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Jordan Atomic Energy Chief Provides More Details on Development Plans

The CIA Factbook on Jordan includes this description of its economic status:

Jordan is a small Arab country with insufficient supplies of water, oil, and other natural resources. Poverty, unemployment, and inflation are fundamental problems, but King ABDALLAH II, since assuming the throne in 1999, has undertaken some broad economic reforms in a long-term effort to improve living standards.

There are a few natural resources that the country has in relative abundance – phosphate and uranium. It has been exploiting the phosphate as an export commodity for many decades and is now making plans to exploit the uranium as both an indigenous fuel source and as an export commodity that will earn substantial trading revenue.

Looking deeper into the Factbook statistics on Jordan, there is immense logic in its desire to exploit its uranium as an energy source – the country currently imports 2.4 billion cubic meters of natural gas each year. Even assuming that Jordan gets a good deal from its nearby suppliers, that amount of gas costs between $120 million and $720 million (price per bcm of $50-300). My guess is that nearly all of the imported gas is consumed in power generation – there is a pretty good correlation between the amount of gas imported and the amount of electricity generated for the country.

In March 2007, Lady Barbara Thomas Judge, the head of the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA), made some comments at a CEO Middle East forum in Doha that apparently added to the impetus for Jordanian leaders to think and, more importantly, act on the idea of determining if uranium would be a feasible alternative to importing gas and oil.

On May 6, 2009, Electric Light and Power published a wire story with a translation of Nashwa al-Khalidi’s interview of the head of the Jordanian Atomic Energy Commission, Dr. Khalid Tuqan. During the interview, Dr. Tugan provided insights into the results of the uranium exploitation studies that his country, along with some international partners like Areva, have completed in the past two years. Here is an excerpt from the interview that is worth reading in its entirety if you are interested in uranium production and uranium fission power developments in the Middle East.

[Al-Khalidi] You have made statements suggesting that Jordan will be transformed from an energy importer to energy exporter by 2030. What are the prospects for achieving this target, considering that the Kingdom relies on imported energy for 94 per cent of the total energy consumption”

[Tuqan] To start with, these statements are not exaggerated, as we have facts to support prediction, which, based on sufficient and clear data, may be summed up as follows: Currently, the Kingdom generates 2,400 megawatts of electricity annually with existing power plants. In the future, the nuclear station will produce 1,000 megawatts of electricity. Producing such a quantity needs 140 tons of yellowcake annually, extracted from uranium. On the other side, our uranium production at the Al-Wasat mine will reach 2,000 tons per year. Additionally, our future plans are centred on building four nuclear stations in the coming two decades for energy production. If we add to this the uranium surplus, of which nuclear reactors consume only a small part, it becomes clear, without exaggeration, that a large quantity of surplus energy will be accrued, which, with God’s will, can transform the Kingdom into an energy exporter. Here I would like to point out that building the first reactor needs three years of preparation and five to six years of construction. According to estimates, the first nuclear station in Jordan is expected to operate during 2017-2018.

(Note: Based on the data available in the CIA Factbook on Jordan’s annual electricity production, the Dr. Tuqan was probably talking about peak electrical power when he said “2,400 megawatts of electricity annually”. The actual production figure (2007) is just over 10 billion kilowatt-hours, which translates to an average power output of about 1,140 MW.)

In addition to the Al-Wasat mine mentioned specifically above, Jordan is actively researching processes to extract uranium from phosphoric acid produced in its existing phosphate mines and is also exploring at least three other potential deposits in partnership with Rio Tinto. Dr. Tuqan indicated that Jordan has no intention of developing a complete fuel cycle; they plan to have the enrichment completed as a service outside the country. He did not mention fuel fabrication.

Jordan is working with international partners to set up training programs, licensing programs, and indigenous manufacturing facilities to produce at least some of the parts that their plants will need. This effort appears to be a matter of much thought and discussion about how to fully exploit the newly discovered mineral wealth as a means to increase overall prosperity, not as a way to enrich extraction companies. As Dr. Tuqan made clear, Jordan asserts that its uranium wealth is the property of the Jordanian state.

The choice of reactor supplier is apparently still wide open.

[Tuqan] The most likely candidate countries to build the nuclear station and provide us with nuclear reactors are South Korea, France, Canada, Russia, and the United States, and it should be noted that the nuclear energy produced is intended to cut energy production costs by 50 per cent.

If I was advising Jordan, I would encourage them to consider smaller plants than those that many countries consider to be “standard”. A 1000 MW power plant is not the most appropriate choice for a country with a total population of about 6 million people and a grid whose load probably varies between about 750 megawatts and 2,400 megawatts (average of 1,200 megawatts).

Jordanian power supply decision makers would be much better off in choosing smaller reactors (NuScale, Hyperion, Toshiba 4S, PBMR) that can provide the necessary redundancy and flexibility in grid operations. They would also enable a stepping stone approach to power development that might increase the long term success of the project.

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