Jordan’s nuclear chief says kingdom keen on deal with US

Amman needs to end reliance on fossil fuel imports but is reluctant to give up rights to uranium enrichment.

Khaled Toukan, chairman of the Jordan Atomic Energy Commission, said the possibility of the kingdom's current plan for Russia to build $10 billion reactors was "70 to 75" per cent. Sam McNeil / AP Photo / June 3, 2016

AMMAN // Jordan is eager to reach a nuclear cooperation deal with the United States after a long impasse over uranium enrichment and both sides appear ready to compromise, the kingdom’s nuclear chief said.

An agreement would give Jordan access to US technology, including small modular reactors that could fit well into the country’s fledgling nuclear energy programme, said Khaled Toukan, chairman of the Jordan Atomic Energy Commission.

Talks with the United States stalled after Jordan refused to drop the right to pursue future uranium enrichment capabilities, which can have peaceful and military uses. As part of non-proliferation efforts, the US insisted that Jordan forgo that right, as the UAE previously did in a deal with Washington in 2009.

Jordan, which has some uranium deposits, has said it should not be asked to close the door to future enrichment for peaceful purposes.

For now, the centrepiece of Jordan’s programme is a US$10 billion (36.7bn) deal with Russia for two larger reactors, to be built by 2025.

Mr Toukan acknowledged that financing was not yet decided and that Jordan was still looking for a third partner.

The probability of the two reactors being built is “70 to 75 ... it is not 90 per cent,”” he said.

He said some large firms approached by Jordan had expressed interest and he believed the problem could be solved.

Even if the Russia deal fell through, “we will still pursue nuclear, but maybe not the big reactor, maybe we will have these small modular reactors”, he said.

In any scenario, an agreement with the United States could be key.

“It is important for us to have the US on board,” Mr Toukan said. “Even if we build the Russian reactors, you might have small modular reactors for water desalination in the future.”

Jordan launched its nuclear programme almost a decade ago to address the country’s worsening energy woes. Jordan has to import fossil fuels for 98 per cent of its electricity generation. With demand contantly rising, the country is buckling under growing debt from energy imports.

Jordan needs a mix of alternatives, including nuclear energy, Mr Toukan said.

Domestic critics say Jordan rushed into a risky programme it cannot afford at the expense of developing solar and wind energy and that Mr Toukan’s commission lacks transparency and oversight.

Mr Toukan ignored warnings by experts voicing safety concerns, said Saed Dababneh, a former vice chairman of Jordan’s nuclear regulatory commission. “There is now, in my view, only one way ... to prove that our concerns are justified, that is for a disaster to happen,” Mr Dababneh said.

Chen Kane, a US-based expert, said nuclear energy might not be the right fit. “I think nuclear energy is a way too expensive, risky and unpredictable option” for Jordan, said Mr Kane, director of the Middle East programme at the James Martin Centre for Nonproliferation Studies.

Mr Toukan said Jordan had submitted to stringent international oversight, including a review by a high-level international advisory group.

In its report, to be published later this month, the panel said Jordan is on a “well-planned path” to acquiring nuclear energy, including training local scientists at a domestic research reactor.

The panel said Jordan could do more to bring the public on board and should get more international experts involved. Financing of the two power reactors appears “somewhat nebulous” and the 2025 deadline for completing two reactors is “overly optimistic”, the report said.

Meanwhile, revived nuclear talks with the US could open the door to alternatives, such as the smaller reactors.

Mr Toukan suggested that there was room for compromise on the uranium enrichment issue.

“We are trying to find an intelligent way in the middle to more or less give the US assurance about non-proliferation, safeguards and so on, but at the same time not relinquishing rights under international treaties,” he said.

* Associated Press