Why Jordan is still pursuing the nuclear (power) option

Residual fears from the Fukushima disaster and low natural gas prices have tempered enthusiasm for nuclear power in many countries, but not Jordan. 

By , Correspondent

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    President Obama and King Abdullah II of Jordan meet during the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, in April 2010.
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The disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant and cheap, abundant natural gas have tempered excited proclamations that nuclear power is the future of energy, but energy-poor countries such as Jordan are still aggressively pursuing nuclear programs. Officials say circumstances leave the kingdom little choice.

Jordan imports 97 percent of its energy, at a cost of roughly 20 percent of its gross domestic product. Relying on imports has left it dependent on its neighbors and vulnerable to regional shocks. In the 1990s, Jordan got oil at subsidized prices from Saddam Hussein’s government; when that deal collapsed after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, Jordan was left facing what it said was a $700 billion increase in its fuel bill, and scrambling for alternatives.

For a while, a deal for natural gas from Egypt filled the void; but after the fall of Hosni Mubarak, the pipeline that carried that gas through the Sinai came under near-constant attack from militants. With supply interrupted more than a dozen times in one year, Jordan was forced to burn much more expensive heavy fuel oil for electricity, costing the kingdom hundreds of millions of dollars. 

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With a growing population and a developing economy, Jordan’s electricity demand is expected to nearly triple over the next decade. With limited resources of its own, and growing unrest making Jordan wary of more regional deals, nuclear power – which requires only small amounts of fuel, supplied by stable Western countries – seems not only attractive, but the only option.

“The project is necessary for the government of Jordan,” says Kamal Araj, the deputy head of the Jordan Atomic Energy Commission, the country’s nuclear promoter. “We cannot keep paying these high energy bills, or being dependent on the fluctuation of the fossil fuel pricing. So this is really a protection for the future, and for the future generations.”

While it develops the nuclear project, Jordan will continue to rely on fossil fuels for its base electricity demand, though it hopes to develop some domestic oil shale production to counterbalance the growing import bill. (There is substantial optimism about Jordan’s oil shale reserves, but Mr. Araj says that the serious environmental effects of exploiting them mean oil shale should not be used for the lion’s share of the energy bill.)

When the nuclear plant comes on line, it will produce as much as 40 percent of Jordan’s base demand, replacing a large portion of those fuel purchases. The kingdom also hopes to exploit wind and solar energy to supplement the electricity supply in peak hours.

Originally, Araj says, Jordan had hoped to have a working plant by 2019. That deadline has been pushed back to 2022, in large part because the most promising location being considered for the plant, near Jordan’s Red Sea port of Aqaba, proved to be too seismically active. The commission is now in the process of starting an in-depth study of one of the other sites considered in the initial survey, in Jordan’s northern desert, where the reactor will be supplied with cooling water from Jordan’s largest waste-water treatment plant. 

The kingdom has also selected a preferred vendor for the reactor technology, the Russian firm Rusatom. Araj says negotiations should be concluded in two to three years, at which point the two are expected to form a joint company to build and operate the reactor. They expect to raise up to 70 percent of the roughly $10 billion cost as loans from banks or investors.

But the nuclear project faces a determined local opposition, with environmentalists forming an alliance with a number of scientists who have left or been fired from the program and warn of corruption and misinformation.

Saed Dababneh, a nuclear physicist and former vice chairman of the board of the government-established nuclear regulatory body, resigned in 2012, saying the watchdog agency was being controlled by the Jordan Atomic Energy Commission. 

“We have a genuine problem related to transparency and credibility,” he says.

Other high-profile critics of the program include Nidal Xoubi, who was the Jordan Atomic Energy Commission's commissioner for nuclear fuel cycle until late 2012, when he says he was sent into retirement after criticizing some early claims about Jordan’s uranium resources; and Kamal Khdeir, who was the commission's director of site management and left after objecting to the decision to choose the northern site for the reactor over the one at Aqaba.

The picture they paint of the nuclear program is of an insular organization that makes decisions in secret and stifles dissent.

“All the world, they’re going to different energy. So why would Jordan go and insist on the nuclear plants, on this solution?” says Jordanian member of parliament Hind Al-Fayez, a determined opponent of nuclear power. “We have history in Jordan, with lots of corruption cases. That makes you scared.... You’re talking about a very complicated project, a very scary project, a very important project—and you’re being very secretive about it.”

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