Re-Thinking Nuclear Energy For A New Generation

There is a view that governments in ASEAN are at an early stage in ensuring a safety culture within the operational framework of nuclear energy plants; Modern nuclear power plants are no longer as prone to operator and process flaws their older manifestations were but nuclear detractors hold to past perceptions

 - By Dickson Yeo, Valerie Choy, Dr. Michael Quah -

Energy solutions in the 21st century have to be approached holistically, where climate change challenges must be balanced with the need for energy security from energy diversity drawn from an appropriate portfolio mix of power sources. Currently, there is much discussion on the viability of nuclear energy within the regional/local power generation mix. Many have singled out the nuclear option for special caution by highlighting the specter of nuclear catastrophe. Perhaps it is time to consider the nuclear energy option with more objectivity and consider nuclear energy as just one out of a basket of potential energy solutions. By de-mystifying the various aspects of nuclear energy technology, we can paint a much clearer picture for broader options to our energy future.

The objective assessment of environmental costs and risks associated with all energy generation sources has to be the end-game to decision making on Singapore’s energy future. Nuclear energy, in popular perception, carries the stigma of mushroom clouds and pervasive radioactive contamination, with outdated visions of Chernobyl and Three Mile Island dominating public discussion. We have to seriously question our sophistication if the best education we have on nuclear energy comes from the likes of Homer Simpson,  with the stereotype of the careless nuclear plant employee. Furthermore, nuclear power generation also has to be clearly distinguished from nuclear weaponry, a linkage, which is historically correct but which is often used to arouse negative sentiment rather than reasoned public discourse.
Other sources of energy generation from fossil fuels, hydro or solar also carry environmental and human costs as well. Manufacturing solar panels produces toxic tailings which, if not processed properly before disposal, cause ecological damage.  Renewable sources, such as solar and wind, need energy storage systems for equivalent systems comparisons with our legacy power sources.  Such storage sources are all produced using heavy metals, whose mining and manufacturing carry an environmental footprint, often not discussed because it is “the devil we know or have chosen to ignore”.  Coal mining is frequently dangerous as shown recently in China and the United States and leads to heavy ash residue around mining areas. Also, the problems of mishaps in oil and gas sources are well-covered in the press today. Hydro-power dam projects in India, China, and ASEAN are associated with pervasive population displacement and environmental damage to precious primary forests and the loss of bio-diversity.

The price we pay for modern energy generation of every stripe is steep and can provoke consequences for generations to come. Hence, there is a need to assess all of these potential outcomes on an objective balance sheet and allow policy makers and private industry to come to a conclusion beyond emotive arguments. The energy equation debate has to be informed by facts and not sentiments.  We clearly must focus on issues of conservation and energy efficiency as our top priority but given our modern energy consumption intensity currently at two orders of magnitude higher than that of our agricultural ancestors, we have to explore all energy options while keeping a balanced view and clarifying the management of risk.

The operational safety of potential nuclear power plants in South East Asia has become an immediate cause for concern in regional forums.  There is a view that governments in ASEAN are at an early stage in ensuring a safety culture within the operational framework of nuclear energy plants. We must acknowledge that there is insufficient administrative experience in ensuring that commercial lobbying will not sway the resolve to ensure safe reactor operations or adequate provisions in site selection for nuclear plants.  However, these concerns are opportunities for action for innovation and for new business development rather than be hindrances to nuclear technology development in this region.  Malaysia’s recent decision to construct a nuclear reactor has provoked a firestorm of controversy but these debates should lead to a more robust system of checks and balances for Malaysian nuclear energy operations.

The potential fall-out from nuclear accidents underscores the urgent need for regional collaboration and consultation on these issues. Once again, this development could prove to be a major benefit as collective bargaining with private sector suppliers and contractors could dramatically reduce the costs and risks involved with nuclear energy. At the present, ASEAN level discussions on nuclear power have not come to the stage of inter-regional collaboration but interest has piqued from Jakarta to Manila. Nuclear energy could prove to be a key to greater regional integration. Indeed Malaysian Prime Minister Najib said, ”Of course, if we do go down the nuclear energy route, we would not be alone. And this is why we are looking around globally to learn from other countries and take note of the advancement in technology of this industry/sector.”

Modern nuclear power plants are no longer as prone to operator and process flaws their older manifestations were but nuclear detractors hold to past perceptions. Technical failings that allowed for design short-comings, as in the Chernobyl accident, and for process and operator errors, as in the Three Mile Island case, have been corrected and modern control technology have improved significantly over the years, giving rise to more robust and cost-effective nuclear reactors. For a start, the old Soviet (WWII, Fermi) design of the Chernobyl reactor without a containment dome has been replaced with better engineered plants. Passive core systems that rely on natural forces to achieve reactor cooling are further supplemented with active components to prevent a fatal chain of human intervention that led to fuel core overheating and ultimate steam releases at the two accident sites. State-of-the-art light water reactor systems available on the market today are designed to run for 60 years and can extract more energy content out of uranium with 15% less waste. Small modular reactors, with its advanced technology and added safety features, are suitable for use in areas with land constraints where it is physically impossible to provide for the large space buffer zone that traditional nuclear power plants require.

A changed paradigm of discussion which allows space for debate on the merits and potential failings of all types of power generation is crucial to Singapore’s search for the best energy portfolio mix for the future. Civilian nuclear technology has changed rapidly since the dark days of Chernobyl and renewed regional interest in this form of energy should be carefully and cautiously encouraged. In our quest for answers to energy security in the light of climate change, we should leave no stone unturned and no potential avenues unexplored for new energy sources.

Dickson Yeo has a BA in Mass Communications from the Oklahoma City University and is attending the graduate program in South East Asian Studies in NUS. He has co-written and edited a number of energy related works on energy security, regional politics and administration.  These included “A Regional Review of the Economics of Climate Change in Southeast Asia (RRECCS) – Country Report for Singapore” in December 2008.

Valerie holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Chemical Engineering (2nd Upper Honours) with a minor in Technopreneurship from the National University of Singapore. Prior to joining ESI, Valerie worked as a Technology Investment Analyst at NanoHoldings LLC, a venture capital firm specializing in new energy technologies, based in Connecticut, USA, where she monitored the progress of 2 NanoHoldings portfolio companies, developed business plans and identified new investment opportunities. 
During her undergraduate years, Valerie took on internships at ESI and NanoGram Corporation, located in Silicon Valley, California. At ESI, she aided country studies on energy diversification strategies and researched on the renewable energy landscape in ASEAN. At NanoGram, her research led her to be credited as the first inventor of a US patent application for composite pigment nano-particles developed for the printing industry.

Dr Michael Quah is currently Chief Scientist, Energy Technology and Systems, and Principal Fellow at the Energy Studies Institute in the National University of Singapore. He has a PhD (1980), MPhil and MSc, all in chemical engineering from Yale University and a BA (magna *** laude) in chemistry and physics, from Harvard.. Dr. Quah has lectured extensively in the following areas: Nafion* and perfluorinated ionomers for use in electrochemical systems (electrolysis, redox flow cells, and fuel cells), membrane separations, micro-grids, and energy / environmental sustainability.

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