Even after Fukushima, new nuclear plants are being planned around the globe. Jordan wants to have its first nuclear power plant in operation by 2019. But the King's plans to enter the nuclear age have already provoked resistance from certain sections of the population. Claudia Mende reports from Amman
In 2007, King Abdallah II had already announced the introduction of nuclear technology to his country. In accordance with plans by the King and the Jordan Atomic Energy Commission (JAEC) under the direction of former energy minister Khaled Toukan, nuclear energy should provide one third of the country's electricity needs by 2020. A total of four reactors are to be constructed. The first reactor was initially to be built in the vicinity of the port city of Aqaba on the Red Sea, but after seismic studies found the region unsuitable, the reactor is now planned for Mafrac, only some 40 kilometres northeast of the capital Amman.
The estimated cost of the total project remain vague. Cost proposals envisage a 30 percent contribution by the country and 70 percent credit financing by investors. While JAEC Chairman Toukan has quoted a price of around five billion dollars, critics expect double that amount and fear a further increase in costs of up to ten billion dollars. This would drive the already highly indebted country into an even deeper spiral of debt.
JAEC was originally supposed to announce last November the consortium chosen to construct and operate the 1000 watt third generation light water reactor. Competing for the multi-billion contract are three consortiums – Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL), the Russian Atomstroy, and a Japanese-French joint bid by Areva and Mitsubishi HeavyIndustries. The decision, however, has been repeatedly postponed and is now scheduled to be taken in March. It remains to be seen if this will actually take place, as the first anniversary of the reactor catastrophe in Fukushima is a particularly sensitive date for such an important decision.
Unusually lively and critical debate
In the wake of the nuclear catastrophe in Japan and the start of the Arab Spring, many Jordanians are no longer prepared simply to accept King Abdallah's nuclear plans. The nuclear programme has provoked considerable criticism from scientists, parliamentarians, environmentalists, and the media. For critics such as the well known environmental activist Basil Burgan from the organization Friends of the Environment, the case is absolutely clear. "If we take into account the consequences for the environment, the health of the population, and the cost of the project, it makes no sense whatsoever."
An unusually lively and critical debate has been raging in the country's Arabic and English-language media. Even in newspapers close to the government, such as the Jordan Times, nuclear critics are often given a voice. The plans have also proved controversial in Parliament. In January, a parliamentarian cast doubt on the costs as projected by the JAEC. In 2011, a total of 64 parliamentarians from the 120 seat house took a stand against the nuclear power plant. Parliament, however, enjoys a rather limited political influence.
There has been growing resistance to the plans among the general population, too. In Amman, voluntary Greenpeace activists have founded a group. In the Arab world, Greenpeace groups can otherwise only be found in the relative freedom of Lebanon. "After the reactor catastrophe in Fukushima, I was shocked to hear that a nuclear power plant is to be built in Jordan," says Safaa al-Jayoussi. The 25-year-old initiated the new Greenpeace group.
The country's Greenpeace activists would rather not get involved in the Kingdom's political business. They are primarily concerned with publicising Jordan's need to secure a sustainable energy supply for the future.
A call mercy by the protestors
Residents in the city of Mafraq have set up a loose coalition called Irhamouna (Arabic for "Have Mercy on Us"), which includes opponents of nuclear power, lawyers, geologists, and representatives of the Beni Hassan tribe. Together with Greenpeace, Irhamouna has been drawing attention to its concerns through sit-ins in front of the Ministry of Energy, displaying protest banners at central squares in Amman, and organizing information events.
Activists wearing white radiation protection suits have laid themselves down and placed yellow containers in front of the ministry in an effective public relations move aimed to raise the issue of dangerous radioactive waste and to suggest possible energy alternatives. "We want to make the public aware that solar energy is a real alternative for Jordan," says Safaa al-Jayoussi of Greenpeace.
Jordan dependent on energy imports
In contrast to its oil-rich neighbours, Jordan is a country poor in resources. It has no oil reserves, suffers from an extreme lack of water, and depends on foreign aid, in particular from the USA and Saudi Arabia. At present, Jordan is almost completely dependent on energy imports, which consume around 20 percent of the state budget and also leave the country politically vulnerable.
Over 90 percent of its energy needs are currently met by oil from Saudi Arabia and Iraq, as well as natural gas from Egypt. The JAEC justifies the necessity of the country's nuclear programme with its growing energy requirements, the rising prices for oil and gas, as well as new uranium discoveries in Jordan, which since 2010 have been exploited by the French company Areva. These reserves could be used for the country's energy needs and also for export. Critics question whether the uranium reserves are truly as large as the government claims.
One thing is certain – energy imports are an enormous strain on the country's budget. Since 2001, the costs have tripled and were reported to exceed 4 billion US dollars in 2011. In addition, the insecure political situation has an effect on energy prices. Since the overthrow of Mubarak in February 2011, there have been numerous terrorist attacks on the gas pipeline from Egypt, resulting in disruptions of gas transport. "We have limited options," claimed Professor Kamal Araj, Deputy Chairman of JAEC, at a presentation for the International Atomic Energy Agency IAEA.
Renewable energy has not been seriously considered as an option. According to the current energy master plan, renewables will only make up ten percent of total energy production by the end of the decade. This goal is less than ambitious and, in addition, renewable energy projects are not making much headway. Wind parks should generate 600 megawatts by 2020 and 30 percent of private homes should get their warm water from solar energy. At this rate, the 2020 goal can hardly be met.
In Fujeij, located between Kerak and Maan, the first wind park generating 90 megawatts is planned to come on line in 2014. The wind power facility in Kamsheh should already have been operating years ago, but, according to the Jordan Times, work has been hampered by conflicts between the Ministry of Energy and the operating company. Energy efficiency is an issue not addressed, even though the Arab world together with Sub-Saharan Africa is regarded as the least energy efficient region in the world.
Social climate change in Jordan
The political transformations in the Middle East have also altered the social climate in Jordan. The king has only reacted by introducing marginal changes, but he has allowed more scope for criticism than previously. Time and again, demonstrators have been permitted to march through the centre of Amman relatively unhindered in their protests for more citizen's rights and an end to corruption.
The actual unemployment figure in Jordan hovers around 30 percent and there are too few opportunities for young, often well-educated Jordanians. Rising rents and the cost of fuel only add to this explosive mix. Corruption and self-enrichment by the political class is rampant, but, in contrast to only a couple of years ago, the problem is addressed openly.
The tiny anti-nuclear movement is also a sign that young people in particular are demanding a greater participation in the decision-making process. The protest against a dubious mega-project is an expression of this demand and the authorities will not be able to simply nip it in the bud. If the government continues to push through its nuclear programme without a wider consensus in the population, as currently seems to be the case, then dissatisfaction will certainly grow.
© Qantara.de 2012
Translated from the German by John Bergeron
Editor: Lewis Gropp/Qantara.de