Jordan’s declaration of seeking to develop a national nuclear energy programme raised a lot of skeptic feelings. This is a natural reaction. How could a small country facing considerable poverty and unemployment challenges think of developing a costly nuclear programme which could not be at the top of its development list?
This argument is correct, and I had the same reaction while reading the news. However I wanted to do some search on the latest trends in nuclear energy and found some interesting issues to think about.
Of course Jordan does not want to develop nuclear weapons. The main objective will be to reduce the dependence of foreign oil and produce cheap and sustainable sources of electricity. There are three major obstacles here:
1- The high initial cost of establishing the nuclear facility: it is estimated that 1500 $ are required for each KW of electricity from nuclear sources. Accordingly, a 1,000 MW plant needs 1.5 billion $. This is about 25% of the national budget and 15% of GDP. There is no way we can build such a plant from our own resources.
2- Maintenance: the plant needs state-of-the-art technology and high quality staff. I do not think that Jordan has a lot of technical experience in nuclear energy and it will need extensive training. If the managers and staff will be selected based on nepotism and they are the relatives of ministers and MPs then we are bound to a nuclear catastrophy!
3- Radioactive wastes: there is no infrastructure in Jordan to treat, dispose off or recycle radioactive wastes.
Can we overcome the three obstacles?
Regarding initial cost we certainly need foreign money at least more than 50% of the plant cost. One opportunity will be to have an agreement with Saudi Arabia to build a joint nuclear plant that will serve the two countries. Another option will be to attract private sector investment but this will raise the cost of electricity tremondously for the private sector to gain profit.
The interested thing I learned about is the USA supported Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP). This is a smart way in which the americans are trying to achieve three parallel objectives
1- Responding to the global demands for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
2- Controlling proliferation of nuclear weapons in developing countries.
3- Finding markets for USA energy technologies and companies.
The GNEP process is that any developing country that wants to establish nuclear power plants will go into partnership with the USA, UK, France, Russia and China (the nuclear powers) where the “enriched uranium” fuel will be given to the developing countries and the radioactive wastes will be collected for treatmnet in a closed nuclear cycle.
Using this template developing countries will build their small scale nuclear power reactors (about 200 MWs) but will not enrich uranium (control proliferation) and use nuclear power for energy (reduce greenhouse gas emissions) and importing USA technologies while recycling wastes in a professional and environmentally friendly way.
This partnership includes providing developing countries with some financial support to convince them of using this path instead of seeking their own, uranium enriched programmes.
Of course this a highly controlled system in which the USA will supervise the movement of nuclear fuel and wastes, and control the technology market and supplies for developing countries.
In the case of Jordan this system might just work. We are friends to the USA and always seems to wipe off their dirty business in the region. We are entitled to a profit from this process and if we can develop nuclear energy for electricity this will be a clever choice.
My only concern is that nuclear energy should also be sought in parallel to solar, biomass, wind and natural gas sources. I dream of a day in 2030 where about 50% of our energy supply will be derived from nuclear, solar, wind, natural gas and maybe oilshales instead of oil.