AMMAN – The chief of Jordan’s nuclear commission and godfather of the kingdom’s nuclear program has come under increasing pressure to resign for allegedly making an insulting reference to local tribes, putting at risk the multi-billion dollar undertaking to solve the country’s energy problems.
Khalid Touqan, a former deputy prime minister and minister of education, is accused of calling the tribal leaders and other opponents of the country’s ambitious nuclear program “donkeys" and "garbage collectors.” The remarks occurred in a recording of unknown origin and are directed at local tribes in north Jordan for opposing the nuclear program that would put the kingdom on track to become more self reliant on energy resources.
The record was probably made a year ago but leaked out only now, spreading in local media like wildfire.
It not only touches on Jordan’s controversial nuclear plans but has provided ammunition to conservative groups of so-called “East Bankers” – indigenous Jordanians, who oppose empowerment of Palestinians in the kingdom. Touqan, like at least half of Jordan’s population, is of Palestinian extraction.
Jordanian environmentalists have also been lobbying against the project, which they see as very risky in terms of environmental hazards. Environmentalists say the kingdom can rely on an abundance of domestic energy sources such as solar, wind and oil shale.
The program is moving ahead despite the controversy. A month ago, the Jordan Atomic Energy Commission (JAEC) shortlisted Russia's Atomstroyexport and a French-Japanese consortium consisting of Areva and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries as candidates to build the country's first nuclear reactor.
Parliament has added more pressure on Touqan, who hails from the West Bank town of Nablus, by accusing him of misleading the public about the feasibility of the project at a time when the kingdom is coping with a heavy load of foreign debt, climbing unemployment and poverty. This week, the government announced big price hikes for fuel and electricity, threatening to add inflation to the country’s economic woes.
Specifically, the parliamentary Energy and Mineral Resources Committee has accused JAEC of understating the costs of the nuclear reactor. The commission has said that a 1,000-megawatt reactor will cost $5 billion, but the committee says it has provided no information on the costs of water cooling, the electricity to operate the project, nuclear waste storage and decommissioning.
Lawmaker Mahmoud Kharabsheh claimed in January that the additional costs would raise the total to 20 billion Jordanian dinars ($28 billion), a figure Touqan disputed.
Ayyoub Abu Dayyeh, a prominent activist, said the nuclear commission has been feeding the nation with false information about the project. “We no longer have trust in the government and the commission over this project. The nuclear program must be terminated at any cost,” he told The Media Line in a telephone interview.
Parliament last week scheduled a session in which it was supposed to vote on the dismissal of Touqan from his post after the accusations emerged. But it backed off at the last minute under pressure from the royal court, according to government sources. Despite the palace’s intervention, the pressure to strip Touqan of his post and put him on trial for alleged corruption and mismanagement is unlikely to let up.
Touqan has questioned the authenticity of the recording, saying it was fabricated as part of a smear campaign targeting the kingdom’s nuclear drive. He has accused a cabal of international powers, comprising some 14 foreign governments and multinational companies, of conspiring against the kingdom to abort the program.
On that account, he has the agreement of a key opposition leader from the Islamist movement, who has called for exposing the groups that conspire against the program.
“I have a strong desire and urge to know who is behind this conspiracy. The entire nation is concerned with this issue. Touqan must come out and explain the dimensions of this conspiracy,” said Rheiel Gharaybeh, senior leader in the Islamic Action Front (IAF), the political wing of the local Muslim Brotherhood.
“If it was true that Jordan is being targeted, political measures by the state must be adopted to save the program,” said Gharaybeh, noting that pressure now is on Touqan to reveal the identities of such sides before losing the support he has within the society.
The Islamist movement has recently announced its opposition to the program, standing in alliance with conservative powers and tribal figures from the north that have led the opposition to the project.
Political analyst Bassem Tweisi said he believes the opposition to the nuclear program is part of an international agenda to strip the kingdom of its right to be energy independent.
“We cannot continue being dependent on foreign parties to support us with energy. We can not have our electricity plugs switched off and on from abroad,” said Tweisi. “We do not have to put up with this pressure while knowing that the hazards of a third-generation nuclear reactor are less harmful than a soap factory.”
Tweisi contends that Israel is among the countries opposed to the nuclear endeavor, adding that “We are all aware how Israel is objecting to the creation of nuclear technology in countries that surround its borders. We can still remember that Israel offered to enrich uranium for Jordan so we can have their approval for the project,” said Tweisi.
Aid-dependent Jordan hopes the program will reduce its dependence on foreign energy, which costs the poor nation nearly a quarter of its gross domestic product. Moreover, Jordan can’t depend on foreign suppliers like Egypt, whose natural gas supply has been repeatedly disrupted by attacks on the pipeline. Nuclear officials say alternative sources, like Iraq, suffer too much political uncertainty to be a solution.
Plans call for the first reactor to be completed by the end of the decade, with plans in place for three additional reactors to transform the country from an energy importer to an electricity exporter.