Should Singapore take the lead as ASEAN embraces nuclear energy?

Image: Naufal Shidqi

ASEAN nations are now seriously considering nuclear power as the fuel that will drive the region’s industrial and economic development. Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines currently lead the way but the region would benefit if it was Singapore heading the charge.

By John Pennington

It is time for Southeast Asia to go nuclear. Fossil fuels are fast running out. Demand for energy continues to grow. Cleaner and more efficient means of energy production must power the region’s development.

While many countries, including Germany and Japan, are phasing out or reducing nuclear power production in the wake of the Fukushima disaster, ASEAN nations seem ready to put their faith in nuclear power once again. But who will take the first steps? And what are the best options?

The Philippines want to revive the Bataan plant

Construction of the Bataan plant began in 1973 as a response to the oil crisis. It was mothballed in 1986 following the Chernobyl disaster and the People Power Revolution. After the Philippines hosted the recent annual meeting of the Nuclear Energy Cooperation Subsector Network, they revealed foreign interest in reviving the plant.

“I’m looking at other countries to do it, operate it. Instead of giving us grant, this is what they should do. I already talked to the Chinese ambassador to have it assessed,” Energy Secretary Alfonso G. Cusi explained. Bataan was Southeast Asia’s first nuclear plant and its revival was discussed in both the 1990s and 2007.

Its reactivation will be very costly

Most countries in the region developing their own nuclear programmes will struggle to do so without outside assistance, particularly those with struggling economies. Yet, if the Philippines follows its plans to invest massively in infrastructure developments, the energy to power the resulting economic development has to come from somewhere.

The estimated cost of getting Bataan up and running again is around US$1 billion. Scientists say it would be too risky because the plant sits on an active earthquake fault line. The revival of the Bataan plant would be, “the greatest threat to the wellbeing of the Filipino people and their environment,” believed University of Illinois geologist Kelvin Rodolfo.

Malaysia is laying the foundations for nuclear power production

Malaysia is slowly moving into position to introduce a nuclear power programme. The government believes nuclear power can help them meet future demand and diversify the mix of energy in the country.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) deems Malaysia “thoroughly prepared” and able to make an informed decision about introducing nuclear power. Government approval is required before any firm steps are taken, however.

Commenting on an assessment made by the Integrated Nuclear Infrastructure Review (INIR), minister Nancy Shukri said, “The main recommendations in the report are on strengthening government commitment and enhancing public awareness to progress further towards making a knowledgeable decision.”

However, there is still a long way to go before they are ready to start building a plant. The country won’t have one until 2030 at the earliest but they have to start planning now. “Malaysia needs a good mix of energy coming from different sources to reduce its dependency on only from one particular source,” said Malaysian Nuclear Agency Director General Datuk Dr Muhamed Lebai Juri.

Indonesia is pressing forward with nuclear plans

The World Nuclear Association reported that Indonesia has, “a greater depth of experience and infrastructure in nuclear technology than any other Southeast Asian country.”

The government set aside US$8 billion to get four plants up and running by 2025 although the plans were met with protests and criticism. They will not be deterred. “In our opinion, like or dislike, nuclear must be included for the demand of electricity by 2025,” said Dr Taswanda Taryo, deputy chairman of Nuclear Energy Technology at the National Nuclear Energy Agency (BATAN).

Working with Russia, Indonesia is considering the possibility of building floating nuclear power plants. Agreements covering assistance, research, and development have been signed with Japan.

A move to nuclear would both free up oil for export and reduce dependency on existing power plants that result in frequent blackouts. Despite the protests, Indonesia has public support for nuclear development. A survey reported 60.4% support developing a nuclear plant in the country.

Can Indonesia meet safety requirements for nuclear energy?

Indonesia may be on track to build nuclear plants but safety and security requirements could prove to be stumbling blocks. The IAEA recommends countries put in place a Nuclear Energy Programme Implementing Organisation (NEPIO) to effectively project manage nuclear development. At the moment, Indonesia does not have one.

Just as in the Philippines, scientists are concerned with the location of planned nuclear plants. Much of Indonesia lies in the “Pacific Ring of Fire” and even those islands outside the area are not immune to natural disasters. It is – literally – a difficult position to be in. They need the power plants, but the risks are massive.

