A Closer Look at Jordan’s Nuclear Energy Plans

By Ala’ Alrababah and Ghazi Jarrar – Sheikh Hamzeh Mansour, chief of the Islamic Action Front, the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) in Jordan, criticized Jordan’s nuclear program in an interview with The Jordan Times:

“If implemented, Jordan will suffer the project’s dangerous political, economic, social, financial, health, environmental and security burdens in return for selling others clean electricity at cheap prices and on their terms.”

Clearly, Sheikh Mansour views the nuclear program as an assured disaster. He is not the only one. Environmental activists have repeatedly protested against the project. Moreover, the parliament has recently passed a legislation to halt the program. Despite these incidents, it is possible to argue that there are many benefits to Jordan’s nuclear program.

Jordan currently imports about 96% of its energy needs, which amounts to about 20% of its GDP. Besides, Jordan’s energy demands are increasing at a rate of 6% a year. Nuclear power would allow Jordan to produce about 30% of its own energy. This would mean that the outrageously high price of electricity would go down. By allowing Jordan to export energy, nuclear power would also bring much needed revenue to the country.

There are other potential benefits from nuclear energy. Nuclear power would reduce the leverage oil-producing Gulf countries have over Jordanian affairs. Also, many perceive nuclear energy to be a source of national pride. By becoming a nuclear country, Jordan could elevate its position among the world states.

Some Jordanians fear the health impact of nuclear energy. However, this concern is inconsistent with the safety record of nuclear power. Of the 14,500 reactor-years of commercial nuclear power, only three major accidents occurred. Those incidents, when dealt with well, did not lead to severe casualties. Also, such incidents are less likely to happen in the future. Modern nuclear reactors are much safer than nuclear reactors at Chernobyl, or even Fukushima. The health impact of radioactive material is also insignificant. In fact, Dr. James Conca, an international expert on the environmental effects of radioactive contamination, says in his must-read article:

Every time I eat a bag of potato chips I think of Fukushima. This 12-ounce bag of chips has 3500 picoCuries of gamma radiation in it, and the number of bags I eat a year gives me a dose as high as what I would receive living in much of the evacuated zones around Fukushima.

Given these advantages of nuclear energy, and its relatively good safety record, why have many Jordanians been vigorously opposed to it?

Some have been against the nuclear program merely to oppose the government’s stance. The Muslim Brotherhood has a long record of objecting any government policy. In fact, while the Jordanian MB opposes the nuclear program, the Egyptian MB criticized Mubarak’s regime for not pursuing nuclear energy in 2006. And when Mubarak decided to develop a peaceful nuclear program, the brotherhood was not satisfied — they were already demanding an Egyptian nuclear weapons program!

Others seem to have legitimate concerns. Those who protest the project for its environmental impact are one such group. Their concerns are pivoted around the fact that while many advanced countries are in the process of replacing their nuclear plants with renewable sources of energy (most notably Germany and Japan), only 1% of Jordan’s energy sources are renewable. This is unfortunate given that Jordan has significant potential in utilizing solar energy. Hence, activists encourage investing in such environmental friendly projects. We believe that if managed correctly, the nuclear program in Jordan would actually help the environment by reducing dependence on fossil fuel. However, the Jordan Atomic Energy Commission (JAEC) has not been effective at illustrating the advantageous environmental impact of the project. In fact, JAEC’s website reads like a middle school textbook when discussing the impact on the environment, with no concrete data or numbers provided.

Environmentalists also fear the health impact of the program because of radiation and nuclear waste management. While the JAEC has tried to assure the public that the reactor will follow strict international standards, many Jordanians have understandably not bought into this. Jordan’s mediocre record with regards to the environment legitimizes skepticism. A trip to the Russeifeh solid waste landfill outside Amman, or to the industrial locations in al-Zarqa, would explain why people are worried. If there were more transparency and checks and balances, the Jordanian public might be less cynical. Unfortunately, this is not the case.

The cost of the project has alarmed many in the kingdom. A study by the JAEC shows that the costs would be less than US$10 billion, while the annual revenue would be about US$1 billion. However, those estimates do not account for the potential cost of corruption, which is not insignificant in Jordan. In fact, it is easy to understand why Jordanians take the possibility of corruption seriously. Do you remember the Amman Rapid Bus Transit? How about the Casino Gate? The list goes on.

Moreover, JAEC chairman, Khaled Toukanm, did not help his case when he called opponents to the program donkeys and garbage-men.” Those comments reminded Jordanians of the government’s arrogance, and of its heavy-handed approach to the matter.

The Jordanian government has a difficult task ahead of it. This project is extremely important. To persuade the public of the value of nuclear power, much needs to be done. For one, people would appreciate more transparency about the costs of the project, and a thorough evaluation of the health and environmental risks associated with the reactor. As for the reoccurring theme of corruption in Jordan, a system of checks and balances would help not only with this project, but also for any other major enterprise in the future.

Ala’ Alrababah, who attends Dartmouth College, is Davis Fellow at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. Ghazi Jarrar is a student at Dalhousie University, Halifax. Alrababah and Jarrar blog at ghurbeh.wordpress.com

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