Jordan follows UAE nuclear lead

Jordan is likely to become the next Arab state after the UAE to sign a contract to build civilian nuclear reactors, one of the region's top energy officials said.

Jordan is likely to become the next Arab state after the UAE to sign a contract to build civilian nuclear reactors, one of the region's top energy officials said yesterday. A number of Arab countries, including Kuwait and Egypt, have begun the long process of planning for nuclear plants, but Jordan has made the most progress, said Dr Adnan Shihab-Eldin, the secretary general of the Kuwait National Nuclear Energy Committee.

"Jordan is the most advanced with preparation, followed closely by Egypt," Dr Shihab-Eldin said. "Either one will likely be next to award a contract." Planning for a nuclear power programme takes several years, with governments expected to agree to international safety guidelines, create a regulatory structure and complete preliminary engineering work well before discussing a final construction contract.

The UAE paved the way for the Arab world late last December when it awarded a US$20 billion (Dh73.45bn) contract to a consortium of South Korean companies to build four reactors in Abu Dhabi by 2020. The award was the culmination of years of preparation, including formal reassurances to world powers that the Emirates was seeking solely civilian nuclear programme. Other Arab states also see a role for nuclear energy as they grapple with mounting electricity demand and a shortage of cheap natural gas, which is used in many traditional power stations.

Kuwait has expressed interest in building reactors, and could closely follow Jordan and Egypt if the government is able to maintain political momentum on development projects, said Dr Shihab-Eldin, who previously served as an acting secretary general of OPEC. "Kuwait could follow after one to two years if the pace of the domestic development agenda continues to improve," he said. Jordan has perhaps the best strategic case among Arab states for a domestic nuclear programme because it lacks oil and gas reserves and imports 95 per cent of its energy.

It also has sufficient reserves of uranium, the raw material for nuclear fuel. The government has set out a plan to start building a nuclear plant by 2013 and complete it before 2020. Jordanian officials will present their updated plans for a reactor today at a conference of nuclear officials gathered in Amman from across the region. The Jordanian government's ambitious plans have attracted wide interest from four international vendors, according to the London-based industry group the World Nuclear Association.

They are Korea Electric Power Corporation (KEPCO), the prime contractor for the UAE; Areva, the French company; Atomic Energy of Canada; and AtomStroyExport of Russia. The Jordan Atomic Energy Commission has contracted WorleyParsons, the Australian company, to evaluate the technology capability of each vendor. The government will make a technology selection within a year, said Khaled Toukan, the chairman of the Jordan commission, last Thursday.

The Jordanian government has signed co-operation agreements with the governments of all four countries where the vendors are based, plus Britain. It has also pursued the development of related projects, including a partnership with Areva to develop uranium reserves in the middle of the country, and the award of a $173 million contract to KEPCO last year to build a small, 5 megawatt research reactor at Jordan University of Science and Technology.

Despite these significant achievements, building a commercial-scale nuclear reactor will remain challenging, experts say. Unlike the UAE, the Jordanian government faces funding hurdles for what is certain to be a multibillion-dollar project. Jordanian officials have said they would look to bring at least one private company into the project as an equity partner. The country's limited coastline also presents technical challenges, experts say. There is no adequate space for a reactor facility on the coast, so officials are evaluating a site 9km inland and more than 400m above sea level. Water for cooling will have to be piped over land and pumped uphill to the plant.