The Battle Over Nuclear Jordan

by Nicholas Seeley
published in MER271

Jordan is facing a power crisis. Resource-poor, the small desert kingdom imports 96.6 percent of its energy, according to government statistics, at a cost equivalent to 20 percent of gross domestic product in 2011 and 2012. More than a quarter of that fuel goes to generating electricity. Future demand is expected to grow rapidly, as Jordan is still in the hump of its demographic transition -- in 2012, 37 percent of the population was under the age of 15. Population growth alone will sharpen the hunger for fuel, but so, too, will the need for new industries to provide jobs for the large youth population, and the aspiration to modern, middle-class lifestyles. In addition, Jordan is the constant recipient of refugees from the region’s crisis zones. The kingdom hosts some 600,000 refugees from Syria, as well as tens of thousands of Iraqis, and a few thousand from other nationalities. (Jordan’s Palestinian refugees are roughly half the population, but most have Jordanian citizenship.)

By 2020, Jordan’s Energy Ministry expects total energy demand to grow by more than 50 percent and electricity demand to grow by 74 percent.

Jordan is also one of the world’s most water-poor countries, relying on depleted aquifers for both drinking and agriculture. The growing population will strain these resources as well. Many pin their hopes on desalination, but that process also requires hundreds of megawatts of power, putting further pressure on both demand and price: Experts estimate that energy makes up nearly half the cost of desalinated water. [1]

Jordan today pays an unsustainably high price for its energy, primarily because dependence on imports has left the country vulnerable to regional shocks. For years, subsidized oil from Iraq helped keep the fuel bill down, but that deal ended with the US invasion in 2003. Saudi Arabia offered to fill the gap, but delivered little. Later, the kingdom’s electricity generation depended on natural gas from Egypt, supplied through the Arab Gas Pipeline at heavily subsidized prices -- possibly as low as 6 cents per kilowatt-hour. But after the fall of Husni Mubarak, the pipeline came under regular attack by militants, cutting off supply. Jordan was forced to burn much more expensive diesel and heavy fuel oil for electricity: At 17 and 25 cents per kilowatt-hour, respectively, these fuels cost the kingdom hundreds of millions of dollars. Because electricity was subsidized, much of that money came directly from the treasury. Eventually, Egypt, needing its gas for domestic use, abrogated the deal altogether.

Jordan desperately needs to find new sources of power that are cheaper and more secure. And there are still other factors to consider: For one, many in the Jordanian government harbor serious concerns about climate change. Jordan is an arid country; less than 2 percent of its land is cultivable. Climate models suggest the arable areas will shrink as temperatures rise and rainfall becomes more intermittent. In 2012, Jordan’s Department of Statistics highlighted a decade of data that appears already to show small rises in temperature and decreases in rainfall. Currently, Jordan gets essentially all its electricity from fossil fuels, and Energy Ministry officials estimate that power generation accounts for 73 percent of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions. [2] Shifting to lower-carbon energy sources is seen as a must.

But how to meet these needs has engendered a brutal political battle. On one side, the powerful Jordan Atomic Energy Commission (JAEC) argues that nuclear power is the only way out of Jordan’s energy woes. Ranged against the commission is an unusual coalition of politicians, environmental activists and a number of prominent nuclear scientists and officials who have defected from the program itself. These opponents say the JAEC has mismanaged the program by sidelining alternatives, and covering up the costs and risks that affect a decision about whether nuclear power is really right for Jordan.

Disputes Over Every Detail

Officials in Jordan’s nuclear program say atomic energy is not the best way out of Jordan’s energy bind, but the only way. Fossil fuel imports are unreliable, given fluctuating prices and regional uncertainties. Jordan has abundant solar and wind resources that could be developed, but because these methods only generate power in favorable weather, most energy experts still say they cannot be used for “baseload,” the minimum power necessary to keep the country running. Jordanian oil shale is promising, but also massively polluting. According to Kamal ‘Araj, the JAEC’s vice chairman, Jordan’s shale contains high proportions of uranium, and burning it would release an unknown quantity of radiation, as well as smog and carbon dioxide, into the environment.

JAEC officials say all these energy sources must be exploited, but only in combination with nuclear power can they generate enough electricity to avoid a crushing fuel bill and the corresponding environmental cost. “This is really a protection for the future, and for future generations,” ‘Araj says.

The JAEC trumpets nuclear power’s other benefits: It is extremely low-carbon. Because the reactors churn out current at a constant level, the surplus at low-demand times can be used very cheaply for desalination. Reactor fuel would have to be imported, but there is a diversity of supply from politically stable countries. Nuclear fuel is relatively inexpensive, only about 20 percent of the final cost of nuclear energy, so price fluctuations would have less impact. And reactors only need refueling every two to three years, preventing sudden interruptions of the fuel supply. Finally, pursuing nuclear power would allow Jordan to invest in its human resources. The JAEC is working with a South Korean consortium to build a $130 million research reactor at the Jordan University of Science and Technology, where students will train to work on a Jordanian nuclear power plant.

