Begin with a 3-pronged disclaimer: I’m no engineer; I’m as political as a daisy; and since leaving university, my preferred way of learning is fairly chaotic. I bump into things. That draw me to other things. Thing One and Thing Two quickly lead to Thing Fifty-Three; and when I look up, blinking, discombobulated, I’m “sort of” knowledgeable about something I never previously considered. My interest in Jordan’s nuclear ambitions began at work –– researching if green energy is commercially available in Jordan.
Jordan has no gas or oil reserves, and virtually no water. I learned that 80 percent of its electricity is generated from imported Egyptian gas, routed along pipelines serving both Jordan and Israel: “We depend 96% on importing our energy from outside of Jordan. It’s coming from Saudi Arabia, from Iraq and from Egypt,” said Basel Burgan, head of anti-nuke lobbyists The National Campaign to save Jordanians from the Nuclear Project, in an article in the Dominion.
“We depend on Egyptian gas that’s cheaper than heavy fuel,” he continues, “but unfortunately the Egyptians have been bombing the pipeline that’s routed through Sinai to Jordan because it’s connected at the same time to Israel,” he explained. Following the 2011 Egyptian uprisings, it was blown up four times, interrupting service and heightening security concerns.
Developing home-grown renewables is a straightforward means to reduce reliance on imports.
It also solves the security issue. The sun shines brightly on this country 90% of the year but, inexplicably, Jordan has no commercial-scale solar generation. There are whispers of wind farm development, but few turbines in sight.
Check it out yourselves. Jordan + renewables = zip.
At the gym, someone leaves a brochure on the treadmill: “Invest in Nuclear: Jordan Nuclear Power Plant Project.”
I’m bored. I leaf through it as I jog. Over half of the booklet (six pages) presents financial data. Safety and security warrants one paragraph. Nowhere does the author (the Jordan Atomic Energy Commission- JAEC) address environmental impact.
Am I sweating from exercise or concern that this program is half-baked?
I bump around the internet looking for backstory. In 2007, 65,000 tons of uranium ore were discovered in the deserts near Amman. Efforts towards nuclear production to feed Jordan’s energy needs gained momentum. King Abdullah announced plans to construct a suite of nuclear plants, aiming to export energy throughout the wider region. (As a signatory of the UN’s non-proliferation treaty, Jordan has the right to produce, use and export its own energy.)
Supported by the International Atomic Energy Commission and the US, Jordan’s program would be created via public-private partnership intended to maximize transparency, de-risk investment, and provide strong oversight. But the USA insisted that Jordan relinquish its right to use home-sourced uranium, instead purchasing its reactor fuel on the open market. Allegations abound that the USA was pressured by Israel in attempt to sabotage the program.
Recall my disclaimer: this daisy isn’t comfortable veering into politics, so let’s get back to that missing environmental assessment.
Pro-nuke people argue that the energy is sustainable, with low carbon emissions. Nuclear stops addiction to fossil fuel and provides energy self-sufficiency and security. Their safety claims weakened after Fukishima, but proponents emphasize that continual improvements in technology lessen operational safety risks. Steep initial investment is offset by long-term stable energy costs.
Anti-nuke people stay true to the environmental song sheet, citing health risks and ecological damage. Opponents take a longer view, assessing resource consumption required for uranium mining, processing and transport, reactor construction, waste handling and storage, and ultimately, system decommissioning. Resultantly, they assert that nuclear’s cradle-to-grave aspects disprove its spin as an affordable and low carbon power source.
Critics also debunk system safety, citing a string of serious accidents and contending that risks aren’t mitigated through new, as yet unproven, technologies.
There’s a logic loop between desalination and nuclear
Nuclear processing is the thirstiest form of power production, and Jordan has the fourth smallest water-to-population ratio on earth. Damage to the water table through extraction, or through contamination resulting from mining processes would have irreversible health effects on local people and ecosystems.
In Jordan, large-scale water desalination is factored into the Kingdom’s strategy to secure clean water critical for economic growth. But this water is also necessary to cool the reactors. The reactor-generated power will, in turn, desalinate the water. Neither industry is free of critical environmental risks.
Who has the moral authority to proceed with this project?
Jordan, like many Arab nations, is developing keener environmental awareness. Serious opposition to the project on environmental terms is a recent phenomenon. Initially, and allegedly, the project gained public approval simply because it was opposed by Israel.
The Fukushima disaster was instantly transformative. Empowered by the Arab Spring protests, local environmental groups, students, and concerned citizens began to express themselves through peaceful protests, organized debates, and increased presence in traditional and social media. The anti-nuclear arguments seem considered and reasonable. Requests that the government share due diligence assessments regarding the health and safety aspects of project go unanswered. Pleas to demonstrate that alternative sources of energy have been equally analyzed and funded for growth are ignored.
Last January, JAEC Chairman Khaled Toukan said, “At the end of the day, no agreements to set up a nuclear plant in the Kingdom will be signed unless thoroughly discussed and fully approved by Parliament.” Yet The Jordan Times reports that energy officials have expanded their search for a nuclear reactor site in Mafraq, and they have entered the final phase of vendor selection with a decison expected this month. Parliament has yet to approve any agreements.
In this country with few natural resources and dubious environmental enforcement, the question of how to satisfy its growing appetite for energy, in a way that maximally protects the Kingdom and its people, can not be reached without full democratic participation.
Image of Beduin tent in Jordan from Shutterstock