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Nuclear Jordan: splitting atoms in a land of wind and sunshine

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Firmly in the “solar belt”, the area of the world with ideal conditions for solar power, Jordan should strive to become the poster child for renewable energy.

Munir Atalla
20 March 2013

Jordanian officials are making the important decision today of who to award the contract of a planned nuclear reactor.  Options include a Russian firm, Atomstroyexport, or a joint venture between the French Areva and the Japanese powerhouse Mitsubishi.

A few years back, when Jordan announced the venture, a petition was circulating to halt the plans.  Environmentalists have reservations about Jordan joining the world nuclear stage.

Jordanian officials claim that their interest in this undertaking stems from a mix of necessity, opportunity, and prestige. As it stands, the country is struggling with severe water scarcity.  Basically barren of natural resources, Jordan produces 98% of its energy from imported oil and gas.  Another megaproject known as the Red-Dead Project plans to connect the Red Sea to the Dead Sea by pipeline in order to replenish its dwindling levels.  This could allow the government to access the hydroelectric energy the project would create.  Short of that, things are looking difficult for Jordan’s energy needs in the coming decades. If Jordan were to complete a functioning reactor, it would be the first Arab nation to have one.

The critiques are wide-ranging and hard to ignore, not the least of which is cost.  The reactor has an estimated cost of up to $20 billion, well over half of Jordan’s GDP.  It would require copious amounts of water, diligent and meticulous maintenance, and a complete revamping of Jordanian power grids and infrastructure.  Reports have already been coming in from parts of the country that water drawn from aquifers close to uranium reserves are displaying disturbingly high (but still technically safe) amounts of radiation.  There is also the valid concern that the region is due for a massive earthquake in the near future.  Politically, Israel has been accused of attempting to underhandedly oppose the project while outwardly claiming indifference.

Any Jordanian can tell you of the distinct radiance of the desert sun.  About 300 days of the year in Amman, the sky is a sheet of clear blue and sun drifts across it with a practiced intensity.  A consistent westerly wind combs the countryside all year round.  What I’m getting at is that Jordan is the perfect candidate for natural renewable energy.  Firmly in the “solar belt”, the area of the world with ideal conditions for solar power, Jordan should strive to become the poster child for renewable energy.  I long to see a tourism poster with solar panels on Mount Nebo and wind turbines straddling Petra. 

I do not long to see what Jordan would look like in the wake of a nuclear meltdown or an unsolicited Israeli military action for which there is precedent (“Operation Opera”, Iraq, 1979).  At the very least, Jordan should strive to provide micro loans to rural villages that could stand to benefit greatly from solar power - recently, a documentary was produced about just that called “Solar Mama’s” (highly recommended).

The sheer immensity of the Jordanian nuclear project makes me skeptical.  The lack of open discussion about it, however, is its most troubling aspect.  Why split atoms in a land of wind and sunshine?

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