’s energy portfolio towards 2050.
Hydrogen at present remains a costly proposition predominantly due to transportation and storage.
While there is the possibility of carbon capture technologies which have been studied and explored, nuclear energy remains a potential lever to drive Singapore climate ambition and decarbonisation goal.
To enable greater public acceptance of nuclear as a source of energy for the power sector, there needs to be more public education and awareness creation to allay fears and concerns over the use of a radioactive material and the accompanying waste that it generates.
Mechanisms must be in place to detect any leakage into the wider environment and there should be guidelines to collect, transport and dispose of radioactive waste material in a safe manner.
At a global level, nuclear power provides approximately 10 per cent of the world electricity supply. This figure is not insignificant by any count and can only inch upwards as the world shifts its dependence from fossil fuel.
Prior to 2020, the amount of electricity produced from nuclear energy was on the rise for seven consecutive years.
Covid-19 reduced world energy demand and nuclear plant operators took steps to protect their employees by instituting plant shutdowns, resulting in a drop in electricity produced from nuclear energy.
At a regional level, countries are slated to reduce their dependence on coal and other fossil generated fuel sources.
Within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, it would be crucial to assess the appetite for nuclear energy adoption amongst our neighbours such as Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines and potentially establish regional collaboration on research and development.
In the context of Singapore, policymaking will have a key role in setting the agenda for the inclusion of nuclear energy in Singapore’s energy portfolio by 2050.
A thorough cost benefit analysis anchored on sound environmental, social and governance principles should be carried out to understand how nuclear as a source of power can build Singapore’s energy resiliency and outputs from the analysis should feed into policy making.
With growing geopolitical tensions globally and the probability of black swan events ever present, the scenario painted by the Energy 2050 committee involving the adoption of nuclear energy remains plausible.
It would be prudent to concertedly lay the groundwork to explore the use of nuclear energy as a source of energy towards the power sector’s aspiration to attain net-zero emissions by 2050.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Kavickumar Muruganathan is a sustainability professional and part-time lecturer at National University of Singapore on environmental economics and sustainable development.