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Should SEA think nuclear?

Updated On: Apr 30, 2010

Even as governments want to move ahead, many questions remain to be answered

Following the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington DC, Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong gave assurances that even as the Republic moves towards nuclear energy, its feasibility will first be studied.

It is not only Singapore that is thinking about nuclear energy in South-east Asia. Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia are looking at nuclear energy and indeed the first three are further ahead on the path.

Indonesia has cleared most legal and administrative hurdles and has been identifying sites for their first plant, despite considerable controversy and protests by local communities.

Why are Singapore and others in South-east Asia now looking at nuclear energy? What are the constraints and concerns? How should a decision be reached in the country, and across the region?

The motives for looking at nuclear energy are apparent. As a compact, industrialised and densely populated city state, Singapore needs energy and energy sources that are readily available, reliable and reasonably priced. Other countries are also keen, despite the fact that some like Indonesia and Vietnam have more options in conventional energy resources and renewables, and could take the lead in new technologies like geo-thermal energy.

Yet, even as governments want to move ahead, many questions remain to be answered. This is especially as South-east Asians are new to the nuclear energy industry - unlike their cousins in North-east Asia.

Singapore's leadership has promised to look at the technical, economic and safety aspects of nuclear energy.

The issues are manifold, complex and open to debate. Security measures to prevent weaponisation and a "dirty" bomb were the focus of the recent US-led summit and bear consideration in Asia. Safety in design, construction and operation are also real concerns, especially if the site is exposed to earthquakes, as in Indonesia.

The industry is quick to say that a nuclear energy plant is safe and that new designs mean a Chernobyl-type blowout will not happen. But different problems can develop, especially where there is no culture of safety in handling everyday operations and maintaining the plant over the long haul.

Even the economics of the decision is also more complex than proponents would have us believe. The common claim is that the energy is cheaper than conventional fossil fuels and, even more, renewable energy. But the typical nuclear energy plant has such a massive upfront cost and long construction period that only states with deep pockets to offer cheap capital and subsidies can proceed.

Construction cost overruns are also typical. The Olkiluoto plant being built in Finland has already seen costs balloon by more than 50 per cent, adding billions to the original estimate. Frequently, the cost estimates also fail to take into account the cost and time for decommissioning the plants at the end of their life. This process could take around 50 to 80 years , and costs anywhere from US$300 million ($403 million) to more than US$1 billion.

Another major concern is the environment. This was not specifically mentioned in PM Lee's description of the feasibility study that Singapore will undertake and needs to be explicitly integrated into the frame for decision making.

With climate change concerns, proponents tout nuclear energy proponents to be a "green" alternative, saying no carbon dioxide (CO2) is emitted. But when we look at the full life-cycle of nuclear energy including mining, construction and transport, there is a CO2 footprint, which may not necessarily be lighter than fossil fuels.

The larger environmental issues about nuclear energy relate to waste, for which remains hazardous for thousands of years, without a real solution. Storage facilities are controversial and illegal dumping, inside or outside the country, will always be a danger.

These are but some examples of the issues at hand. They cannot be answered categorically, simply or immediately. Those concerned for the environment and safety should not respond with an ideological "No" to nuclear power. But neither can the debate be reduced to dollars and kilowatts for the short term.

There is no technological silver bullet. This is something that nuclear experts should recognise even as they promote the safety and viability of so-called new generation reactors, or talk up "small" reactors, as Michael Richardson of the Institute of South-east Asian Studies did in a Straits Times article on Monday.

It is important, therefore, to look at the decision-making process itself. Often times, Singapore prides itself on decisiveness and speed, relying on technology and experts to deliver the answers. But in this case, such qualities may not be assets.

Frameworks for feasibility have to be broadened. The public must be consulted and participate in the decision-making. Yes, there are difficult technical and technological issues at play that are difficult to grasp. But experts in this field should not believe they have all the answers and accuse the public of failing to understand.

Every effort must be made to broaden understanding and participation as this is an issue of basic safety that will affect very many people. The perspective of sustainable development and environmental protection should also be brought into play.

With the idea of sustainability and of future generations, the question of the nuclear waste must be considered even before we begin, as such waste materials have a half life measured in thousands of years.

Moreover, there is also a responsibility for transboundary pollution and all countries in the region should consult with each other to reassure their neighbours that their plans meet the highest standards of safety in design, construction and operation.

A rational and transparent process for decision-making is needed both at the national and regional levels. This should not be a rushed decision, shrouded in secrecy or dressed up in technical jargon, or shielded by excuses of sovereignty or national security.

Simon Tay
About the author: 

The writer is chairman of the Singapore Institute of International
Affairs, which has held or participated in panels and workshops on this
issue in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore.


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