S’pore considering potentially safer new nuclear tech, including nuclear fusion that doesn’t produce long-lived radioactive waste

Current older nuclear plants use conventional nuclear fission technology.

Ashley Tan | April 05, 2022, 12:23 PM

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It was previously revealed in a Mar. 22 Energy 2050 Committee report that Singapore is mulling harnessing nuclear energy, and that it could supply about 10 per cent of the country's energy needs by 2050.

In Parliament on Apr. 4, Minister of State for Trade and Industry Alvin Tan elaborated further on Singapore's nuclear energy plans in response to several questions from Members of Parliament (MP).

Geothermal energy

Tan shared that the Energy 2050 Committee report sets out several energy pathways for Singapore's power sector to achieve net zero carbon emissions by, or around, 2050.

To successfully deploy large scale, low carbon technologies at lower costs for energy generation, hydrogen, geothermal and nuclear energy are potential options.

Geothermal energy, which is energy derived from heat produced inside the earth, is more viable and consistent than solar energy, which is constrained by Singapore's unpredictable weather and cloud cover.

Recent advances in geothermal technology means that Singapore could potentially harness geothermal heat from deep underground, and the Nanyang Technological University (NTU) is currently conducting exploratory studies to estimate geothermal resource potential in various parts of the country.

New tech that produces clean electricity

Another pathway is that of nuclear energy.

A 2012 feasibility study conducted by the government found that conventional large reactor technologies are not suitable for development in Singapore.

However, new designs, such as small modular reactors and Generation IV reactors with enhanced safety systems are being developed.

A new type of nuclear technology, called nuclear fusion technology, has also seen significant interest, Tan said.

Current older nuclear plants use nuclear fission technology, but Tan shared that nuclear fusion technology does not cause chain reactions and will not produce long-lived radioactive waste.

Fusion technology also uses relatively common light elements, such as hydrogen, rather than rarer uranium, as a fuel supply, reported Live Science.

He said:

"Hence, nuclear fusion power plants can, at least theoretically, produce clean electricity to meet our energy needs."

However, as these technologies have yet to be commercialised, Singapore will need to consider all aspects before its deployment, Tan said.

"Many of these advanced geothermal and nuclear technologies are still in the research and development phase and have not begun commercial operations yet. So we will need to consider any decision to deploy new energy technologies against its safety, reliability, affordability, and environmental sustainability in Singapore's context.

All these technologies must meet stringent standards of critical infrastructure resilience, in line with international best practices of developed countries, which have experience in ensuring the safety of such power plants. And given the technical complexity of nuclear energy technologies, we will need to continue building our ability to better understand and assess the safety, security and environmental implications before we consider them for deployment in Singapore."

Singapore govt supporting nuclear energy research

Singapore's government is currently supporting research in relevant areas of nuclear policy, science and engineering, as well as efforts to train a pool of scientists and experts in local and overseas universities.

Singapore also actively supports international efforts to strengthen the global nuclear safety and security architecture, Tan said.

The country works with the International Atomic Energy Agency and other Asean member states to help strengthen regional preparedness to respond to a potential nuclear emergency.

Tan added that Singapore's future energy mix will depend on advancements in low carbon technologies, and will be carried out through collaborations and trading of low carbon energy across borders.

He added:

"The government will carefully study the recommendations in the committee's report and calibrate our plans accordingly, as technologies evolve. In the meantime, we will continue to enhance energy efficiency across all sectors and encourage consumers to play their part to conserve energy."

Fukushima nuclear plant uses older tech

In response to Tan, MP Ang Wei Neng share that the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident in 2011 is still "fresh in the memory of many people's minds", and asked how the government would assure Singaporeans that such accidents would not occur here.

Tan replied that the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan and the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in Ukraine — which was shelled by Russian troops in mid-March — were constructed in the late 1960s and early 1980s.

These two plants use conventional nuclear fission technology, and are not suitable in Singapore.

New kinds of nuclear technology like nuclear fusion technology that are being developed globally will have the potential to be much safer than other designs.

Requires resources and expertise before deployment

MP Liang Eng Hwa also asked if the government would look at using nuclear energy to supply more than 10 per cent of Singapore's energy needs "given the very significant undertaking".

Tan answered that the 10 per cent figure is derived based on a set of hypothetical scenarios and assumptions, and the government has yet to set any specific target for the energy mix in Singapore.

"The choice for determining optimal energy mix for Singapore should be evaluated against factors that I mentioned earlier, which is affordability, sustainability, and energy security," Tan said.

Additionally, in response to Liang's question about how soon Singapore can deploy this, Tan shared that aside from the fact that most of the technology is in an R&D phase, deploying it requires plenty of infrastructure, specialised expertise and the necessary regulations.

"You need human resources support to ensure that [when] we deploy such infrastructure, that nuclear safety and security is foremost in our consideration," he added.

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