Jordan close to commissioning two nuclear reactors, declines to sign accord with U.S.

March 6, 2013

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.

— Financial Times

Geoff Dyer in Washington and John Reed in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

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