The JAEC estimates that a two-reactor nuclear power plant will cost $10 billion to construct. The plan is to find 70 percent of the financing outside Jordan, repayment of which will come due after the reactor is operational, and split the 30 percent equity with a strategic partner that will build and operate the plant. Spread out over 8-10 years, ‘Araj says the up-front cost of construction could be as low as $150 million a year, an amount Jordan could easily pay as it removes its regime of electricity subsidies. Once the reactor is operational, it will bring in the money to pay off the loans over approximately nine years of its 40–60-year life span. The commission is in negotiations with the Russian state firm Rusatom for the role of strategic partner.

But a determined local opposition disputes every detail of the nuclear agency’s account.

One of the loudest critics is Bassel Burgan, who heads Jordanian Friends of the Environment. Burgan makes no bones about the fact that he is ideologically opposed to nuclear energy; in any form, he thinks it is a disaster waiting to happen. “It’s like you’re putting the whole country inside a trash can,” he says. But Burgan also believes that the JAEC’s plan is infeasible. He argues that industry-advanced cost estimates for nuclear plants are misleading, when many are coming in late and over budget. “There are so many hidden costs that they have not been talking about at all,” he says, including insurance for the reactor, interest on the loans needed to build it, the cost of waste disposal and the hefty price tag of decommissioning. He thinks that nuclear-generated electricity will be vastly more expensive than the 12 cents per kilowatt-hour that the JAEC predicts, and that building a plant will saddle Jordan with years of debt and cleanup.

JAEC officials say Burgan does not understand the nuclear industry, and that his criticisms make no sense. They argue that the costs he mentions are all included in the $10 billion figure it has presented and that Jordan would not sign a contract that did not protect it against externally caused cost overruns. But the environmentalist has found powerful allies, including in the Jordanian parliament. Some, like Hind al-Fayiz, the representative from the central Badi‘ district where the nuclear plant is to be built, share Burgan’s green background and total opposition to nuclear power. Others, like Jamal Gammoh and ‘Atif Kawwar (current and former members of the lower house’s Energy Committee) simply say that the program is wrong for Jordan.

“When I look over everything here in Jordan, this program is not for us,” says Kawwar. Before a country pursues nuclear energy, he says, it should first have the basic elements in place: the cash to build a reactor and the expertise to run it safely; uranium for fuel and abundant water for cooling; and the reasonable expectation of protecting the plant from troublemakers. Jordan, he says, has none of these things.

Kawwar was a civil contractor with Jordan’s national project for oil and gas exploration, and he argues for an energy strategy that would include searching for such local resources, as well as using oil shale, investing heavily in renewables and making new arrangements with neighbors for natural gas, which is cheap at present on the back of massive new discoveries. But the government, he says, seems to have put all its eggs in the nuclear basket, and is shortchanging, or even actively discouraging, exploration of alternatives: “Everything is delayed, to the benefit of nuclear.”

In 2013, there was a move to streamline procedures for investing in energy projects, Kawwar says, but it has not been implemented, resulting in minimal development of new energy sources, particularly solar and wind. “The government procedures and routines delay everything,” he says. “We are hurting ourselves.”

In the spring of 2014, an Estonian-Malaysian consortium presented the government with a proposal for Jordan’s first project to generate electricity from local oil shale. The government put off a decision, in a delay that Kawwar and others blame on behind-the-scenes opposition from the nuclear lobby. In May, the consortium threatened to withdraw the offer if they did not get an answer soon. [3] Weeks later the government announced it would soon sign the deal, starting work on an oil shale plant that would generate 470 megawatts of power, to be sold to Jordan at a flexible price between 11-14 cents per kilowatt-hour for 30-40 years. [4] Officials went out of their way to stress that there was no “conspiracy” by the nuclear lobby to scuttle consideration of other fuel sources. [5]

But the parliamentarians and environmentalists have found other allies to confirm their worries: a handful of scientists and administrators who have defected or been dismissed from the nuclear program itself. These former insiders claim that the JAEC is cherry-picking results to hide problems, cutting corners and silencing dissent.

“Uranium Fever”

In 2007, when King ‘Abdallah II announced that Jordan would pursue peaceful nuclear energy, his comment was interpreted more as a backhanded dig at the unregulated Israeli and Iranian nuclear programs than a mission statement. [6] But the palace stayed the course, pushing hard for the project. [7] MIT-educated nuclear engineer Khalid Toukan was appointed to head a commission to examine the feasibility of the idea. In April 2007, Jordan’s parliament passed a nuclear power law, setting up the JAEC to promote nuclear energy (Toukan was named chairman) and another body, the Jordan Nuclear Regulatory Commission (JNRC), to oversee it.

