Jordan is facing an uphill battle to build its first nuclear reactor to supply badly needed electric power amid serious concern over environmental hazards and financial risks the cash-strapped kingdom would have to endure.
Lacking the oil and gas reserves of its neighbors, Jordan has been reliant on imports to provide power for its homes and vehicles. Chaos in Egypt's Sinai peninsula over the past year virtually cut off natural gas imports because the pipeline has been sabotaged 14 times in succession, most recently this week when a blast cut the line near Al-Arish.
Nuclear power could help full the gap, but the nuclear disaster at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi plant last year has cast fresh doubt over safety and viability of such projects at a time when environmentalists are pushing for clean sources of energy.
Aware of the growing opposition to the multi-billion dollar project, the government in Amman has appointed a public relations team to persuade the public of its importance to the country's energy independence. The Jordan Nuclear Commission said recently government is preparing to announce it has chosen the French nuclear power contractor AREVA to build the country's first reactor.
Construction of the facility would not start before 2013 after the paper work needed to win the approval of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the global nuclear monitoring body, and find financing.
The kingdom's program calls for the construction of a 1,000-megawatt reactor by the end of the decade, with plans in place for an additional three reactors, all of which would transform the country from an energy importer to an electricity exporter.
But environmentalists warn that developing countries such as Jordan risk getting into immensely sophisticated and expensive projects without fully understanding their impact on the ecosystem and the populations living within close proximity.
And on Sunday, Jordan's largest opposition party Islamic Action Front (IAF), the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, announced it too was opposed to the nuclear reactor because it was not in the interests of Jordanians. IAF Secretary General Hamzah Mansour said the project should be canceled, preferring safer ones that rely on renewable energy.
"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," Mansour warned at a press conference.
For residents of the town of Majdal, where the government said it will construct the reactor, the project is a no-go.
Community leaders joined hands with environmentalists to lobby against the project on hope of pushing authorities reconsider placing what they term a ticking bomb away from their backyards. They have held several protests in their town and in Amman near the prime minister's office as well as near the nuclear energy commission's offices in protest against the project.
Basel Burqan, an environmentalist and anti-nuclear technology advocate, says residents of the northern town face serious health risks if the project is constructed within close proximity of their homes.
Dominated by members of the influential tribe of Bani Hassan, Majdal doesn't accept the government's assurances over the plant's safety. Burqan says the town residents will oppose any move by the government to construct the reactor around their homes.
The government also promised the local community a good financial return, but residents vehemently refuse to budge.
Majdal's residents aren't the only ones wary about having a nuke as a neighbor. The government had to rescind its original plans to build the reactor near the port city of Aqaba, near the Saudi border, after political pressure from Riyadh.
Majdal is a mix of blue collar workers and farming community between two big cities of Zarqa and Mafraq. Burqan says the location is in violation of international norms.
"The government is studying putting the reactor in a new location, in the desert of Azraq, but there is no water and that is also in violation of the international atomic energy regulations because there is no big source of water," Burqan told The Media Line.
The tsunami that wrecked the Japanese nuclear site in 2011 has weighed on Areva, whose share have lost 58 percent of their value since the accident, the worst since the Chernobyl reactor failed 25 years earlier. While in the Middle East nuclear plans are moving ahead in places such as Iran, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, Japan has idled all but one of its 54 reactors, and Germany has reversed a decision to extend the lifespan of its atomic facilities.
The Jordanian-French Uranium Mining Company, a consortium formed by AREVA and Jordan Energy Resources Inc., has been conducting exploratory activities for uranium mining in the central region since 2009.
The nuclear commission says it embarked on the nuclear project because, it says, there is an abundance of uranium in the country's soil. But Burqan says authorities are exaggerating the amount of uranium in the country, with officials from the nuclear commission giving a variety of figures ranging from 100 million tons.
He says the authorities are giving distorted figures to justify embarking on the controversial project. The concentration of uranium in the soil is not commercially viable and well below international standards, he insists.
"Now, and after withdrawal of two Australian and Chinese companies from a deal to mine for uranium due to lack of economic feasibility, the government continues to say uranium reserves are commercial and can be utilized. This is not true," he says.
Burqan said the aid dependent kingdom would also struggle to meet its financial commitments when it borrows money to build the reactor.
He says the official estimated cost of the reactor $5.2 billion does not include the added expense of military protection, insurance, revamping electric networks, special roads to sustain the weight of equipment that will be transported, including 800 metric-ton fans. Other costs also include storing toxic waste and a desalination plant to provide water.
"When looking into the astronomical costs of the project and what impact it will have on the economy of the country, it looks more feasible to focus attention on renewable energy projects such as solar and wind power," said Burqan.
He points out that Jordan can take advantage of the winds in the western hills overlooking the Jordan Valley as well as the vast country's ample sunlight in the southern and eastern deserts to develop alternative sources of power.
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