By Lim Yu Hui
The recent Fukushima nuclear disaster puts on the forefront the issue of the safety of harnessing nuclear energy. Soon after Fukushima, the Singaporean leadership stepped out to confirm, once again, that a pre-feasibility study conducted to assess the suitability of harnessing nuclear power has not been shelved or cancelled. Indeed, Singapore’s growing energy needs may be a strong force compelling the Singapore government to at least consider the possibility of harnessing nuclear power. However, beyond the obvious issue of energy supplementation, a greater concern looms above – the enthusiasm that our geographical neighbours have displayed in exploring the nuclear option and the positive steps that many of them have already undertaken to put them firmly on the course of harnessing nuclear power.
Technical feasibility, regulatory structures, implementation and governance are important issues for a country to consider should it decide that nuclear energy should form part of its energy mix. However, the biggest and most immediate concern of Singapore’s policy-makers lies in the choices and actions of its neighbours which will ultimately have an impact on Singapore.
Fukushima reminded us of one important fact – a nuclear disaster affects not only the citizens of one country, because the transnational effects of a radioactive material leaked into the oceans and the radioactive plumes snaking into the skies will be felt thousands of miles away. Indeed, Singaporeans and Malaysians will be able to vividly replay how their cities experience a yearly haze inundation from the fires blazing in Indonesia’s forests. One needs only to imagine the panic and hysteria that would arise if the haze was replaced by more nefarious substances like radioactive particles emanating from a power plant accident.
It is precisely because Singapore will be at the mercy of its neighbours’ activities that makes the study of nuclear energy a more urgent need than before. Understanding how to build, operate and maintain a nuclear power plant and building up local expertise to understand nuclear energy as a science and a technology will ensure that Singapore can engage its neighbours in more meaningful ways. Undoubtedly, choosing to walk down the nuclear path is every country’s inherent sovereign right and Singapore certainly has no business telling its neighbours not to adopt nuclear energy. However, Singapore may provide expertise, knowledge and support to ensure that the nuclear facilities constructed in Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam and Thailand meet international safety and security benchmarks so that the lives of Singaporeans may indirectly be secured. It may also spearhead regional cooperative regimes to bring ASEAN partners to a common consensus over safety and security requirements and to promote regional information-sharing.
As a regional political and economic organization, ASEAN must start to take ownership of developing and maintaining a Southeast Asian nuclear cooperation platform. The ASEAN Nuclear Energy Cooperation Sub-Sector and Safety Sub-Sector Networks are steps in the right direction. ASEAN members should assist each other in civilian nuclear energy use and also utilize regional platforms to monitor nuclear energy use and enhance safety, security and accountability. Furthermore, an ASEAN network for notifying members of safety and security incidences is necessary to ensure the timely dissemination of information when nuclear accidents occur. The European Community Urgent Radiological Information Exchange (ECURIE) would be a good model for ASEAN to study, emulate and improve upon.
It is important for Singapore and ASEAN to recognize that these broad regional frameworks must be implemented even as individual countries pursue nuclear energy. The simple fact remains that the effect of any nuclear incident happening within any ASEAN country would have immediate adverse consequences on all members of ASEAN. The close geographical proximity of ASEAN countries means that a radioactive plume emanating in Vietnam will be felt in Malaysia within a matter of days, if not hours. Every sector from agriculture to manufacturing and tourism will be affected when radioactive materials are released because the world will shun ASEAN products due to fear of contamination. The region’s wellbeing hinges, therefore, on the vigilance, transparency, responsiveness and expertise of all ASEAN countries. It is abundantly clear that even if Singapore decides at the end of its pre-feasibility study that it would not pursue nuclear energy, it must still continue to build expertise. Singapore schools must offer programmes to ensure that there are at least some professional engineers, physicists, lawyers and doctors that have a working knowledge of nuclear science and technology and are ready to respond with advice and counsel should the country face a nuclear disaster occurring offshore.
The study of nuclear energy and the building of expertise is a policy imperative for Singapore. Even if Singapore decides that nuclear energy is not a feasible choice, it needs to be able to engage its neighbours who will pursue nuclear energy. This is only possible if the country possesses sufficient technical capacity and depth to conduct meaningful engagement. The simple message is this: start understanding nuclear energy now so that we will not be confused or befuddled when we face threats to our safety and lives later.
Lim Yu Hui
Research Intern, IPCS
email: [email protected]