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Anti-nuclear opposition growing in Jordan

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
WISE Amsterdam

Last December, the Jordan Atomic Energy Commission (JAEC) announced the relocation of the site for the construction of the countries first nuclear reactor from Aqaba to Balaama near Mafraq, some 40 kilometers northeast of the capital, due to "lower construction costs". As weeks and months have passed since the announcement the prevailing sense of surprise among local residents has gradually turned into resistance. In a country with few natural resources and a rising energy bill, opposition is now mounting towards a national nuclear program officials maintain is key to the Kingdom’s energy independence.

From a crowded office supply store in down-town Mafraq, a group of concerned citizens are launching opposition against nuclear power. They are part of a coalition known as Irhamouna (Have mercy on us or give us a break), a loose grouping of (sometimes) prominent Mafraq citizens, geologists, lawyers and youth activists who have mobilised against the planned nuclear reactor.

Although the movement is only four months old, it boasts 2,500 active members and over 10,000 followers on Facebook as it attempts to raise awareness on the potential pitfalls of nuclear energy by holding protests and hosting in between a series of door-to-door information sessions with friends and neighbors.

On August 16, scores of environment activists and Mafraq residents held a sit-in in front of Mafraq Municipality to protest against the nuclear program. Some protesters dressed in yellow shirts to express their rejection of ato-mic power, while others who wore white overalls and gas masks lay down on the ground to highlight the risk of nuclear pollution on humans. The demonstra-tion, organized by Greenpeace Jordan and Irhamouna marked the growing na-tional movement against nuclear power and was the fifth anti-nuclear protest since May. It came as energy officials in Amman vet technology vendors for the country’s first nuclear reactor. “We sent a peaceful message today to the Prime Ministry, the Royal Court and the Ministry of Energy that we do not want a nuclear reactor,” Irhamouna coordina-tor and Mafraq resident Nidal Hassan told The Jordan Times in a telephone interview.

Environmentalist and activist Basel Burgan is another one of several Jor-danians spearheading efforts to unplug the nuclear program before the first reactor revs up in 2020. “When we talk about environment, when we talk about health, when we talk about cost, it just doesn’t make sense,” Burgan said.

Jordanian nuclear officials and the anti-nuclear camp are split over the potential impact of the nuclear program on the budget and the benefits for the local economy. AEC quotes a US$4 to US$5 billion price tag for the construction of a Generation III nuclear reactor, a cost that would be spread out over a seven- to eight-year period. Anti-nuclear acti-vists claim that according to 2011 pri-ces a reactor would cost the Kingdom closer to US$10 billion, nearly twice the national budget, accusing JAEC of glossing over “hidden costs” such as security, water pumping and a required upgrade of the national grid. Energy officials point to a moderate payback period with the plant expected to gene-rate some US$450 million in electricity sales in a year, a number that is to reach US$973 million if the Kingdom is to go ahead with plans to construct a second reactor within a few years of the first. The anti-nuclear camp claims that the majority of the power plant’s staff will be foreigners, pointing to the UAE nuclear program as an example, where even Dubai’s nuclear regulatory commission has been imported from abroad.

Environmentalists claim that the focus on the Kingdom’s nuclear program has come at the expense of the develop-ment of alternative energy sources such as solar and wind power. “Eighty-five per cent of Jordan is desert; we have 355 days of sunshine a year. We would be crazy not to invest in solar,” Irha-mouna activist Fares Shdeifat said. With Jordan on pace to commission, the country’s first reactor by 2020, acti-vists are drawing a line in the sand, with a host of activities and protests planned for after the holy month of Ramadan, and, they say, years to follow.

According to Toukan, the ministry is set to launch its own information campaign later this year to dispel rumors and misinformation surrounding the nuclear program, with a series of awareness sessions which are to culminate with a visit by IAEA chief Yukiya Amano to Amman. 

As JAEC goes forward with selecting technologies for the reactor this fall from among Canadian, Russian and Japanese-French models (the 'winner' will be announced in November, ac-cording to the Jordan Energy Ministry), activists say energy officials can expect a less than hospitable welcome in Mafraq. “It seems the government will not give up and neither will we,” Hassan said. “Because the last thing we want is for our children to grow up and ask us ‘Why didn’t you stop this when you could?’”

Sources: Jordan Times, 1 & 17 August 2011 / Jerusalem Post, 14 August 2011