17 March 2011

Singapore Should Never Have a Nuclear Power Plant

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said at International Energy Week 2010:

"Globally, nuclear energy would be an important part of the solution to mankind's energy problems and to tackle global warming.  It is clean, it gives off low carbon emissions, in fact no carbon emissions, but of course harnessing nuclear energy is a complex and long term enterprise.  There are significant issues relating to safety and the nuclear fuel cycle and disposal of nuclear waste.  And there is often strong resistance in countries, from the Green movement, from populations who have witnessed accidents like Chernobyl and are fearful and anxious about their safety.  But if we look at this rationally, without nuclear energy, the world cannot make sufficient progress in dealing with global warming.  Hence, countries are expanding their nuclear energy programmes, particularly countries like France, like China, Japan, Korea.  And the US has announced that it is going to be building more nuclear plants for the first time in 30 years.  And even Germany where there is a very strong Green movement and where they had committed to phasing out their nuclear plants by 2020, totally shutting them down, Angela Merkel's government has had to pass a law, change this policy against tremendous opposition and extend the operating date of the nuclear plants in Germany, because they know that unless they keep those plants going, indeed unless one day they build some more although it is not speakable, they have no hope of achieving their green emission targets.

"In Southeast Asia, several countries have expressed their intention to build nuclear powered plants.  Developing countries will have even more challenges achieving this than developed countries because they have first to build up not the plant but the capability base and institute proper systems and safeguards and standards, to develop a strong safety culture and high standards across many industries before they can safely embark on a nuclear project.

"For Singapore, our small size poses additional challenges.  Safety is a major concern because of our high urban density.  A plant, if we ever build one, is very difficult to put very far from the population because no place in Singapore is far from population.  And yet we cannot afford to dismiss the option of nuclear power altogether.  So we should keep up with new developments, the technologies are advancing, smaller, safer reactors with more fuel efficient designs that reduce the amount of nuclear waste produced, and we must keep up with experiences in other countries, how they are using it, how they are deploying it, how they are managing the sentiments and concerns of the population and working out practical, sensible solutions to these problems.  It will be a long time before we make any decision on nuclear energy but we should get ourselves ready to do so.  And that means to give Singapore the ability to exercise the option should it one day become necessary and feasible.  Therefore we have to start building up the capabilities now, to get in touch with the experts in the field, to train a few of our own engineers and scientists and then we can critically assess developments in nuclear technology and decide on the feasibility of nuclear deployment one day in the future."

Three Mile Island in 1979.

Chernobyl in 1986.

Fukushima Daiichi in 2011.

Apart from these headline grabbing events, there have been others.  Windscale (1959).  Tokaimura (1999).  David-Besse (2002).  Forsmark (2006).  Kr├╝mmel/Brunsb├╝ttel (2007).  And still others, including those that were not widely publicised.

Nuclear power plants come with significant risks, including risks relating to the long-term disposal and/or storage of spent fuel rods.  Such risks are not acceptable in places where the plants or storage facilities are located near population centres, as they will be in Singapore.

The Japanese government established a 20 km evacuation zone around Fukushima.  Although it had previously agreed that it was adequate, the US government subsequently told its troops and other citizens to stay at least 50 miles (80 km) away — about twice the longest distance across Singapore.

We should not delude ourselves into thinking that these and other events were the result of special factors that are not likely to be repeated.  For example, the plants were old or the events were the result of earthquakes, tsunamis, terrorist attacks, mischief, human errors or some other extenuating circumstances.  Or that scientists and engineers have learnt from the events and that newer designs are fail-safe or idiot proof; highly complex systems are vulnerable in ways that cannot be anticipated.  Perhaps, stress tests can be performed to give regulators comfort or assurance, but such comfort or assurance is not absolute and stress tests are designed by humans for events or sequence of events that humans can anticipate.

We should not delude ourselves into thinking that no nuclear power events will ever happen because we (Singapore or Singaporeans) are smart enough, prepared enough, stringent enough or careful enough.  We are not different.

As an editorial in The New York Times put it: "It is sobering that such calamities could so badly hurt Japan, a technologically advanced nation that puts great emphasis on disaster mitigation.  Japan’s protective seawalls proved no match for the high waves that swept over them and knocked out the safety systems that were supposed to protect nearby nuclear reactors from overheating and melting down.

"It is much too early to understand the magnitude of what has happened.  But, as of now, this four-day crisis in Japan already amounts to the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl in 1986.

"From early reports, it appears that the troubled reactors survived the earthquake.  Control rods shut down the nuclear fission reactions that generate power.  But even after shutdown, there is residual heat that needs to be drawn off by cooling water pumped through the reactor core, and that’s where the trouble came.

"The nuclear plant lost its main source of electric power to drive the pumps, and the tsunami knocked out the backup diesel generators that were supposed to drive the pumps in an emergency.  That left only short-term battery power that is able to provide cooling water on a small scale but can’t drive the large pumps required for full-scale cooling."

Nuclear power is not an undeniable reality for Singapore.  We should be rational and accept the fact that it is something that we simply cannot afford to have.

We are told to be rational and not to let our emotions override pragmatism.  Those who say this are wrong.  We are emotional and we are right to be emotional because this is our home, our only home.

Fukushima is a timely reminder, and one that we should not allow to fade away.

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Notes

1.  Speech by Lee Hsien Loong, Prime Minister, at Singapore International Energy Week (1 Nov 2010).

2.  "Nuke Power: An Undeniable Reality" The Straits Times (9 Nov 2010).

3.  Prime Minister of Singapore Lee Hsien Loong's Written Interview with Korean Newspaper Joongang Ilbo (24 Dec 2010).

4.  "An Account of Events at Nuclear Power Plants since the Chernobyl Accident in 1986" Residual Risk (May 2007).

5.  "Japan's Multiple Calamities" The New York Times (14 Mar 2011).

6.  "11-050: NRC Provides Protective Action Recommendations based on US Guidelines" US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (16 Mar 2011).


This posting was originally published on 13 March 2011.

3 comments:

  1. risk calculations says we cannot ever do it. as 1 failure is equal to termination of Singapore. all those plants that failed they also justified that chances of faile is zero or near zero. but it happened

    ReplyDelete
  2. Well...any nuclear accident/disaster ( caused by human errors or terrorism)
    will make this small Red Dot SG into a DEATH City...!!
    By the way.. the sure way for this PAP govt to sit in the Opposition bench
    is to table and adopt in Parliament the construction of Nuclear plants !!

    ReplyDelete
  3. At least our government is thinking straight at the moment.

    ReplyDelete