By Kamal J. Araj

The nuclear industry is facing its second-most-significant crisis ever. While the full extent of the crisis at Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station may not be known for months, the global impact will be significant.

The trigger was the 9.0-magnitude earthquake. The ensuing tsunami, recently reestimated at 14 metres, caused the real problems by wiping out the complex’s cooling infrastructure, including water intake pipes, water pumps and emergency electricity power supply units. This caused the malfunctioning of the cooling system, which ultimately led to hydrogen explosions outside the primary containment buildings.

Global reaction

Thus far, the global community has responded rationally and with a tempered view. Nevertheless, it seems probable that more than six Japanese reactors, seven German reactors and possibly several US reactors will be permanently shut down in the near-term as the nuclear community conducts safety and design-basis reviews of existing reactors. It is conceivable that about 24 reactors, or roughly five per cent of the world’s commercial reactors – mostly Generation II – could be shut down.

Safety objectives

In order to practically eliminate similar accidents, and to mitigate any possible consequences should they occur anyhow, Jordan’s nuclear programme has been initiated by the Jordan Atomic Energy Commission (JAEC) with the overall objective of strictly implementing the highest possible safety standards. In particular, JAEC decided to only consider the latest and safest technologies, taking into account all feedback from existing nuclear power plants.

With these very considerations in mind, JAEC has already stated that only state-of-the-art proven technology would be considered for nuclear builds in Jordan.

A challenging list of hazards has been defined, with regards to which each technology supplier will have to demonstrate the robustness of his design:

– All potential suppliers have been strongly asked to take into consideration the most severe earthquake on record for the site and the surrounding area, plus a sufficient margin.

– The design has to be able to remain safe and not pose any threat to the nearby populations in case other external hazards occur, such as a large commercial airplane crash.

– The capability to shut down the reactor and maintain it in a safe-shutdown condition.

– The continued operation of emergency core cooling and residual heat removal systems, hence ensuring reactor pressure vessel and fuel integrity.

– The structural integrity of the containment, the spent fuel pool and the buildings housing the important safety functions.

– The exclusion of any fire or explosion hazard inside the containment, the spent fuel pool or the buildings housing the important safety functions.

– The respect of safe radiological limits in case of any release of radioactive material to the environment.

In order to fulfil these safety objectives, it has been made clear to the potential suppliers that JAEC would not compromise on the key technological options, particularly in the conception of the cooling systems, the lifeblood of the reactor, and of the instrumentation and control system, the brain of the plant.

Finally, taking into account the vicinity of population areas in Jordan, and in addition to all the tight requirements on design to prevent any occurrence of accident, JAEC has retained the following strict objectives: for accident without core melt, no countermeasures should be required outside the site and; in the event of an unforeseen accident with core melt, that has not been practically eliminated, design provisions have to be taken so that sheltering of population shall be restricted, emergency evacuation beyond the immediate vicinity of the site should not be required, no permanent relocation should be required and no long-term restriction on water or food consumption should be required.

Critical option for Jordan

Jordan is facing several energy challenges, including growing energy demand, an increase of energy costs, lack of conventional energy resources, increasing dependency on imported fuel and scarcity of water resources.

Implementing a sustainable and safe civilian nuclear energy programme meets these important challenges.

Jordan’s energy options are so far limited, as natural gas is a short-term option and cannot be relied on for mid or long term, especially after the recent gas interruption from Egypt.

Besides reducing dependence on imported gas and oil, nuclear energy is one of the best options to diversify energy mix and enhance future energy security. Renewable energy technologies, such as wind and solar, are not in competition with, but are complementary to nuclear energy. However, they are of an intermittent nature, high cost and cannot be employed as a base load.

A nuclear power plant will not just deliver electricity, it will also provide year-round reliable energy. By choosing to invest in a nuclear power plant, Jordan would also ensure additional income and balancing loads by exporting electricity to the neighbouring countries.

With its low carbon footprint, nuclear power contributes to the global fight against climate change. As a responsible country, Jordan is keen to take into account in its energy policy.

The writer is vice chairman, Jordan Atomic Energy Commission. He contributed this article to The Jordan Times.’