Friday, November 19, 2010
S'pore's new energy source: A nuke on your doorstep?
What do you see in the image above?
Military nuts may say it's the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier, USS Carl Vinson.
Those who fear American naval power may see a threat. US Navy supporters will see naval diplomacy at work while terrorists may see a target... and a big plump one at that off Marine Parade in Singapore.
How many of you see a floating nuclear reactor?
Nuclear-powered warships have been regular visitors to Singapore for decades, with scarcely a hoot raised by the Singaporean public on the threat nuke ships pose to the environment. Indeed, Singaporeans pay more attention to car and housing prices than the kind of maritime visitors that lurk off the tropical island Republic.
With Singapore likely to opt for the nuclear energy option in the next 15 years or so, a gradual and sustained public education effort is needed to help citizens accept this new energy source and live without mortal dread of a nuclear meltdown on their doorstep. This public awareness campaign would help stave off violent objections from greenies once they realise how much of a done deal this nuclear business really is.
On the plus side, the Singaporean government can argue that nuclear energy safety has improved by leaps and bounds in the past decades and more compact reactors allow such powerplants to be located underground. A likely location is Jurong Island, off Singapore's southern coast, where tight security to the island post-9/11 will help sanitise the island against unwelcome intruders.
News in August 2008 that a US Navy submarine, USS Houston, leaked trace amounts of "radioactive water" during port calls to Singapore since June 2006 indicate the near miss Singapore has faced in recent years from a nuclear powerplant.
That incident was interesting as it lifted the veil on a little-known contingency plan for dealing with nuclear situations. The multi-agency effort usually sees a crack team from the Singapore Civil Defence Force placed on immediate readiness whenever a nuclear-powered ship docks in Singapore.
In addition, an "Integrated Environment Monitoring System" (IEMS) - which is a euphemistic cover term for radioactivity sensors - allows the Republic of Singapore Navy's Changi Naval Base to keep a 24-hour watch on the air and water quality around these visitors. The exact response plan remains classified and is guided by benchmarks set by Singapore's Centre for Radiation Protection and Nuclear Science which comes under the National Environment Agency.
If and when a decision is made to augment oil and gas-fired turbines with a nuclear powerplant, Singapore is expected to implement measures to protect the nuclear energy supply chain from its source.
In addition, attention will be paid to life cycle management of the underground nuclear energy facility. This will include close supervision of and protection for fuel rods, powerplant personnel and nuclear waste management.
The impact on Singapore's defence and security establishments should spawn a new, elite special forces team trained specially for nuclear emergencies. It is also likely to lead to the introduction of air-capable escort vessels that can escort fuel ships on their long voyage to Singapore island. By that time, the Formidable-class stealth frigates will be somewhat long in the tooth and will probably be supplanted by a larger, more capable class of surface combatant akin to today's destroyers.
The RSN of the future may have to content with squabbles in regional waters as littoral nations fight over diminishing gas supplies. Gas fields managed by Brunei and Malaysia are expected to drop below economically-productive rates in the next two decades and the race for fuel-rich undersea resources can only intensify in coming years.
All this points to the need for the RSN to maintain a forward presence along trade routes that are Singapore's lifeline with the world.
This mission will justify the construction of men-of-war that are far more capable than anything it has today as Singapore joins the elite nuclear power club.
Posted by David Boey at 7:48 PM