In Singapore, there are no plans to build plants but they are building capability and knowledge

Singapore has no nuclear power programme but the country remains open to the idea of nuclear power. “We never ruled out the option of using nuclear,” Minister for Trade and Industry S Iswaran confirmed. “The fact of the matter is that today’s technology – in terms of footprint etc. – the sheer size of it becomes difficult.”

Currently, 95% of Singapore’s energy comes from Indonesia and Malaysia. Further diversification is essential. A nuclear programme would give Singapore more control of their energy market and leave them in a less vulnerable position. It would also reduce the country’s carbon footprint.

Although a 2010 study concluded that the risks outweighed the benefits, it nevertheless recommended building up knowledge and capability. As a result, S$63 million (US$44.8 million) was in 2014 put into the Nuclear Safety Research and Education Programme. Far from vacillating, Singapore is ready to be a major player in ASEAN’s nuclear future.

Nuclear power programmes must factor in risks

The construction of nuclear power plants and technology used to create electricity is now heavily regulated and monitored. Modern plants are very unlikely to fail. However, there are still risks that ASEAN nations must consider before they go nuclear.

Despite advances in construction techniques and technology, nuclear power plants are dangerous. Accidents still happen. The Japanese government put the costs of cleaning up after Fukushima at US$188 billion. A disaster of the same magnitude in Southeast Asia would cripple the local economy and would destroy consumer confidence in nuclear power. If more than one country were affected, political disputes and wrangling over accountability may follow.

A Chernobyl-style disaster – however unlikely – in a densely-populated ASEAN nation or region would cause widespread health problems that would be felt for generations. The exclusion zone around Fukushima was as big as Singapore. The destruction of such an area in Southeast Asia would render it a dead zone for generations. The human cost would be enormous.

Nuclear plants are costly and require huge areas of land

Building and maintaining the power plants is expensive. The Philippines only finished paying for the Bataan plant – which was never operational – in 2007. Nuclear waste must be disposed of correctly and safely. Shortcuts can’t be taken with back-up and safety procedures.

The government in Vietnam recently abandoned plans to build a number of plants after the projected cost doubled. Nuclear plants take several years to plan and build. Unexpected price rises, perhaps due to a global crisis once a build is underway, could hinder short-term economic growth. Countries would be making repayments for years to come and would need to justify doing so as other sectors miss out.

The plants require huge areas of land, which is at a premium in some Southeast Asian countries. Some argue the land should be put to better use. Floating plants merit further investigation: they would not take up valuable land space and they could be quickly isolated from the mainland in case of a problem.

A nuclear power programme has clear advantages

There are good reasons why nuclear power is once again a viable option. Plants are expensive to build but once up and running, they are cost-effective. One gram of uranium produces as much energy as 1.8 million cubic metres of oil and 3 million grams of coal.

Nuclear plants pollute less than fossil fuel plants. Nuclear power produces a more consistent output than renewable sources such as solar and wind energy. Nuclear power is safe and the risk of accidents is declining.

Competition to lead ASEAN’s renewed push for nuclear power is underway

If nuclear power is to return to ASEAN in the future, it looks most likely to start with a Chinese-controlled reactor in the Philippines or a Russian-influenced floating plant in Indonesia. Neither prospect inspires great confidence. Neither country has successfully convinced the world they can build, operate, and sustain a plant safely. Malaysia is moving too slowly. Vietnam is out of the picture. The region needs another option; a safer pair of hands.

Singapore already leads the world in offshore rig solutions. Much of the infrastructure required to build floating nuclear power plants as part of a diverse energy production strategy exists already. By 2020, they will also have a pool of specialist nuclear experts in place. They should be put to good use.

Thanks to its specialist knowledge, relevant experience, existing infrastructure and its economic strength, Singapore is best placed to both mitigate risk and provide ASEAN a blueprint for using nuclear power to drive the region’s future development.

About the Author

John Pennington
John Pennington is an English freelance writer and a self-published author. He graduated from the University of Warwick with a bachelor’s degree in French and History in 2006. After spending time as a sports journalist, he now writes about politics, history and social affairs.