Nuclear Energy Debate Absent in Jordan

One of the most important decisions regarding the future of Jordan is being taken with most of the country in total darkness.

The Washington Post reported last week that within the next month, the Jordanian government will decide which of two consortiums will be building Jordan's and the Arab region's first totally independent nuclear plant. Ever since the 16th Parliament voted against the establishment of a nuclear plant in the country, the public has been passive about the issue.

A Google search as well as a search in the widest selling Arabic newspaper, Al Rai, failed to reveal any discussions or statements in 2013 by the head of the Jordan Atomic Energy Commission (JAEC), Khaled Toukan. The only exception was a meeting he had with Hamzah Mansour, of the Islamic Action Front, reported only on a local news website.

In 2012, Toukan's last media appearance was not pleasant. A voice recording made public shows Toukan insulting Jordanian environmentalists and others who are opposed to the nuclear plant.

Toukan has been on the record as defending the need for Jordan to diversify it sources to cover the country's huge energy bill.

Nearly 98 percent of all Jordan's energy needs are said to be produced using imported oil and gas. Gas coming from Egypt has been interrupted over 13 times in the past two years, following the fall of the Mubarak regime, and the new rulers failed to protect the supplies of this relatively inexpensive source of clean energy.

The JAEC has been for years preparing for this important decision. Large hi-tech headquarters were established in a remote location northeast of downtown Amman. The commission reportedly has access to a budget of over JD100 million.

The creation of Jordan's nuclear plant will most likely be carried out by one of the two shortlisted companies: AES-92 from Atomstroyexport (ASE) (Russia), and the ATMEA/1, a joint venture between Areva (France) and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (Japan).

Welcoming this decision, Toukan posted the following statement on the JAEC website:

While there remains significant work yet to be done with respect to this project, JAEC is proud of the progress made thus far, which marks a significant milestone for our beloved country of Jordan in its pursuit of a safe, secure, reliable and economically competitive energy source.

Many Jordanians, including environmentalists, residents in the north of Jordan where the plant will most probably be based and the parliamentary energy commission have been opposed to the nuclear option, fearing for safety and questioning its economic viability.

Estimates of the cost of the nuclear plant range from $5 billion to $20 billion. Western diplomats say the bill will be closer to $12 billion, while Toukan has privately told diplomats that it will be about $8 billion.

No one has answered where a resource-poor country like Jordan, with a huge debt, can come up with this amount of money unless foreign countries are involved, in which case there is always a price, many fear.

For a pro-Western country like Jordan, the U.S. is perhaps the first choice when it comes to both funding and safety. The U.S. nuclear plants and quality control are considered among the safest in the world. Washington, however, is not likely to be considered because the JAEC director and other leading officials refuse to accept some of the more difficult conditions that the U.S. has placed on Jordan and other countries, such as committing not to enrich in Jordan for some time.

The UAE accepted to sign the agreement that includes a letter of commitment to bring enriched uranium from outside for the first 10 years. Jordan refused to sign this letter, insisting that it should have the right and the ability to enrich its own uranium, which can be found in large amounts in Jordan.

Jordanian officials concede that it will take a long time to reach that point, but the sovereign issue has taken precedence over practicalities.

Choosing between the Russians and the French/Japanese is proving more complicated. The issue of funding is very important in making the final decision.

Apparently, there seems to be preliminary willingness to have the Russians fund the plan to sell electricity to Jordan, in the initial part, but this is where politics gets into the picture.

Israel, which is on the record as supporting Jordan's civilian nuclear ambitions is apparently unhappy with having the Russians so close to them.

Ali Dabah, a law professor at Jordan University and a retired diplomat, is close to Russia's ambassador and some of the top Kremlin officials. While he is opposed to the nuclear project, he was concerned that Israel and the U.S. are not in favour of Jordan contracting the Russians.

The U.S. Ambassador in Amman Stuart Jones told me that the U.S. supports Jordan's interest in pursuing nuclear power in a manner consistent with its international obligations and accepted standards of safety, security and non-proliferation. The United States does not take a position on which supplier Jordan chooses so long as such cooperation is conducted in accordance with these principles.

What further complicates the energy picture are other plans in the pipeline for Jordan and the region. Last month, Jordan and Iraq signed a $12 billion deal to extend a pipeline from Iraq to Aqaba, which will ensure Jordan's supply of fuel. Qatar's offer to ship liquid gas is being discussed.

A big regional change has been the large discovery of gas in the Mediterranean. Jordan will be able, within three years, to purchase relatively inexpensive gas from Israel, Lebanon or the Palestinians.

And if the Red-Dead project is implemented, Jordan will be able to benefit from the electricity that can be generated by the huge drop of water as it replenishes the dwindling Dead Sea.

Whatever the Jordanian nuclear energy plans in the coming years are, it is important that the country discuss the options and take a wise decision that answers some of the yet to be answered questions about funding, safety and priorities.