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Jordan's Nuclear Ambitions Pose Quandary for the U.S.
By JAY SOLOMON
Updated June 12, 2010 12:01 a.m. ET
The Kingdom of Jordan is in a sprint to become the Arab world's next nuclear power. And America wants to help it succeed.
U.S. and Jordanian officials are negotiating a nuclear-cooperation agreement that would allow American firms to export nuclear components and know-how to the Mideast country, America's closest Arab ally in the volatile region.
The Obama administration views Jordan as a key potential partner in its global program to promote the nonmilitary use of atomic energy—part of a broader plan to increase pressure on other Middle East countries, particularly Iran and Syria, to bring transparency to their own nuclear programs.
"I believe nuclear energy in Jordan will be done in such a way where it is a public-private partnership so everyone can see exactly what's going on," Jordan's King Abdullah II said in an interview. "If we can be the model of transparency, it will push others."
But it's a partnership that puts the Obama administration in a bind: It is trying to make good on its pledge to promote greater civilian use of atomic energy, without angering Israel and risking a Mideast arms race.
The deal has catches for the Jordanians, too: The U.S. is demanding that Amman not produce its own nuclear fuel. That's a right Jordan enjoys as a signatory to the United Nations key nonproliferation treaty—and is reluctant to surrender, thanks to its recent discoveries of big deposits of uranium ore.
The U.S. last week pushed through the United Nations a fourth round of economic sanctions against Iran in a bid to curtail its advancing nuclear work. Tehran says its program is purely for civilian purposes, a charge challenged by the U.N. and the West. U.S. officials worry the Arab states, fearing the Iranian threat, could one day seek to develop atomic weapons themselves.
Senior Jordanian officials say Amman can't renounce its right to produce nuclear fuel under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, both for strategic and economic reasons. They say that if Jordan cuts a side agreement with the U.S. on this point it would undermine the integrity of the treaty. They also say such an agreement would limit Jordan's ambition to become a "regional nuclear fuel supply and export center."
Failure to reach consensus on this point, U.S. and Jordanian officials acknowledge, could kill the cooperation deal.
"We believe in the universality of the NPT," said Khaled Toukan, the head of the Jordan Atomic Energy Commission. "We do not agree on applying conditions and restrictions outside of the NPT on a regional basis or a country-by-country basis."
Jordan is among a slew of Arab countries, including Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, that are seeking to become among the first Mideast countries to develop a civilian nuclear-power industry. Israel is the lone country in the region believed to possess atomic weapons, but it hasn't moved to build nuclear power plants.
Jordan's nuclear ambitions are driven by economics. Wedged between Israel and oil giants Saudi Arabia and Iraq, the kingdom is 95% dependent on imported oil and has among the world's smallest reserves of potable water.
But the discovery of at least 65,000 tons of uranium ore in the deserts outside Amman in 2007 has led King Abdullah to order a drastic reshaping of his nation's economic strategy.
French and Chinese geologists are combing southern, central and eastern Jordan in search of additional uranium deposits. In addition to fueling its own plants, Jordan hopes to use its projected four nuclear power plants to begin exporting electricity to neighbors including Iraq and Syria by 2030 and to commercially mine and export uranium. Even if it doesn't process any nuclear fuel itself, Jordan could still produce and export electricity by buying the fuel for its reactors on the international market.
"Now that we have a raw material, people are coming for the first time in our history and knocking on our door," King Abdullah said in the interview.
U.S. officials say they recognize Jordan's desire to achieve energy independence. They praise Jordan's early outreach to the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, and Amman's willingness to allow international inspectors unhindered access to its growing nuclear infrastructure.
But U.S. negotiators are unwavering in their insistence that Amman commit to purchasing its reactor fuel from the international market to guard against its potential internal diversion for military purposes. Iran's insistence on producing its own nuclear fuel stands at the center of its current conflict with the West.
U.S. officials argue if Jordan doesn't surrender its rights to produce fuel, it raises proliferation risks. Countries with the complete nuclear fuel cycle—from mining uranium to processing it into fuel—can convert their civilian plants for military applications. Under terms of the U.S. agreement, Jordan could mine the ore but not convert it into fuel for nuclear power.
Such fears could hamstring Washington's ability to win necessary Congressional approval for a nuclear cooperation agreement with Jordan. Last year, Congress approved a similar deal with the United Arab Emirates only after the country agreed to buy its nuclear fuel overseas.
