Nuke inspectors use Jordan's post-apocalyptic landscape

Sinkholes and landslides give international experts a chance to test their skills uncovering signs of a nuclear blast.

November 14, 2010 18:01
4 minute read.
dead sea

dead sea 311. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski/The Jerusalem Post))

THE DEAD SEA, JORDAN  - Nuclear experts from around the world were climbing into craters and clamouring up landslides as they gathered in a desolate corner of Jordan beside the Dead Sea to test their ability to uncover evidence of an unauthorized test explosion.

Some 35 experts from 20 countries poured over the 1,000 square-kilometer (390-square-mile) area during the first two weeks of November, dressed in protective suits and hauling monitors and three-dimensional maps across the desert landscape in the simulation. Later they assembled in campsites to collect and analyze their data.

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Jordan itself has no nuclear weapons, nor is it known to aspire to develop them. But, the kingdom does want to become a respected member of the global nuclear community as it embarks on plans to produce energy from atomic power. Fortunately for Jordan, the terrain near the Dead Sea looks like it just experienced a nuclear explosion.

“The sinkholes, landslides, depressions and craters near the Dead Sea provided a perfect venue to conduct the tests,” Matjaz Prah, of the Croatian State Office for Nuclear Safety and director of the 10-day exercise, told The Media Line.

Near Ghour Al-Haditha, a poor farming town, nearly 800 sinkholes big enough to swallow factories and homes punctuate the landscape, the result of Dead Sea’s declining sea level. The sporadic nature of the giant holes is very similar to aftermath of nuclear explosions, explained Prah. Indeed, the massive cavities make the landscape nestling the southern shores of the Dead Sea largely inaccessible to all but the small community of poor farmers who live there.

The exercise was sponsored by the Vienna-based Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO), whose task is to develop mechanisms for monitoring the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT). The Vienna-based organization includes 153 countries that ratified nuclear ban treaty, in addition to a further 35 states that have agreed to endorse the agreement.

Tibor Toth, the CTBTO’s executive secretary, said the goal of the experiments was to establish worldwide detection system that relies on reports from 337 facilities. Nearly half of detection facilities are located in the Middle East, said Toth.

While the CTBT has yet to go into force, the five countries allowed to have nuclear weapons have all adopted unilateral moratoriums on nuclear testing. India and Pakistan followed suit after they conducted tests in 1998.

But the risks of unauthorized tests remain. North Korea tested devices in 2006 and 2009 while other countries, including three in the Middle East -- Israel, Egypt and Iran -- have signed but not ratified the treaty.  Israel has never acknowledged having nuclear weapons, but it is believed by foreign experts to have an arsenal of 100 or more. Iran has been accused by the West of secretly developing nuclear technology for military purposes, a claim Tehran denies.

Meanwhile, to Jordan’s north, Syria is suspected of having undertaken a nuclear-development program that was cut short by a September 2007 air raid Damascus accuses Israel of staging. Yukiya Amano, director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said November 9th that the nuclear watchdog has been pressing Syria to admit inspectors to at least two suspect sites.

In theory, Jordan could find itself in the middle of a nuclear confrontation between Israel and Iran. But, the exercise on the Dead Sea last week was purely scientific and technical, said Darweesh Jasem, assistant general manager of Jordan's natural resources department. The exercise also boosted the ability of Jordanians to handle nuclear inspections, which officials see as a facet of the kingdom's ambition to build its own nuclear reactors.

"We had been proposing holding such an exercise in Jordan since 2004. We are very excited about what we can learn from sharing this type of experience with established experts from the world," he told The Media Line, noting that at least 13 Jordanian experts were among inspectors.

The kingdom plans to build a nuclear facility near the port city of Aqaba to provide energy and potable water for the energy-poor, drought-stricken nation. The two 1,000-megawatt reactors it envisions developing over the next 15 years will cost billions of dollars, and even more, if it embarks on the second stage of expanding capacity to four reactors with the potential to produce over half of the kingdom’s electricity needs.

With limited financial resources, Jordan will have to raise capital abroad and convince the world nuclear community that it has the technical ability to undertake such an expensive and sophisticated project, officials in Amman say. Jordan has inked deals on nuclear cooperation with France, South Korea, China, Canada, Russia, Britain and Argentina and is preparing for similar deals with other countries.

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