The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan recently announced its intention to construct a nuclear reactor for the dual purpose of electricity production and the desalination of seawater. There can be no doubt that this is a worthwhile project for a country that does not have oil or coal, and is one of the most arid countries in the world. On the other hand, Jordan has recently discovered ample supplies of uranium, the raw material of fuel for reactors. It is the issues of turning this uranium into reactor fuel and dealing with the spent nuclear fuel following its irradiation in the reactor that cause much of the debate and accusations that are taking place in the media.
Evaluating the project dispassionately, it is first and foremost an economic issue. One has to weigh the investment costs, which are considerable, the fuel costs and the operating costs, including the disposal of the spent fuel, versus the costs of using other energy sources. The energy and water prices have to be compatible to justify the investment in a nuclear reactor. Another factor is the dependence of a country on a single major source of energy, in case of power outages, planned and unforeseen. Selling part of the electricity output of a nuclear station to neighboring countries is a partial solution to this problem, and not necessarily a bad thing, promoting cooperation with them. As mentioned, one of the economic considerations is the price of the nuclear fuel. This is not the only issue. The issue of proliferation is the fly in the ointment.
MOST POWER reactors utilize low-enriched uranium (LEU), that is, uranium
enriched from 0.7 percent in its U-235 content to about 3.5%. This
process is proliferation-prone, since it is quite easy to proceed from
LEU to military-grade (90%) uranium. In addition, enrichment is also a
very costly affair, unless carried out in large quantities and in
well-established enrichment plants. To tackle this issue, and following
US leadership, the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP) was
established in 2007, before the present rush for nuclear power in the
Middle East. On September 16, 2007, 16 countries officially became GNEP
partners by signing the GNEP Statement of Principles.
One of the stated purposes of the partnership is to “establish
international supply frameworks to enhance reliable, cost effective fuel
services and supplies to the world market, providing options for
generating nuclear energy and fostering development while reducing the
risk of nuclear proliferation by creating a viable alternative to
acquisition of sensitive fuel cycle technologies.” Jordan was one of the
16 countries to sign these principles.
This would negate the apprehension that national enrichment plants would
be used to produce military-grade uranium. At the moment, there are
already several enrichment plants around the globe that could supply
nuclear fuel to new power reactors. On the other hand, many countries
(e.g. Australia) are major suppliers of natural uranium without carrying
out any industrial-scale indigenous enrichment activities.
Another proliferation issue is the disposal of the spent fuel. There are
two ways to deal with it: the long-term storage and the reprocessing of
the fuel in which the plutonium, a product of the reactor irradiation,
and of potentially military use, is extracted from it. Another one of
the principles of GNEP states the ways to deal with this issue.
With Jordan things appear to be not so simple. King Abdullah II,
apparently foregoing the commitment to GNEP, wants to develop the
complete nuclear fuel cycle, including enrichment, in Jordan. The US,
however, is strongly against this, as has been its stance, including in
GNEP, for a long time. The king has apparently decided that the easy way
of arguing with the US is through blaming Israel for standing in the
way of the Jordanian nuclear project. Bashing Israel has become both a
Middle East favorite pastime these days, and apparently a safe one at
It is a pity that Zvi Bar’el (Haaretz
July 7), ignoring or being unaware of the history of the matter, chose
to decide that “...when [Jordan] is negotiating with the United States,
it is in fact also negotiating with Israel.” The US position is so well
known, so well established, that it is rather absurd to think that
Israel plays a major part in this game. In this case, the work is done
by others.The writer worked at the Israel Atomic
Energy Commission for more than 40 years, and has been a Senior Research Associate at the Institute for National Security Studies since 2002.