The walls inside the cavernous main hall of the Jordan Research and Training Reactor are painted yellow, but the water filling the 10-metre-deep pool in the centre of the room gives off the electric blue glow characteristic of these units.
The water is demineralised to prevent it from becoming radioactive and to reduce the risk of corrosion to the structures that house this plant’s key feature: uranium material located, out of sight and encased in aluminium, in the pool’s eerie depths.
The National was given access into the nuclear training facility that is the country's first, and the first unit exported by South Korea.
During the visit, the reactor is shut down, but since this plant went “critical” - meaning it moved into a configuration in which nuclear fission could occur and be maintained on its own - for the first time in April last year, a minimum number of staff must be on site 24 hours a day, seven days a week, including at least two people in the main control room.
“We maintain the safety and security of our facility in accordance with the highest international standards,” said Dr Samer Kahook, the JRTR’s manager.
Although heavily dependent on energy imports, Jordan has not built this, its first nuclear reactor, to produce electricity: its energy is simply dissipated into the atmosphere.
Instead, as its name suggests, the JRTR has a different focus: to assist in nuclear industry research; produce radioactive isotopes for industrial applications and medical research and diagnostics; and for training personnel in nuclear operations. This last function will be critical as Jordan builds full-scale nuclear plants for electricity generation.
“It will help cultivate a nuclear culture. One of the challenges we have met is the transition from a regular work culture to a nuclear culture. A research reactor is completely different from a nuclear power plant, but the work culture is the same,” said Dr Kahook.
In addition, with nuclear power remaining highly controversial – environmental groups such as Greenpeace have raised concerns about Jordan’s nuclear ambitions – it is hoped that the reactor, and in particular its ability to produce medically useful isotopes, will contribute to a change in attitudes.
“It will demonstrate the positive impact of nuclear technology in improving the health and well-being of humankind,” said Dr Kahook, who spent decades working in the United States as a nuclear engineer and who is also the Nuclear Fuel Cycle Commissioner for the Jordan Atomic Energy Commission.
For the JRTR, which is located in the far north of the country, Jordan partnered with a South Korean consortium, just as the UAE did for the four nuclear power plants it is building, the first of which comes online next year.
While the Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation joined forces with the Korea Electric Power Corporation, Jordan forged an agreement with the Korean Atomic Energy Research Institute and Daewoo Engineering and Construction.
Ground-breaking for the $160 million (Dh588m) JRTR took place in November 2010 and construction was completed within six years.
A sign outside the service building declares the JRTR to be “the safest research reactor in the world” and hundreds of tests took place to verify this as it was brought into service.
It will be another four to five years before the centre is operating at its highest capacity, although about 90 per cent of staff are already in place.
The reactor has a capacity of 5MWt (Megawatts thermal) and a lifespan of about forty years.
Among the activities being carried out is the production of radiopharmaceuticals such as forms of iodine and molybdenum for medical treatment and diagnostics.
Once a licence is granted by the Jordan Food and Drug Administration, operatives will work in secure areas to produce these radioisotopes by manipulating the irradiated material using hand-controlled robot arms or enormous rubber gloves fitted into clear panels on the front of chambers. Emergency showers in case of radioactive contamination are not far away.
Other safety measures include a battery back-up systems and diesel generators if there is a loss of electrical power.
An on-site treatment facility deals with the radioactive waste material generated by the JRTR and other institutions in Jordan such as hospitals and industrial plants.
According to the World Nuclear Association, Jordan will need an electricity-generation capacity of 5,000MWe (Megawatts electrical) by 2020, and 8,000 MWe by 2030. One third of this is projected to be nuclear, with the country hoping to have two 1,000MWe nuclear reactors by this time.
After many feasibility studies, agreements and other efforts that did not bear fruit, in 2013 Russian interests won a tender to build two nuclear reactors in Jordan to produce power for the national grid. Reports from earlier this year described the project as being at its “pre-investment stage” with specifications, financing and feasibility studies yet to be finalised.
“We are targeting 2025. This is the target, but there are so many variables. The public has to be convinced,” said Dr Khaled Toukan, chairman of the Jordan Atomic Energy Commission and a former Jordanian energy minister.
The nuclear power programmes of Jordan, the UAE and Iran (which has one active nuclear power plant and is building others) are part of a wider move towards nuclear in the Middle East, just as some European countries, among them Germany, phase out nuclear power. Saudi Arabia aims to award a contract for two reactors by the end of 2018, Egypt is looking to Russian interests to build facilities, while Turkey is partnering with Russia, Japan and others for its programme.
Officials see the JRTR as playing a part in this regional push, saying that the centre could train nuclear engineers not just for Jordan, but for the Middle East as a whole. Also, the radioactive isotopes produced at the JRTR could be marketed regionally.
“We’re in discussion with other countries in the region. They’re interested in us supplying them with the current isotopes we will be producing, and discussions are also underway to provide other types of radiopharmaceuticals,” said Dr Kahook.
“We’re taking baby steps to ramp up our operations and we are also working on attracting different partners for its utilisation, from industry, research and medical centres.”
How does the Jordan Research and Training Reactor work?
Unlike a conventional nuclear power plant, the JRTR does not generate electricity by boiling water to produce steam that drives turbines. However, it does share with nuclear power plants the use of nuclear fission involving uranium. With nuclear fission, neutrons (neutral sub-atomic particles without electrical charge) hit uranium atoms, causing the nuclei of these atoms to split and release more neutrons as well as energy (which in a conventional nuclear power plant is harnessed to boil water). The released neutrons hit more uranium atoms, and the process continues, albeit in a controlled way.