But over subsequent years news reports made the program seem chaotic: Officials would offer grand promises, only to replace them with another when the first set came to naught. Deadlines for bids and deals were announced, then passed, and were announced again. Jordan would build one plant, then two, then four, as part of a $40 billion project that would link the Red and Dead Seas with a development corridor -- a scheme that has quietly faded into obscurity. The plant was going to be built in 2016, then in 2019, then 2022. It would be located near ‘Aqaba, then in central Jordan, then next to the ancient castle of Qusayr ‘Amr in the north. People began to feel misled; those already skeptical of nuclear power said that the JAEC just told everyone what they wanted to hear.

Kamal ‘Araj and Khalid Toukan argue that the JAEC has tried all along to provide clear, accurate information. They blame the confusion mostly on the local media, which never grasped the inevitable twists and turns of a program that will take years to plan and implement. Reporters got carried away with each preliminary announcement, and opponents of the program deliberately misinterpreted the information that was released. With limited time and resources, ‘Araj says, the JAEC was unable to correct all the misconceptions.

Nothing exemplifies how the conflict developed like the controversy over Jordan’s uranium resources, the exploitation of which also falls under the JAEC’s mandate.

In 2007, when the program started, uranium prices had spiked to $135 per pound, and for a moment the world caught what Toukan calls “uranium fever.” “People were cashing in on uranium mines,” he says. “Some of these big corporations -- Areva, Rio Tinto -- they were investing billions.” It had been known for years that Jordan had uranium, possibly in large quantities, but the deposits were not well studied. Still, expectations grew high and fast: On the sidelines of the 2007 World Economic Forum in Amman, the talk constantly returned to uranium, which enthusiasts said Jordan could mine in quantities sufficient to fund its entire nuclear power program.

In an interview in June, Toukan characterized this notion as an exaggeration based on a misunderstanding of the JAEC’s plans. What he said he had hoped for was a takeoff agreement: If the same company could mine the uranium and sell Jordan its nuclear technology, then the kingdom could get advance cash against the uranium profits, to put toward development of the power plant. With uranium prices through the roof, such an arrangement could bring in $500-600 million -- enough to cover cost of the studies and development, or even a chunk of Jordan’s equity share in building a plant, but far from the entire cost of the project.

But opponents say that, if the uranium bonanza was a media-spun myth, the spinning began with Toukan himself. For years, he sold the program to policymakers and the public with descriptions of Jordan’s huge quantities of commercially exploitable uranium -- up to 140,000 tons. [8] He promised a working uranium mine by 2012, and one of Jordan’s partly state-owned newspapers reports him saying that uranium would bring in up to $1.25 billion in annual revenue. [9] And he repeatedly said that the profits from exporting uranium would be “the main funding for the nuclear energy program.” [10] He is on record making that claim as late as 2012, long after uranium prices had plummeted from their 2007 spike, when even a $500 million up-front payment was no longer realistic. Today, he denies ever saying it.

In 2008, Jordan began exploring for uranium under a 25-year mining agreement with the French firm Areva, one of the world’s largest nuclear energy companies. Controversy developed quickly. Nidal Xoubi, another US-educated nuclear engineer, and the JAEC’s original commissioner in charge of the nuclear fuel cycle, was involved in the process, including setting up the laboratory that would analyze geological samples. When work began, Xoubi says the researchers found concentrations of uranium that were less than 7 percent of what they had been led to expect -- results he said would completely ruin the cost-benefit ratio of digging up the mineral. When he brought his concerns to the JAEC’s chairman, he claims he was brushed off.

“In 2010 it became very apparent that the data we relied on at JAEC wasn’t even worth the paper it was printed on,” he says. “This [bad data] became the data the JAEC chairman pushed to the front, and he did not allow any other data.” Xoubi became the program’s first outspoken internal critic, giving presentations on how Jordan’s uranium reserves were not commercially viable and testifying before Parliament. In 2012 he was asked to leave the program. Toukan says Xoubi was removed because he had stopped performing his duties and because he had revealed confidential information. He dismisses Xoubi’s story entirely, describing him as a disgruntled former employee pursuing a personal vendetta.

While this fight was going on, Jordan’s state newspapers continued to publish optimistic stories about uranium mining. Toukan continued to say that the extracted uranium would pay for the nuclear program, but the numbers kept shifting: Estimates of uranium ore in the ground fell to 65,000 tons, then to 30,000. [11]

At about the same time that Xoubi was dismissed, the mining agreement with Areva was abruptly terminated. JAEC’s website says Jordan canceled the agreement because Areva’s geological measurements “did not reflect reality.” ‘Araj says the company relied on quick and dirty methods, making “freshman physics” errors that grossly underestimated the size of Jordan’s uranium deposits.