Jordan could pursue its nuclear ambitions without the U.S., but would face steep diplomatic and financial hurdles. Still, Amman is aggressively pressing forward: In March, it purchased a research reactor for a northern Jordanian university and is in talks with four international consortia to buy its first nuclear power plant.
Those moves are stoking tensions with neighboring Israel.
In the interview, King Abdullah said Israel has been pressuring countries like South Korea and France not to sell nuclear technologies to Jordan. He said Israel's "underhanded" actions have helped bring Jordan-Israeli relations to their lowest point since a 1994 peace agreement.
"There are countries, Israel in particular, that are more worried about us being economically independent than the issue of nuclear energy, and have been voicing their concerns," King Abdullah said. "There are many such reactors in the world and a lot more coming, so [the Israelis must] go mind their own business."
Israeli officials denied any effort to undermine Amman's nuclear procurement efforts.
Jordan's fixation on nuclear power is rooted in its near total dependence on imported oil.
When global oil prices spiked above $100 a barrel in 2007, Amman was forced to spend the equivalent of 20% of its total economic output on energy. That bill could rise sharply over the next decade, say Jordanian officials, as electricity demand is projected to double.
Energy shortages have also threatened Amman's ability to address its severe water deficiency with power-hungry desalination plants near the Red Sea.
The oil-price shock led King Abdullah and his ministers in 2007 to fashion a new energy strategy. The project calls for Jordan to draw 10% of its energy from solar and wind by 2020; 30% from natural gas; and 14% from oil shale. The strategy foresees a special role for nuclear power: 30% of Jordan's overall energy needs by 2030.
The center of Jordan's uranium push is the desolate Bedouin village of Sawaqa, an hour south of Amman. Here the French nuclear-power giant, Areva SA, is partnering with Jordanian mining firms and geologists to try to transform the area into a major center for uranium production.
An encampment of rowed housing units, a cafeteria and sheds used to store and test mineral samples stands amid central Jordan's barren, gravely landscape. A lone camel occasionally meanders past the walled site.
Jordanian geologists have explored the Sawaqa area for decades, confirming sizable deposits of phosphates and oil shale. But the joint Areva-Jordanian camp's general manager, Gilles Recoche, has been tasked to ensure the uranium ore found here and nearby can be mined on a commercially viable scale. He then hopes to process the ore on-site into the powdery substance known as yellowcake, which can in turn be processed into the low-enriched uranium used to power nuclear reactors.
On a recent afternoon outside the Sawaqa camp, Mr. Recoche and his Jordanian colleague, Allam Saymeh, walked through a dug-out excavation trench with gamma-radiation guns.
Moving through the narrow sandy passage, they point out the yellow stains on the trench's rock walls that indicate uranium ore. They then pass their guns over the yellow markings to gauge the grade of the uranium—anything over 100 particles-per-million is judged to have commercial prospects.
"This project is my child," said the 52-year-old Mr. Saymeh, noting that he'd explored the areas around Sawaqa since the 1980s.
Jordan's government is also putting in place the bureaucracy and infrastructure to run its nuclear program. Parliament has passed laws establishing the country's first nuclear regulatory body and the Atomic Energy Commission.
Amman has signed nuclear-cooperation agreements with eight countries, including France, China and Russia. Negotiations have begun with such companies as Russia's Rosatom Corp. and Seoul's Korea Electric Power Corp. to construct Jordan's first power reactor.
The nuclear program's point man is Mr. Toukan, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology-trained nuclear scientist and a former education minister. As chairman of the country's Atomic Energy Commission, the 55-year-old has broad powers, overseeing everything from choosing the reactor's construction site to negotiating the cooperation agreement with the U.S. He views Jordan's nuclear program as providing the base for a scientific resurgence across the Middle East.
A focal point is the nuclear-engineering department at the Jordan University of Science and Technology in the northern city of Irbid. Here, Mr. Toukan's agency contracted in March with a South Korean consortium to build Jordan's first 5-megawatt research reactor, which could break ground later this year.
Students and teachers on the expansive palm-tree-lined campus talk excitedly of the research reactor's arrival. The nuclear-engineering department is only three years old, with just 100 students.
