Russians to build Jordan’s first nuclear plant

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Following the choice of a Russian consortium to build Jordan’s first nuclear power plant, the government hopes it will help alleviate problems far beyond the obvious ones in the kingdom’s energy sector.

The winning bid, announced in late October, came from a consortium led by Rosatom, a state corporation that oversees virtually all things nuclear in Russia, both civilian and military. According to Jordan Atomic Energy Commission chief Khaled Toukan, Rosatom’s reactor export subsidiary, AtomStroyExport, will supply the technology, while Rosatom Overseas will operate the facility.

Precise details have yet to be agreed, but according to Toukan, the enormous cost of the project – estimated at $10bn, or about one third of Jordan’s GDP – will be divided between the consortium (49%) and the Jordanian government (51%), which hopes to finance at least half of its share through grants from friendly governments and/or multilateral institutions. The consortium will retain a 49% stake in the plant, whose two reactors – the first coming on-line in 2020, the second by 2025 – will have a combined capacity of 2000 MW.

Reducing dependence on foreign energy

The project is designed to yield a broad range of direct and indirect benefits.

Construction is expected to generate some 10,000 well-paying jobs, and once operational the plant and ancillary facilities will require hundreds of technicians, maintenance experts and other skilled and semi-skilled personnel whose greater purchasing power will help support the economies of local communities.

More importantly, advocates say that along with a new oil pipeline from Iraq, exploitation of domestic shale oil, and expanded use of renewables like wind and solar, the nuclear facility will be part of a revolution that fundamentally transforms energy in the kingdom from being a financial drag on both the public and private sectors into an engine for development. Nuclear power, they say, will broaden Jordan’s energy mix away from over-reliance on hydrocarbons, undo a dependence on expensive and unreliable imported energy (equal to more than 95% of demand), and accelerate economic growth by helping to reduce electricity rates. In addition, the station’s biggest single customer will be a desalination plant intended to address both chronic water shortages and the shrinking of the Dead Sea.

Safety concerns

Despite these lofty goals, the project has its critics, including those who object to all forms of nuclear energy on principle.

Some point to the 2011 earthquake and tsunami damage at Japan’s Fukushima facility to argue that even the wealthiest and most advanced countries cannot eliminate the risks associated with nuclear technologies, let alone emerging ones like Jordan. Indeed, the Fukushima disaster has led to the closure of all 50 reactors previously operating in Japan, a phase-out of Germany’s nuclear power sector scheduled for completion by 2022, and mounting pressures for similar moves elsewhere.

The same observers complain that with major Western markets in retreat, makers of nuclear technology have begun to market their products more aggressively in emerging economies. These companies have also lobbied their respective governments to relax export controls on reactor sales to countries where the authorities may be unable or even unwilling to properly enforce safety and security standards and/or Non-Proliferation Treaty safeguards.

Advocates of the programme dismiss various criticisms on multiple grounds.

They insist, for instance, that current versions of Rosatom’s VVER 1000 pressurised water reactors employ the very latest technologies, including automatic controls, passive safety and advanced containment systems.

They also assert that the government has been very serious about all forms of precaution, noting that early plans to locate the nuclear station on or near the Gulf of Aqaba (near the aforementioned desalination plant in the country’s far south) were shelved over the potential for earthquakes. The new site has yet to be definitively identified but will likely be within an hour’s drive of Amman.

The kingdom has been open about its nuclear plans for many years, followed guidelines established by the International Atomic Energy Agency, and called for all weapons of mass destruction to be banned from the Middle East.

After years of stop-and-go planning, construction of the power plant is expected to begin in 2014, and this may be just the beginning: according to Toukan, the Commission also envisions a series of smaller (180-MW) reactors that will provide power in various parts of the country.

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