Lee Kuan Yew once considered putting a nuclear power plant on Pedra Branca

He couldn't put it on our mainland because we're too small.

Joshua Lee | August 31, 2018, 02:46 PM

In the midst of the back and forth about Pedra Branca, it is interesting to note that Singapore once considered using the rocky outcrop as a base for a nuclear power plant.

This was revealed by the late Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew 10 years ago at the Singapore Energy Conference in November 2008.

The government had been focusing on providing Singaporeans with energy at a reasonable cost, following the oil crises of the past.

However, the effects of climate change were looming and Singapore was looking at reducing her carbon emissions.

Lee said then:

"We are, I believe, pushing the limits of what this planet can hold. We have to accept that we are passengers on this one planet. and if we don't reduce this consumption of carbon energy, we are in serious trouble."

Reducing reliance on traditional resources

At the same time, Singapore was keen to reduce her reliance on piped natural gas from her neighbours (20 percent of our piped gas use came from Malaysia and the other 80 percent came from Indonesia) as their output was estimated to start declining in the 2010s.

In a bid to find an alternative to oil and gas, Lee thought of nuclear options.

But there was a glaring problem, as Lee said:

"The real alternative, that can produce the electricity generation to match oil and gas, is nuclear. If you know, the rule is you must have the power station at least 30km away [laughter].

You can put one end of the island and what happens at the other end?"

What Lee was referring to are safety buffer requirements of at least 30km for conventional nuclear plants in the event of an accident.

Today, advances in technology have enabled the development of nuclear power plants with a smaller buffer zone.

Since putting a nuclear power plant on the mainland wasn't an option, Lee looked to Pedra Branca.

He said:

"So we've been thinking this thing through and I said ok, 'There's Horsburgh Lighthouse [on Pedra Branca]. It's more than 30km away, we reclaim land there and plonk it there. But then it's less than 30km away from the Malaysian coast. They'll be worried'."

Via MFA.

The ideal solution was to share a common nuclear power grid with our neighbours, but that presented pricing problems:

"So really, we're forced, eventually I hope our neighbours also come to the conclusion, that we're forced to cooperate. If we understand the complexity and the immensity of the problems the world faces -- and we will face in Southeast Asia -- then we should have a common grid and a common pipeline so that it's transferrable.

But the prices of oil and gas and electricity in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore are so different because they are subsidising it. We are not. We are using the market to control the consumption of energy, so the prices of oil goes up, you drive less or you change to a smaller car.

But Malaysia, you know, they put the price up, they removed the subsidy and there was a howl of rage and they restored part of the subsidy.

And Indonesia, every time they removed the subsidy, there are riots!

So these are problems which will take some time to resolve and somehow we must find some way. Sooner or later, they will come to conclusion that we have already come to but this problem will be better resolved if we have a common grid and common pipelines."

The many obstacles forced Lee to put his nuclear power plant plans on the back burner, and contend with sustainable usage:

"So I was hoping this collider (the Large Hadron Collider at CERN) in Switzerland would produce some results that says now we can now have technology that will free us from the need to depend on the sun for energy. But you know what happened after four days? They shut it down and got over it.

So I think there's a limit to what Man's ingenuity can do. So let's just control our consumption, keep it down, try and keep population down. there are limits to growth, let's live comfortably within the limits that this world can sustain."


A few years after Lee's speech, we learned that the government was looking into another option -- an underground nuclear facility.

If you're keen, here's the YouTube video of Lee's 2008 sharing at the Singapore Energy Conference:

Top image via comp.nus.edu.sg