Jordan pushes forward with plan for first nuclear power station

Amid public opposition sparked by environmental concerns in the wake of Japan's post-earthquake nuclear meltdowns, Jordan is looking at bids to build a 1,100MW power plant by companies from Russia, Canada, France and Japan.

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AMMAN // Jordan is pressing ahead with plans to build its first nuclear power station, amid public opposition sparked by environmental concerns after Japan's post-earthquake nuclear plant meltdowns.

A government committee will review bids to build the 1,100-megawatt power plant handed in by a shortlist of three: Atomstroy Export of Russia, AECL of Canada and a consortium made up of the French company Areva and Japan's Mitsubishi Heavy Industries. The winning bid will be announced in December.

The country's nuclear power authority, Jordan Atomic Energy Commission, wants to start building the advanced Generation III plant, expected to generate electricity from 2019, in either Mafraq in the north or Aqaba in the south. Construction of the plant is expected to begin in 2015, said Kamal Al Araj, the deputy chairman of the atomic energy commission.

"Renewable energy cannot meet the country's growing needs. The nuclear programme is a strategic option for Jordan and we will continue with our plans. It will provide the country with a long-term solution for our growing energy needs," said Mr Al Araj.

The plant is part of Jordan's civilian nuclear programme, which seeks to meet the country's increasing demand for energy, reduce its dependence on imported oil, and provide power to desalinate water that can help reduce chronic water shortages. Jordan is one of the poorest countries in the world in terms of water resources.

Currently Jordan imports 97 per cent of its energy needs, mostly from other Arab countries, and depends on heavy fuel and diesel to generate electricity. Two years ago, Jordan's energy imports totalled US$4 billion (Dh14.7bn), equal to 25 per cent of total imports and 20 per cent of the country's GDP.

Demand for electricity is increasing by six per cent a year, energy officials said, and high oil prices and the increasing demand for electricity are pushing the country to pursue the nuclear option.

Jordan plans to construct four nuclear power stations during the next three decades and fuel the plants using local resources, after the discovery of nearly 65,000 tonnes of uranium in central Jordan two years ago.

A newly organised green movement in the country is opposing the country's nuclear ambitions. It wants the government to look into alternative methods of power generation using renewable sources such as solar energy or wind power. Several protests have been organised by different environmental groups in the past two months against the plans for nuclear power stations.

Last week, protesters in white overalls and masks lay on the ground in front of the ministry of energy and mineral resources in Amman in an attempt to draw public attention to the hazards of nuclear development.

Dureid Mahasneh, an activist in Jordan Green Peace, an environmental movement created two weeks ago, criticised the government's nuclear plans.

"The government is not putting its national priorities in order. Our first priority is to deal with the water shortage. We might as well move ahead with the Red Sea-Dead Sea project [a canal that would supply 1.4 billion cubic metres of water a year] instead of building nuclear reactors. We do not have enough water to cool them down."

Batir Wardim, a Jordanian blogger and environmental activist, wrote last month that the public needs an "honest debate" about nuclear energy in Jordan that will ultimately "abolish the whole idea of a nuclear programme".

Jordan's development of nuclear power has also drawn the ire of Israel, the country's peace partner since 1994. King Abdullah was reportedly angry at Israel when he revealed in an interview with the Wall Street Journal last year that Israel had approached South Korea and France with requests for them to refrain from selling Jordan nuclear technology. The king said Israelis "must go and mind their own business".

The United States, Jordan's key ally, has also apparently objected to Jordan's intention to enrich uranium as part of the plans to fuel its future reactors. A diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks in February revealed that the Jordanian government was "anxious to sign a Nuclear Cooperation Agreement with the United States", which is required before US companies can provide it with nuclear reactors, fuel or materials.

However, the cable said, negotiations on the agreement were "currently stalled, with the chairman of the Jordan Atomic Energy Commission objecting to assurances sought by the US that Jordan will not refine or enrich uranium in Jordan."