Opponents say it is laughable to assert that the world’s largest uranium company -- which stood to make money off mining in Jordan -- would make such simple and self-defeating errors. Xoubi and other former insiders argue that Areva, not the JAEC, terminated the agreement, when it realized that Jordan’s uranium reserves would not turn anyone a profit. Areva did not respond to a request for comment.

There are still other factors: Areva was in the running to provide Jordan with its nuclear technology, as well as to mine uranium. When the company was passed over as a preferred bidder for the reactor, it may be that the rest of the venture no longer looked tempting.

Even today, the JAEC’s stories are conflicting: In the same interview where he says Areva’s measurements were faulty, ‘Araj also says Areva backed out because Jordan’s uranium was not exploitable at low uranium prices: “They [Areva] decided they have so much interest worldwide, they wanted to focus someplace else.... Jordan was not a good cherry to pick at the moment,” he says. “The conditions in Jordan are similar to a lot of mines in Namibia or South Australia, essentially low [uranium] concentration, around 150, 205 [parts per million]. These are exploitable with proper technology, I think within the range of maybe $35 per pound. Now the price is around $45-50, so it definitely doesn’t make much sense.” (At the time, the spot price was closer to $35 a pound.)

Whatever the reason, Areva’s departure crystallized the opposition’s belief that Jordan simply does not have enough uranium of high enough quality to sell at a profit. Without it, they asked, how could a small, resource-poor kingdom ever raise the money to build a nuclear power plant?

Toukan and ‘Araj defend their financing model: They point out that many nations achieved nuclear power without uranium exports and that a similar model is working in Turkey. And they continue to say that paying for the reactor with uranium profits was never the plan. But in addition to the written evidence, people who heard Toukan speak prior to 2012 also came away with the opposite impression. Sa’id Dababna, a nuclear physicist and former vice chair of the nuclear regulatory commission board, described a 2008 briefing by Toukan: “He was clearly saying, unambiguously saying, that we are going to sell uranium in order to finance the nuclear power plant. This is for sure.”

In 2011, researchers from the Brookings Institution interviewed JAEC officials for a report on emerging nuclear programs. This document says that the proceeds of uranium mining would be the principal source of Jordan’s contribution to the financing of its first nuclear power plant, and that it would go toward both development and “establishment” costs. [12] Charles Ebinger, director of the Energy Security Initiative at the Brookings Institute and the lead writer of the report, agrees the claim was made, but says that even at the time, Jordanian officials did not seem serious about it. “I think that was somewhat tongue-in-cheek,” he said. “Outside people were being so critical…that this idea of using the uranium was kind of…an argument that they could indeed afford it. In point of fact, that would be very difficult: Even if they had massive uranium production available, it would be very difficult to sell enough uranium on the world market to finance a multi-hundred million dollar power plant.”

The idea that Jordanian officials would construct an entirely unworkable strategy in order to sell a program, and later deny ever espousing it, has precedent. In 2010, when Jordan was looking for funding to build a water conveyance system between the Red and Dead Seas, Water Ministry officials simultaneously embraced two contradictory projects and offered radically different narratives about them to different stakeholders. [13]

Five months after ‘Araj said uranium extraction was probably infeasible at current prices, the head of Jordan’s state-owned uranium mining company announced that Jordan was looking for partners to build a $140 million uranium extraction plant in order to take advantage of 36,000 tons of easily mined uranium. [14]

The announcement was based on a new study, completed in April, which Toukan hopes will settle the uranium debate once and for all. It is a major reevaluation led by Marat Abzalov, exploration manager at the Australian mining and energy giant Rio Tinto, and in cooperation with several international experts, all of whom are certified by the Australasian Joint Ore Reserves Committee, which sets standards for mining exploration. All of the participants, Toukan says, are considered at the top of their fields. “This is the first time ever we have classification of uranium in Jordan as ‘resources,’ according to international standards.”

The study, which numbers in the hundreds of pages, is not available to the public because it contains information that will be sensitive when making the deal for a uranium mining partner, but Toukan offered Middle East Report a copy of the executive summary. In it, Abzalov writes that Jordan’s central region, one of the kingdom’s several uranium-bearing areas, is estimated to contain about 36,000 metric tons of uranium, at average grades of 135 parts per million. Despite its low grade, the uranium has “reasonable prospects for eventual economic extraction,” breaking even at a uranium sale price of $45 per pound, “a realistic forecast of uranium prices.” (At the time of writing, spot prices had fallen to $28 per pound, a number Toukan says is unreasonably low.)

No matter its pedigree, this new report is unlikely to convince skeptics after years of conflicting messages. ‘Atif Kawwar, the parliamentarian, says the JAEC chairman has already commissioned numerous studies: “He will continue until he gets a report that it [uranium] is existing, and he will ignore all the problems, all the reports which are telling there is no uranium in Jordan.”

No Common Facts

The conflict over uranium is not the only internal battle to roil the nuclear program, and Xoubi is not the only scientist to leave. Kamal Khudayr, at one time the JAEC’s director of site management, says he left the program after disagreeing with the decision, sometime in 2011, to shift the preferred reactor site from ‘Aqaba to central Jordan.