"Right now, we have nothing practical to work on here," says Abtihal Almalahim, a 21-year old junior and one of the program's female candidates. The reactor's arrival "will make our study a lot more real."
A key to achieving King Abdullah's ambitions, however, remains the cooperation agreement with the U.S., say Jordanian officials.
They say it could prove difficult to secure some of the core technologies for their nuclear infrastructure without the Obama administration's seal of approval. The U.S. is a leading player in the Nuclear Suppliers Group, a Vienna-based body aimed at controlling the flow of nuclear technologies internationally. Many reactors from France, Japan and Canada contain significant U.S. components and would require Washington's approval for a sale.
Mr. Toukan nearly concluded a nuclear-cooperation pact with George W. Bush's administration in 2008, according to Jordanian and American officials. It got sidelined in the final months of Mr. Bush's term as Washington aggressively pushed forward and completed a separate nuclear deal with the United Arab Emirates, which does not have its own uranium reserves and agreed to purchase all its reactor fuel from international suppliers.
The Obama administration views the U.A.E. deal as a model for its nonproliferation drive. American experts say it would be virtually impossible for the Emirates or any other nation to develop atomic weapons without the ability to produce highly enriched uranium at home.
The White House has good reason to stick to its guns in its talks with Jordan: the U.A.E., in its agreement with the U.S., won the right to negotiate a new deal if another Mideast country concludes a nuclear pact with the U.S. on more favorable terms.
King Abdullah, is pushing ahead. He met one-on-one with President Obama during Washington's nuclear security summit in April to discuss regional peace and nonproliferation issues, according to Jordanian officials.
The king also instructed his foreign minister to formally reprimand Israel's ambassador to Jordan over the charges that Israel has been seeking to block the sale of the South Korean or French reactors to Jordan.
On the outskirts of the port city of Aqaba, just miles from the Israeli resort city of Eilat, international contractors have been conducting feasibility studies to gauge whether the site can house Jordan's first nuclear-power reactor. Aqaba also lies close to a seismic fault line. Israeli officials have publicly voiced concerns about a reactor being situated so close to the fault.
"We are way ahead of Israel" when it comes to securing new reactor technology, King Abdullah said. "And if you have the private sector involved in nuclear power, it's difficult to do anything sinister."
The Wall Street Journal
Quote 2 :
Jordan close to commissioning two nuclear reactors, declines to sign accord with U.S.
By Michael Peel | Financial Times,March 06, 2013
ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates —
Jordan is close to commissioning two nuclear reactors, to be built about 100 kilometers south of the Syrian border, as atomic energy spreads through the Arab world, even as uprisings convulse the region.
Amman will decide next month which of competing Russian and French-Japanese led consortiums will build two one-gigawatt nuclear reactors near the capital at an estimated cost of 12 billion euros, said Khaled Toukan, chairman of the Jordan Atomic Energy Commission.
Jordan’s plans highlight the political stakes of the increasing interest in nuclear power in and around the gulf region, particularly among oil-rich but energy-hungry regimes such as the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.
Toukan said in an interview that the shortlist was a “neck-and-neck” contest between a bid led by Russia’s Rosatom and another headed by Areva of France and Japan’s Mitsubishi.
He said Jordan’s nuclear efforts were driven by its almost total dependence on oil and gas imports for energy generation and a domestic energy shortfall estimated to reach 6.8 gigawatts by 2030. The country, a hereditary monarchy of 6.25 million people, is economically troubled and has been plagued by sporadic unrest since the start of the uprisings that began to sweep the Arab world more than two years ago.
“We are living now in an energy crisis, a very serious crisis,” Toukan said.
While it was unclear how the Jordan project would be financed, insiders said it was given impetus by seed funding drawn from a broad development aid grant given to Jordan by the UAE. A Jordanian nuclear delegation is visiting the UAE this week. Observers said the UAE government was keen to help Amman because it wanted access to the country’s atomic fuel reserves and technical expertise for its own project to build four nuclear reactors with a total 5.6-gigawatt capacity by 2020.
“They [Jordan] have uranium — and they are churning out nuclear qualified engineers,” said one person familiar with the matter.
The Emirates Nuclear Energy Corp., which is implementing the UAE’s nuclear program, said there had been “positive conversations to explore collaboration opportunities” with Jordan, although no contractual or financial commitments had been signed.
The UAE nuclear plan is the most advanced of several in oil-rich gulf states, whose petrodollars mean they have capital to invest.
