THE BLOG

Jordanians demanding transparent discussions on nuclear plans

Heated discussions today in Jordan are not about political reform or media policy, but about an issue that is even more relevant to every citizen: the nuclear energy programme.
A debate held last Saturday at the Parliament by Radio Al Balad revealed some of the deep-seated emotions on both sides of the argument.
A saner roadmap to reaching agreement on what is best for Jordan is needed. Perhaps one place to go to for such advice is Sweden, a country of nine million which has a nuclear programme.
I asked for advise to the Swedish Minister for International Development Cooperation Hillevi Engström on a visit to Jordan.
Her answer could be a good basis for what the discussions in Jordan should focus on. Engström noted that the issue of nuclear energy is very complicated and that in order to take the right decisions, it is important to have a comprehensive discussion on it.
She also noted that her government vowed not to add any new reactors but to work hard on improving existing reactors to ensure safety and security.
The Swedish minister also expressed the need to follow a parallel policy of encouraging clean alternative energy solutions.
If one takes this advice to the Jordanian scene, one finds some huge holes in how Jordan, especially its Nuclear Atomic Energy Commission, and its director Khaled Toukan are conducting themselves.
Since the nuclear issue is complicated and difficult, and requires much discussion, it is incumbent upon the commission to be actively involved in all discussions and to make available to all who care all issues of concern that will allow for a well-informed decision by the public and sanctioned by the public's representatives, the parliamentarians. Toukan has refused to debate or nominate any of his staff to discuss the issue leaving his talks only to the government controlled Jordan TV.
MP Hind Al Fayyez, who is strongly opposed to the Jordanian nuclear programme, insisted at the debate in Parliament that MPs did not receive a single document about the government's nuclear plans.
The last time the issue was discussed was during the 16th Parliament and the energy committee at the time rejected the idea.
Of special importance to Fayyez and others is the absence of an environmental impact study, an economic assessment and the entire mystery regarding the presence of uranium in Jordan.
Jordan had signed a mining agreement with a French company, Areva, which the government recently withdrew from.
Speaker of Parliament Atef Tarwneh was quoted as saying that the reason Jordan withdrew its contract was because the quantity and quality of uranium was not as initially expected.
This is important because one of the main reasons Jordan wanted to enrich uranium (rather than bring in enriched uranium as the Americans advised) was sovereignty, but also because of the presence of large amounts of uranium in the country.
Some argued that there are unknown reasons for ending the mining contract and that in fact a Jordanian company has asked for a licence to mine for uranium.
Another issue that left the public guessing is why Jordan shifted the nuclear plant from Aqaba, where there would have been plentiful water from the Red Sea to cool the reactors, and in the process, water could have been desalinized for drinking and agricultural use.
Some say it was shifted to the north because of pressure from Israel, others due to fear of a possible earthquake, as Aqaba lied on the Dead Sea-Red Sea fault line.
The latter became an issue when earthquake prone Japan suffered the Fukushima disaster.
Other missing information is the cost of building the nuclear reactors, details of the contract with the Russian company and where the country will get water, in the desert, to cool the reactors.
Not only is the government -- especially the Nuclear Atomic Energy Commission -- refusing to give accurate information, it has started a campaign to gag discussion.
Safa Jayyousi, an activist from Greenpeace Jordan, spoke about an intimidation campaign directed at her to stop a private music performance that was going to be held under the title "Nuclear Free Jordan". She went ahead with the concert but such practices portray a nervous agency that cannot handle dissenting voices.
In addition to the need for accurate and transparent information available before discussions can begin, Jordan needs to answer why it has given so much focus and money to nuclear energy while spending so little to advance clean alternative sources, like solar in a country with over 300 sunny days a year.
All sources of energy should be pursued with the same zeal and not just nuclear, as a number of speakers as the debaters in Parliament stated.
Finally, and most importantly, Jordanians are worried that in order to save money, some shortcuts will be taken that could affect the safety and security of the reactors and could have an impact on generations to come.
Jordan is now almost totally dependent on importing oil to produce badly needed energy.
Nuclear energy does represent a strategic possibility to reduce this dependence, but Jordanians insist that before such a crucial decision is taken, free and open discussions, based on freely available facts and without intimidation should take place.