Again, every detail is in dispute: Khudayr describes the decision as a sudden change in direction, which is how it appears in many media reports. ‘Araj and other officials say the location was never really “changed,” because ‘Aqaba was only one of many sites in an initial countrywide survey. The “new” site at Qusayr ‘Amr, he adds, is merely the current front-runner, but the detailed studies that will determine if it is suitable, including an environmental impact assessment, are still to come. The JAEC is in final negotiations for a consultant to carry them out.

Khudayr says the JAEC has lurched from one site to another with insufficient consideration, and wasted resources by inviting bids before the basic studies are complete. An inland site is infeasible, he thinks, because the Gulf of ‘Aqaba is the only place in Jordan with access to sufficient water to cool a nuclear reactor. ‘Araj says that ample water will be available inland from the Khirbat Samra wastewater treatment plant.

Opponents raise a raft of other objections to the site, but ‘Araj regards them all as manufactured: They are all dealt with in the plan, or they are simple engineering problems with simple solutions. For him, the debate comes down to ideology. “You can’t convince people once they’ve made up their minds,” he says.

After years of mixed messages, and the defection of Xoubi and other program insiders, it seems opponents of the nuclear program are no longer concerned with the science: They fundamentally distrust the JAEC and its motives -- not surprisingly, since many Jordanians believe that official corruption is widespread. The privatization of state-owned industries in the 1980s and 1990s is still widely viewed as a fire sale in which well-connected moguls enriched themselves by acquiring state assets for a pittance. And a series of high-profile corruption trials, including a former Amman mayor (acquitted after a lengthy inquest), the head of the formerly state-owned phosphate company (fled the country) and a former head of the secret police (convicted of embezzling millions and jailed), has done little to assuage public fears -- rather it seems to have deepened the impression that a class of political untouchables is exploiting state programs for personal ends.

The JAEC is cagey about its budget, but the allocation is substantial -- around $30 million in 2013, according to ‘Araj, and millions in other years. Program officials say these sums are normal, the cost of commissioning independent advisers and doing big, in-depth studies. But conspiracy theories abound over who is profiting and why. “I don’t believe that this nuclear energy, the way that Khalid Toukan is handling it, is for the sake of Jordan, as much as it’s a corruption case,” says Hind al-Fayiz, the parliamentarian. “It’s another way of generating money for corrupt people, of putting money in their pockets.”

Even the king’s backing of the program has come in for criticism: Jordan is an absolute monarchy, and the political culture is characterized by deference to the royal family. It has become a commonplace among opponents that the JAEC is more concerned with giving the king good news than with making sure that nuclear power is right for Jordan.

JAEC officials’ attitude toward their opponents is at least as dismissive as opponents’ attitude toward them: Environmentalists and even parliamentarians are described as unable to comprehend what is involved in a nuclear program, and not in a position to make reasonable judgments about it. Several officials sounded the refrain that the JAEC is open to criticism, but only from people the officials regard as qualified. “Frankly, I don’t think any of [our opponents] can understand what is underestimated or overestimated in these costs,” ‘Araj said. “If someone wants to debate the actual issues, we are open to it -- but in a constructive manner.”

In 2012, scandal swirled around Khalid Toukan, after a voice recording emerged in which the chairman appeared to refer to his opponents as donkeys and garbagemen. [15] Toukan said the recording was faked in a plot to bring down the nuclear program. His dismissal of Xoubi, Khudayr and other internal critics is all-encompassing: He downplays their documented connections to the program, disparages their expertise and insists they are simply embittered gadflies.

It is another commonplace among officials that criticism of the nuclear program is merely a smokescreen for other issues, personal or political -- a kind of gamesmanship that has a long history in Jordanian politics. “We once had a debate, with the anti-nuclear camp…and we presented these numbers,” says Yazan Bakhit, a JAEC economist. “You know what their response was? ‘This is a Zionist project. This is an Israeli project.’ This is how they respond, when we present facts and numbers and calculations.”

The gap between JAEC and its opponents has become unbridgeable.

Watchdog or Lapdog

The claims and counterclaims that swirl around the uranium question have echoes in almost every other aspect of the program. Parliamentarians like al-Fayiz and Kawwar say that the JAEC has failed to provide them with even the most basic studies of nuclear power in Jordan, whether on feasibility, impact or safety. Kawwar says that Parliament has seen only superficial “informational workshops.” “All their justifications were funny, and all our questions were not replied [to] seriously,” he said. “They haven’t a detailed study, they haven’t a serious study. They put the cart before the horse.”