Officials in Saudi Arabia, the gulf region’s biggest power, have floated plans to build 16 reactors by 2030.
But the stop-start history of Jordan’s nuclear program shows the potential political obstacles facing Arab states’ atomic ambitions.
Amman had hoped to choose a building consortium in late 2011, but Jordan’s King Abdullah accused Israel last year of trying to derail the initiative by warning off potential partners. Israel dismissed the charge.
Shaul Horev, head of the Israel Atomic Energy Commission, said in September that his country supported “the use of nuclear power by its neighbors to meet their energy and water needs.”
Amman has declined to sign an accord with Washington that, like a similar document agreed between the UAE and the United States, would commit it to not enriching uranium as part of its nuclear plan.
Toukan said while Amman had signed international commitments on nuclear nonproliferation, it would not ink a bilateral deal with the United States on enrichment.
“We can’t accept this,” Toukan said. “We will not agree to sign any agreement that infringes on our sovereign rights or our international rights under any treaties.”
The United States has insisted that it will not allow Jordan to enrich uranium because of what it sees as the risk of proliferation in a volatile region made more insecure by conflict in Syria and growing tensions over Iran. Continued Jordanian resistance to U.S. wishes could cause problems with Congress and with Israel.
Washington remains keen to do a deal with Jordan, one of its key allies in the region and, apart from Egypt, the only Arab state to have a peace treaty with Israel. Washington also wants the accord because it would open up opportunities for U.S. companies, which Jordan would otherwise be forbidden from hiring.
Jordan has historically been so dependent on U.S. financial and political support that few observers see it as able to deny Washington’s wishes, making some kind of face-saving deal the likeliest outcome.
There has been a long-running debate within the Obama administration over whether countries signing civilian nuclear agreements with the U.S. should be required to give up their rights to enrich or reprocess nuclear fuel, or whether to adopt a more flexible approach.
“There are ways of solving this issue without forcing Jordan to give up its rights,” said Mark Hibbs, an expert on nuclear issues at the Carnegie Endowment.
One possible solution would be for Jordan to make a political commitment that for a period of time it would not seek an enrichment capacity, with a U.S. commitment to ensure Jordanian access to the market for nuclear fuel.
Geoff Dyer in Washington and John Reed in Jerusalem contributed to this report.
Quote 3 :
Jordanian nuclear decisions soon
18 March 2013
The reactor technology for Jordan's first nuclear power plant is to be decided in mid-May. Meanwhile, the site selection process for the facility is expected to be completed this month.
Khaled Toukan, chairman of the Jordan Atomic Energy Commission (JAEC) told the country's official news agency Petra that there is "strong competition" between the two preselected reactor vendors.
In April 2012, JAEC announced that it had narrowed down the list of seven offers from four reactor vendors to two from AtomStroyExport of Russia and the Areva-Mitsubishi Heavy Industries joint venture, for their respective AES-92 model VVER-1000 and Atmea designs. Toukan said that the winning bid would be announced in mid-May.
Site selection studies are due to be completed by the end of this month, Toukan said. The sites are under consideration - one near Aqaba on the Red Sea coast, a second at Kherbat Al Samra east of the capital Amman, and the third in the eastern Badia desert. A report on the site studies will be presented to the cabinet. Toukan said that the final decision will be made jointly by the cabinet, the lower house of parliament and the local communities.
The selection of a strategic partner for the nuclear power project will also be made in May, he said. Toukan noted that the final agreement to construct the plant is scheduled to be signed in the second half of this year.
Economic feasibility studies for the nuclear power plant, he said, had found that the cost of electricity generation would be 80 fils (11.3 US cents) per kilowatt at the most. However, this cost would drop once the cost of the plant has been covered and its use in water desalination taken into account.
He said that there were sufficient uranium reserves in central and southern Jordan to meet the demand of the country's nuclear program for 150 years.
Electricity generation currently costs the government some $2 billion per year, according to Toukan. He noted that using a nuclear energy program some 500 tonnes of uranium would be sufficient to meet this demand.
JAEC expects to start building a 750-1100 MWe nuclear power plant in 2013 for operation by 2020 and a second one for operation by 2025. Longer-term, four nuclear reactors are envisaged. Further nuclear projects are likely to involve desalination.
Researched and written
by World Nuclear News
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