Jordan Goes Nuclear Unhindered

Under the national energy strategy, Jordan plans to have its first nuclear reactor up and running by 2015.

Jordan abdullah 298.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
Jordan abdullah 298.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
In stark contrast to regional player Iran, there was no international outcry when Jordan announced, then started the first stage of its nuclear plans. Any problems that might arise will be purely internal and have to do with the Jordanian official apparatus' perceived inefficiency. Some say that the agencies in charge of implementation might render the peaceful nuclear program - which is supposed to be the answer to the kingdom's most serious problem - just another initiative that fades away before it bears any fruit. According to Yassar Qatarneh, director of the Amman-based Regional Center on Conflict Prevention (RCCP), Jordan picked the right time to ride two waves: the hubbub caused by Iran's suspected nuclear program and the soaring prices of energy. Qatarneh says those world powers that shoulder the burden of standing up to Teheran's nuclear ambitions need to prove to the rest of the world that they have no problem extending a helping hand to "benign" countries in the region such as Jordan, the Gulf states, Morocco, Egypt, Turkey, and others that have declared plans to build their own reactors. "The other factor is the rising oil prices. Jordan has no choice but to tap into its potential and no one can blame such a resource-strapped country for looking for alternatives to conventional fuel," he adds. Under the national energy strategy, Jordan plans to have its first nuclear reactor up and running by 2015, with more plants to follow in the years leading up to 2030. The kingdom hopes that by that time, 30 percent of its electricity needs will be met by nuclear power stations, with prospects of exporting the vital commodity. The program, according to MP Atef Tarawneh, who heads the Energy and Natural Resources Committee in Jordan's lower house, is two-fold: the nuclear reactor planned to be installed in Aqaba, 360 km from the capital Amman on the Red Sea, and the utilization of the vast uranium deposits, standing at 80,000 tons of proven reserves, in addition to 100,000 tons contained in phosphate deposits, according to an official estimate. Asked why, unlike with Iran, no fuss has been made about Jordan's nuclear ambitions, MP Tarawneh said Jordan had, from the very beginning, made it clear it sought a peaceful program and embarked immediately on contacts with international players, particularly the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). During an April 2007 visit to Amman to listen to Jordanian officials about the plan, IAEA director-general Muhammad Al-Barade'i gave his blessings to Jordan's nuclear aspirations. "Jordan, which adopts a moderate policy, will provide an example in the region for the exploitation of nuclear know-how for peaceful uses," Tarawneh says. Apparently, says Qatarneh from the RCCP, these early disclosures and the transparency Amman showed satisfied its former foe and suspicious neighbor, Israel. "The conventional wisdom in the West is that nuclear energy is only risky when in the hands of rogue countries such as Iran and Syria. They understand that for Jordan it is merely a matter of business. Besides, the many partners that will be helping Jordan implement the program will ensure the scheme is under tight control. There is no risk whatsoever that it would ever be developed into a weapons-building program," he says. Jordan has already signed memoranda of understanding with the US, Canada, France and the UK. Officials say contacts are underway with other countries to carry out the two-track strategy. "We are currently talking with the big five nuclear countries, and keeping all our options open to get the best technical, economic, safe, secure, sustainable reactor deal," says Ned Xoubi, Nuclear Fuel Cycle commissioner at the Jordan Atomic Energy Commission (JAEC), the agency set up last year to handle the nuclear program. Amid rising popular fears of a globalized economy, controversial privatization plans and the growing influence of foreign investors, Xoubi said mining concessions would be granted to a Jordanian company (JERI), a 100% government-owned entity. "JERI might choose to work with other international companies to develop a certain mine, but it cannot sell or transfer the mining rights to another company," he says. In a country with such a powerful rumor machine that King Abdullah had recently to personally confront his fiercest attack ever by political and media circles, which cast doubt on "the country's achievements," Xoubi's assurances might help preempt any attempt to hinder the nuclear plans through fear-mongering. But columnist and economist Yousef Mansour warns against something different. "How can you expect people to believe that Jordan is capable of implementing such a huge program at a time when successive governments have failed to extend a water pipe to solve the water shortage?" Mansour was referring to a mega project to convey water from the southern Dissi aquifer to Amman that was supposed to be ready in 2005, but has so far stumbled along without making much progress. "What worries me is that this plan might turn out to be just another initiative that will not make it to the finish line," Mansour says. Xoubi says he is optimistic that production will start in 2016, but acknowledged the project's success "is based on our ability to keep the full thrust that we are working with now, and all the support we have been fortunate to receive." Lawmaker Tarawneh sounded confident, saying that the Jordanian parliament would keep a close eye on the implementation of the plans. "The reassuring thing is that the JAEC has been established by a flawless law that ensures it full independence. I am confident it will do its job as it should," he says. Environmentalists also intend to be watching the progress and implementation of the project. Complaining that they were not consulted when the project was on the drawing board, executive director of the Jordan Environment Commission Ahmad Kofahi says officials in charge of the project must prove that the country is ready with the necessary infrastructure to deal with any environmental impact of the nuclear program. But Xoubi is confident. "This is a zero tolerance industry… safety is at the top of our agenda, and we are looking at the best international standards in terms of safety and security. "The nuclear power plant will not have any adverse effect on the environment, and you may be surprised to know that nuclear reactors are built on the most beautiful shores, lakes and rivers in the Western world," he concludes.