The JAEC says its initial study was indeed sent to the legislature. It is a massive document prepared by Worley Parsons, and officials say, reviewed by several international companies and the International Atomic Energy Association. MER was not allowed to inspect the study in detail, again because it contained information that could affect Jordan’s negotiations with strategic partners to build the plant, but officials say it examines a variety of power scenarios, economic models and safety concerns related to the program. (A white paper summarizing some of its findings appears on the JAEC website.)

“This [report] is with the members of Parliament,” says Bakhit, the JAEC economist. “You know how many comments we have received? Zero. Because they are robust models -- everything here, we can defend.” He and ‘Araj say the JAEC has presented their work to decision makers many times, and are available to any politician who wants to discuss details -- and several pro-nuclear members of Parliament confirmed their story. “I personally read all available studies and have permanent access to them at the JAEC,” said Ra’id Khalayla, a member of the Energy Committee and a representative of the Wifaq party. “Whenever we have any questions, the answers are easily obtained at the JAEC.”

In May 2012, after a series of hearings before the Energy Committee, Parliament voted to halt uranium exploration in the kingdom until a feasibility study was conducted, and to suspend the nuclear program. [16] Gammoh, the committee head, said they had asked for the nuclear program to be stopped until the JAEC provided feasibility studies that detailed where the funding for the reactor would come from, where Jordan would get the water and what the return on investment would be. The JAEC did not stop; its position was that the nuclear power plant project was still in its early stages and those studies were underway -- allowing the commission to say its continued work was in line with Parliament’s request.

Opponents point out that the JAEC is doing more than conducting studies -- for example, the research reactor is already under construction. Critics ask where the feasibility, safety and environmental studies are for that project. The JNRC, the nuclear regulator, says it has all the studies needed to license the research reactor for construction, and decision makers can view the documents at the JRNC offices any time. (The papers were not available to a foreign reporter.) In 2013, a JNRC spokesman said shortened versions of some studies would be available on the agency’s website in the first quarter of 2014. At publication time, nothing had appeared.

Khudayr and Xoubi, along with Dababna, the former member of the regulator’s board, point out that Jordan is far in front of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) guidelines for setting up a national nuclear program. The kingdom was requesting bids for reactor technology and operating partnerships years before the IAEA-recommended studies were carried out, final sites were chosen, and the legal and regulatory infrastructure was in place. [17] The former insiders paint a picture of a runaway organization, so dead set on building a nuclear power plant that it is not really considering the challenges involved, and immune to oversight because of its chairman’s political clout and the support of the palace. In the scuffle with Parliament, the JAEC appears to have shown that it is above criticism from Jordan’s elected officials, but in late 2012, Dababna, Khudayr and Xoubi say it also effectively took over the regulatory agency that was supposed to supervise it. That is not a trivial concern.

“The promotion of nuclear power and the regulation of nuclear power should be completely separated. They should never be the same,” says Ebinger, the Brookings expert and former nuclear adviser. In 2012, when South Korea’s nuclear industry was shaken by a scandal over the use of substandard parts, the problem was traced to overly close ties between the industry and its regulators. [18] And the committee set up by the Japanese Diet to investigate the causes of the disaster at the Fukushima-Daiichi plant laid the blame squarely on collusion between the national regulator, the government and the power company, which failed to shut the plant down after its vulnerabilities were known. [19]

In Jordan, the prime minister appoints both the head of the JAEC and the director general of the JNRC, the regulatory body. The prime minister, in turn, answers to the king. It is not an ideal arrangement, says Ebinger: “We always preach that regulators be appointed for a set term, and cannot be removed except for malfeasance or incapacity, or whatever. It is a difficult thing to do when you go into a kingdom.... You can say ‘complete independence,’ but if the regulator runs afoul of the king, he’s not going to stay in his job.” Such issues are common in practice, he added, and should not be seen as disastrous.

In late 2012, the director-general of the regulator, Jamal Sharaf, a physics professor at the University of Jordan who had been running the JNRC for five years, was fired and replaced by the brother of a JAEC commissioner.

Again, there are two very different versions of events.

“The previous director-general was very incompetent,” said ‘Araj at JAEC. “I don’t think he understood anything about nuclear safety, frankly. This was a change for the benefit of the program. Also, he was anti-nuclear. I don’t think you can have a director-general who was anti-nuclear. You have to be independent, neutral.”

Sharaf’s replacement, Majd Hawwari, 35, was educated in the US and previously worked in medical physics at the University of Jordan and the King Hussein Cancer Foundation. He also says Sharaf was failing to do his job. “If you look at the history of the JNRC, you will see that they’ve been licensing installations without inspecting them, or visiting them,” he said. “They were dedicated, in this room, to how to hurt the nuclear project, for some reason.”

