The invasion of Ukraine has triggered countries worldwide to end their dependency on Russian gas supplies. And while for some like the US, this means at least temporarily increasing national oil and gas outputs, global leaders must not forget their climate pledges in a bid to halt global warming. For many, achieving carbon neutrality means diversifying their energy sources and more significantly, stepping up renewables. Yet, not all nations have enough land space or adequate climates to scale up solar and wind power. This is the case in Singapore, where nuclear power seems to be the best solution to reach net-zero emissions.
Singapore has recently upped its climate ambitions, announcing plans to achieve net-zero emissions by or around mid-century and to raise carbon tax levels progressively from 2024 as a way to facilitate the transition to a low-carbon economy. Yet, experts still believe that Singapore’s efforts need a big boost if the country wants to meet its climate goals in time.
In a bid to reduce carbon emissions and mitigate climate change, countries around the world are shifting towards renewable energy to reduce their dependence on fossil fuels. Singapore is one of the few exceptions. While the Island State is a model state and a global frontrunner in sustainable urban development, it has yet to find a solution to decrease its dependence on fossil fuels, which is currently higher than any other country. Indeed, about 95% of the electricity generated in Singapore comes from natural gas.
A report commissioned by the country’s Energy Market Authority (EMA) to draw a pathway to decarbonisation highlighted that while scaling up renewables might be tough given the geographical and geological restrictions, nuclear power could represent Singapore’s net-zero game-changer. The report predicts that including this energy source in the energy mix could allow the country to cover almost 10% of its power needs by 2050. Indeed, once deemed unsuitable for Singapore, nuclear technologies have undergone incredible advancement in recent years, making it a viable option (and one that can’t be ignored) to drive the country’s decarbonisation goal.
Besides nuclear, other emerging low-carbon alternatives are currently being explored. One of them is hydrogen, which is set to be the main source of energy supply, representing more than 50% of Singapore’s energy portfolio towards 2050, in spite of its relatively high costs from transportation and storage. The Southeast Asian island also plans to import nearly 30% of its electricity supply from low-carbon sources by 2035.
Figure 1: Singapore’s Potential Energy Share Scenario by 2050
Why Are Renewables Not An Option for Singapore?
In order to understand why Singapore is looking at nuclear energy, it’s worth looking at why renewables – usually the preferred power source by countries seeking to reach carbon neutrality – are not a feasible option for a country like Singapore in the first place.
According to the Ministry of Sustainability and the Environment, a combination of geographical and geological constraints such as insufficient land space, unfavourable local weather conditions, and relatively flat land make it challenging for Singapore to scale up renewables. Because of such unsuitable conditions, the country has been given the Alternative Energy Disadvantaged status by the United Nations Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) – a denomination assigned to parties with “serious difficulties in switching to alternatives”.
For instance, the island’s flat and low-lying landscape (Singapore is less than 15 metres above sea level) makes hydroelectric power, which harnesses the energy of flowing water, nearly impossible to generate. Geothermal energy is also not an option given the lack of conventional geothermal resources and the small size of the island. Low average wind speeds and busy maritime traffic in Singapore’s waters are big obstacles to wind power generation. As for biomass, despite the country already converting much of its waste to energy, this covers just about 2% of the total electricity needs.
There is, however, one type of renewable energy source that Singapore can rely on: solar. While the report predicts that this source of power could generate nearly 10% of the country’s electricity needs by 2050, many factors still affect its viability and limit the chances of scaling up generation capacity. Some of its geographical and geological constraints include limited land and rooftop space for development, humidity, and a relatively high amount of cloud cover throughout the year. Furthermore, the overall efficiency of the technology as well as the ability of the power system and grid infrastructure to cope with fluctuations in energy supply also make it quite challenging for Singapore to increase its reliance on solar. Yet, solar is still by far the best option among renewables and the country is now working on maximising its share in the energy mix by boosting solar imports, mainly from Indonesia and Australia.
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Can Nuclear Power Work in Singapore?
Until quite recently, nuclear energy was considered unsuitable for Singapore. But the considerable advancements in nuclear technologies have turned it into one of the country’s best options for decarbonisation. Not only is nuclear power the world’s second-largest source of low-carbon electricity after hydropower, it is also the cleanest after wind and solar, currently providing approximately 10% of the world’s electricity. Every year, more than 470 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions that would otherwise come from fossil fuels are prevented by nuclear power worldwide, the equivalent of taking nearly 100 million passenger vehicles off the road.
One of the major issues with developing nuclear power plants in Singapore are concerns related to its small land area and high urban density. However, modern technologies allow us to build so-called small modular reactors (SMRs), ideal for small and populated cities as well as densely built-up areas. These plants can be designed and built much faster than their conventional counterparts, and they can be factory-assembled and transported as a unit to a location for installation, resulting in cost optimisation. Finally, despite their small size, SMRs can generate nearly 300 megawatts of electricity, about one-third of the generating capacity of conventional nuclear reactors and enough to power approximately 50,000 homes a year.
While adopting nuclear energy could be a “game-changer” for Singapore, public opinion is still very much divided on the potential safety issues from using this technology. Knowing the dangers of nuclear waste, many oppose this type of energy for fears of accidents, despite their low likelihood. Indeed, in nearly 70 years since the commercialisation of nuclear power, only three accidents have raised public alarm: the 1979 Three Mile Island accident, the 1986 Chernobyl disaster and the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster. Of these, only the accident at the Chernobyl nuclear plant in Ukraine directly caused fatalities. Thanks to innovation and development, reactors nowadays are deemed much safer, have much better cooling systems as well as faster shutdowns and emergency responses.
Though nuclear expansion in Singapore remains more of a hypothetical scenario for the future, the topic is nothing new. In 2014, the Island State launched a programme for research and development in nuclear science, spanning from safety issues to engineering. In recent years, the Singapore Nuclear Research & Safety Initiative has also been awarding scholarships for studies related to nuclear energy. As a regional hub for innovation, Singapore is able to attract more talent and investment in the sector.