Are Jordan’s nuclear ambitions a mirage?

By Chen Zak Kane | December 16, 2013

In October of this year, Jordan announced it had chosen Russia to build its first two nuclear-power reactors. Historically, Jordan has lacked access to energy resources. It depends on imports for more than 96 percent of power consumption. This means that a whopping 20 to 25 percent of Jordan’s national expenditures go to importing energy. That is a massive outflow of capital for a country of only 6.5 million people. Jordan’s decision to turn to nuclear power, however, doesn’t mean that the kingdom is about to sail smoothly into the club of nations that produce their own nuclear energy. While Jordan is in great need of a less costly and more reliable energy source, it won’t get there unless it can overcome some major challenges.

High demand. Jordan’s pursuit of nuclear energy is motivated by two factors. The first is a desire to expand, secure, and diversify its energy sources. The kingdom estimates that its electricity consumption will more than double by 2030, reaching 6,000 megawatts per year.

Jordanians have long experienced wild energy price fluctuations and repeated blackouts due to sudden shortages. For example, the pipeline that runs from Egypt to Jordan—and supplies Jordan with more than 80 percent of its natural gas—has been bombed more than 15 times since 2011 as a result of the volatile security situation. Since July 2013 the gas supply from Egypt has been completely suspended, costing Jordan’s fragile economy more than $2 billion. For these reasons, the kingdom understandably looks with hope to nuclear energy as a source of electricity for households, water desalination plants, and industry.

Jordan’s second motive for pursuing nuclear power is to reduce the economic toll that imported energy takes. Many in Amman believe that given the country’s vast uranium reserves, once it starts mining, it will be able to export both energy and the raw material, making the program a significant source of new income. Jordan plans to export part of the uranium and use the rest as a strategic stockpile for its own nuclear program. (It should be noted that French nuclear giant Areva and Jordan Phosphate Mines Company have said that the uranium is not commercially viable.) With more than 15 neighboring countries having announced plans to pursue nuclear energy, Jordan sees an opportunity to become a leading uranium provider.

Pressing problems. While Jordan has made impressive progress in pursuing nuclear energy, many urgent challenges still need to be addressed. It possesses none of the required technology, skilled staff, or infrastructure necessary for a nuclear program. The country has no experience in operating nuclear reactors or fuel and waste facilities. And it has chosen a Russian nuclear reactor design—the AES92—that has been built only in India, where it is currently due to start up after being under construction for 10 years, even though it has not been reviewed by an open and experienced regulatory body.

As worrisome as all that may seem, there are other issues that are even more pressing.

Dealing with public opposition. Domestic critics have, not surprisingly, raised safety and environmental concerns since the spectacle of a disastrous accident at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station in 2011. Meanwhile the Arab Spring stoked public unrest in Jordan and emboldened anti-nuclear demonstrators to take to the streets. Those who oppose the nuclear program question the accuracy of data presented by the government regarding its cost and economic effectiveness. Said Ayoub Abu Dayyeh, the head of the prominent Jordanian nonprofit organization the Society of Energy Saving and Sustainable Environment, summarized the basis for the public’s skepticism: “In Jordan we have witnessed fraudulent elections, a fraudulent Parliament; it is not out of the realm of possibility that at the end of the day we will receive fraudulent studies.” Domestic critics also question whether there really are large, commercially viable uranium reserves in the kingdom, and whether their country can provide the quality and volume of water needed for mining and cooling reactors.

Going further on non-proliferation. Amman must bolster its non-proliferation credentials. They are, to be sure, already impressive. Jordan has signed and ratified all the central agreements, and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has found the country to be in full compliance with treaty obligations. Jordan was also the first country in the Middle East to adopt the Additional Protocol that endows the IAEA with extra inspection privileges to verify that no undeclared nuclear activities are taking place. It can and should go further, though, by signing on to the revised Small Quantities Protocol, a set of rules aimed at monitoring states with little or no nuclear material. Since the Jordanian government has not adopted changes to the protocol, in practice the IAEA does not conduct verification activities in the country. Another proliferation-related issue for Jordan to address will be negotiating an arrangement under which Russia takes back spent nuclear fuel—a fissile material that could theoretically be diverted to use in nuclear weapons.

Agreeing on a bilateral deal. Jordan and the United States need to finalize the bilateral nuclear cooperation agreement they have been working toward. Jordanian officials have repeatedly said that they are not prepared to forgo uranium enrichment, maintaining that any such restriction might unfairly limit their rights under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. They say, too, that a ban on enrichment would prevent Jordan from fulfilling its hope of becoming a major uranium and nuclear fuel supplier. The United States, though, hopes to prevent the spread of enrichment and reprocessing technologies—which are required to produce nuclear weapons—to new countries.

Whether Jordan does or does not accept a ban on enrichment will have important regional implications. On the one hand, if Amman decides to forgo the right, more states will likely commit to the idea that enrichment and reprocessing capabilities are not required in order to enjoy nuclear energy. On the other hand, should Jordan retain the right to enrichment under its agreement with the United States, it is hard to see why other Middle Eastern countries would agree to do otherwise in future bilateral negotiations.

Passing stronger laws. Jordan must see through the process of adopting export controls governing nuclear technology and material. Strong legislation, as well as robust implementation and enforcement capabilities, are vital; Jordan is a key link in the global movement of goods between East and West. Specifically, Jordanian leaders should set criteria for determining to what nations, companies, and individuals Amman may sell its natural and enriched uranium.

Where’s the money? Jordan will have to figure out how to finance its nuclear reactors. Its decision last month to go with Russia as a partner was motivated by financial constrains. Moscow agreed to take on 49 per cent of the plants’ $10 billion price tag while the two countries are still negotiating a financing scheme. They may choose the build-operate-own (BOO) model, under which Russia would recoup its investment from guaranteed electricity sales without receiving any other financial commitments from Amman. The BOO model has been used only once before to finance nuclear power infrastructure, in Russia’s contract to construct four plants in Turkey. Even before breaking ground, that project is already falling behind schedule.

A cash-strapped Jordanian government agreed to finance the remaining 51 percent of the cost of construction and operation. However, given the state of the country’s economy, a nuclear program will be prohibitively expensive. As Amman seeks to build up an expensive new industry with limited funds, safety could be compromised, and weak regulations on staffing and exports would mean that nuclear materials could escape supervision. One way to secure a steady cash flow for the nuclear program over the long term would be to allocate part of the proceeds from uranium sales to a fund that would invest back into Jordan’s energy and water desalination sectors. Such a fund could also reduce volatility and function as an energy-shock absorber.

Location, location, location. Finally, there have also been problems finding a site for the first reactor. In October 2013 Jordan announced a third relocation, to Qusayr Amra, 60 kilometers northeast of Amman on the edge of the northern desert. But the kingdom has yet to resolve hurdles such as access to cooling water in the area and active resistance from local tribes. Member of Parliament Hind Fayez, who belongs to the influential Beni Sakher tribe living around Qusayr Amra, has said, “I will not allow the construction of the nuclear reactor, not even over my dead body.”

Jordan is at a crossroads. If it fails to address the aforementioned challenges, the adverse implications for its political stability, public safety, economic health, and regional standing could be irreversible. If, however, the kingdom's proposed nuclear energy program is successful, pursuing it could turn out to have been a pivotal strategic move, going a long way to solving the country's very real energy and economic crisis. And if Jordan agrees to forego enriching its own uranium—which many observers assess as a commercial pipe dream—the country could serve as a stellar regional example, showing that it's possible to embrace non-proliferation while also embracing nuclear energy.

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