Sharaf declined to comment on the affair. But according to Dababna, who worked with Sharaf on the regulator’s board, Sharaf, like Xoubi, was removed for standing athwart the JAEC’s headlong rush forward. Dababna says that the JAEC had begun construction on the research reactor without completing the necessary site studies or environmental assessments, or getting a JNRC license. In his account, Khalid Toukan came to the board in 2012 and asked for a license for construction that was already underway. The board refused, and shortly afterward, Sharaf was dismissed, and replaced by Majd Hawwari. Majd’s brother, Ayman Hawwari, is head of the nuclear reactor program at the University of South Carolina, and also the JAEC’s commissioner for nuclear reactors. According to Dababna and other program insiders, he was heavily involved in the Jordanian research reactor program. To opponents, it was a clear case of regulatory capture: The appointment of a political and personal ally of the JAEC to the JNRC leadership effectively gutted the regulator.

In October 2012, Dababna resigned from the JNRC board and took his concerns about the program to the Jordanian cabinet. So far, he says, he has received no response. News accounts offer some support for this version of events. Local papers reported that the JNRC was given the license to build the reactor in Irbid in August 2013. [20] But newspaper stories from mid-2012 show that the building meant to house the reactor was already there -- because it was destroyed by a mob of angry residents, something that raises concerns about security and public acceptance, as well as building on a site that was not licensed, and may not have been fully studied yet. [21]

But both the JAEC and the JNRC contest Dababna’s description -- the agencies say that all the studies for the research reactor were done promptly, and that Sharaf’s dismissal had nothing to do with the matter. As evidence that Sharaf was removed for incompetence, Hawwari produced a set of documents from the IAEA that he claimed were performance evaluations, showing a jump from 5.7 percent in 2009, under Sharaf, to 92 percent. The two documents, however, appeared to be assessing different things. After being sent a description of the documents, IAEA representative Mohammad Amasha wrote that these percentages were financial implementation figures, referring to the amount of a project budget that had been spent. “It is not a rating of the regulatory body,” he said.

And when asked about regulating his brother’s project, Majd Hawwari played down Ayman’s role: “My brother is not living in Jordan. He is not working on a daily basis on the project. He is just a skilled Jordanian who happens to be in the United States, a recognized figure, and they send him, on and off, documents to review.” The JAEC website still lists Ayman Hawwari as one of its five commissioners, the highest officials under the director, and he still gives press interviews about the research reactor project. [22]

And despite his role as an impartial regulator, Majd Hawwari also argued that nuclear power was the only possible option for Jordan, and attacked opponents of the program for suggesting alternatives. He sees no conflict of interest in his closeness with the JAEC or in the presence of his brother on the reactor project. “We are not technically a different identity from the JAEC. We are both on the Jordanian part,” he said. “We are both working for the prime minister of Jordan, so you cannot differentiate between us, one way or another.”

This description does not fit any generally accepted definition of a regulator’s role -- and sounds worryingly like the kind of cozy relationship that was cited as a problem in both the Korean scandal and the Fukushima disaster.

“When we were [in Jordan] in 2011, we were very impressed by some of the people in the Jordanian universities who were working on the program,” said Ebinger. “But with all due respect, I am concerned that in societies -- and I would say Jordan is one -- where you have a culture of respecting your elders and respecting your superiors in a business environment, at all costs...that is not a culture that is good for nuclear power. From the lowest worker to the highest CEO, everyone has to have safety as the number one thing on their minds, and anyone, from the lowest to the highest person, needs to blow a whistle if they see something inappropriate happening.”

The Final Arbiter

Both program adherents and critics point out that the final arbiters of a nuclear program’s success are the international community and the market. If Jordan is going to attract a strategic partner to dig a uranium mine, that partner will check and recheck all the studies and figures before making a commitment. The same principle applies across the board: An industry wary of another high-profile disaster will shun a project that seems poorly managed or unsafe.“We’re not going to get investment in this power plant if we have a caricature regulator,” ‘Araj said.

Even if a partner were willing to cut corners, the plant would still need to be approved by the IAEA before it could operate, and would need the international community to supply it with nuclear fuel. Jordan is not in a position to complete this project without help.

‘Araj sees in this reality the eventual vindication of the program: The approval of international agencies and investors will prove that the JAEC has been on the right track all along.

Opponents, on the other hand, see a dozen ways the program could fail.

Dababna, Khudayr and Xoubi all make a point of saying they believe in the promise of nuclear power. “I want to emphasize very clearly that nuclear power could, at the end of the day, turn out to be very important, very crucial to the country,” Dababna said. “But again, the risk associated with nuclear power should be taken seriously on all levels.... Because I am with nuclear power, and because I want to guarantee the success of implementing nuclear power, I strongly criticize the procedure.”

Dababna and the other former officials fear that the tens or hundreds of millions Jordan has already invested could be wasted, simply because the JAEC moved too fast. The site for the power plant has yet to be studied, which means, in theory, that it could still prove unsuitable. If so, Jordan could have to redo work it has done on finding the reactor technology and the operating partner. Or the program’s lack of transparency could stir up so much public unrest that it gets bogged down in development hell.

The farther down the nuclear path the country gets, the higher the economic consequences of failure. In a near worst-case scenario, Dababna and Khudayr suggest it is actually possible that Jordan could spend billions to build a plant, and then be unable to get a license to operate it from the IAEA, because the groundwork was not properly laid. “This is a zero-tolerance industry,” says Xoubi. “This whole program is a one-man show that wasted Jordan’s opportunity to build a real nuclear program.”

The JAEC and JNRC say the insiders’ scenarios are phony problems that could never arise: Jordan’s push for nuclear power exists within a framework of international cooperation, IAEA guidelines, checks and safeguards that keep the project on track. Toukan, ‘Araj and Hawwari all pointed out Jordan’s many partnerships in the nuclear arena. Nuclear program officials are working actively with the IAEA, and carry out regular self-assessments to get agency input. They have technology-sharing agreements with more than a dozen nuclear nations. In 2012, Jordan became the test case for a “regulatory support forum,” sponsored by the European Union, in which advisers from 15 nations gathered a roundtable in support of the nuclear program. None of that would be happening if Jordan were not following procedure, say the officials, who scoff at the idea of a runaway program.

And Toukan says he has asked the cabinet for permission to introduce another level of oversight -- an international advisory group, made up of top experts on nuclear energy and empowered to open the program’s books to produce an annual report. That kind of criticism he says he would take seriously. “I tend to believe that this assessment is much more objective, transparent, and has depth, with an expert opinion -- more than someone [critical] who was in the organization.”

If such a group’s findings were indeed transparent, perhaps they would serve to alleviate some of the mistrust that has grown around the program. And perhaps not.

It is hard to say how the Jordanian public feels about nuclear energy. Protests against nuclear power have never drawn large numbers, but in the aftermath of Fukushima and during the excitement of the Arab uprisings, the demonstrators were loud and impassioned. Discontent has been muted lately, as Jordanians have soured on protest in general. There has been little polling, but a December 2013 survey by the International Republican Institute suggests that a small majority of Jordanians (54 percent) support the program, believing it will bring down electricity prices, while a substantial minority (33 percent) oppose it based on fears of health hazards and pollution. But most respondents (67 percent) also said they knew almost nothing about the program -- and hearing a series of statements about nuclear power and potential alternatives reduced the percentage of supporters.

In a final disagreement, today both sides claim they are winning the fight. Kawwar, the parliamentarian, says opposition to the nuclear program is building in the halls of power, as decision makers realize they have been misinformed about nuclear energy’s costs and benefits. JAEC officials say that everything is on track. The new uranium study may well be a turning point, but few outside the nuclear program and the cabinet have seen the paper, so it is too soon to tell.

What can be said is that the government has clearly failed to convince the public of the nuclear program’s feasibility or transparency, or to build grassroots support for nuclear power. Perhaps the lack of a social base will have consequences for the program in the future -- or perhaps Jordan, like many other nations, will find that public approval is not a necessary ingredient in a nuclear program.

 

Endnotes

[1] Bloomberg, May 1, 2013.
[2] Jordan Times, May 19, 2014.
[3] Jordan Times, May 6, 2014.
[4] Jordan Times, June 12, 2014.
[5] Jordan Times, June 12, 2014.
[6] See, for example, Akiva Eldar, “Jordan Aims to Develop Nuclear Power,” Haaretz, January 19, 2007 and Associated Press, January 19, 2007.
[7] Jordan Times, August 27, 2007.
[8] Jordan Times, July 6, 2008.
[9] Al-Ra’y, October 21, 2009.
[10] Jordan Times, September 28, 2008; al-Ra’y, September 25, 2011; Khalid Toukan, “Nuclear Energy in Jordan,” Slideshare presentation, February 7, 2012 [Arabic]: http://www.slideshare.net/bayanshbool/ss-11478247.
[11] Al-Ra’y, October 21, 2009.
[12] Charles Ebinger et al, “Models for Aspirant Civil Nuclear Energy Nations in the Middle East,” Policy Brief, Brookings Energy Security Initiative, September 2011.
[13] Nicholas Seeley, “Out to Sea,” JO (February 2012).
[14] Jordan Times, May 21, 2014.
[15] Jordan Times, May 26, 2012.
[16] Jordan Times, May 26 and 30, 2012.
[17] “Milestones in the Development of a National Infrastructure for Nuclear Power,” IAEA Nuclear Energy Series, NG-G-3.1, Vienna, 2007; “Specific Considerations and Milestones for a Research Reactor Project,” IAEA Nuclear Energy Series, NP-T-5.1, Vienna, 2012.
[18] New York Times, August 3, 2013.
[19] World Nuclear Association, “Fukushima Accident,” May 21, 2014.
[20] Jordan Times, August 20, 2013.
[21] Jordan Times, July 12, 2012.
[22] Nuclear Energy Insider, July 3, 2013.

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