By Laila Azzeh

AMMAN – Jordan’s nuclear programme was a hot-button issue on Tuesday, igniting heated debates between supporters and root-and-branch opponents of plans to establish a nuclear reactor in the country.

The 4th International Symposium on Nuclear Energy (ISNCE-11), which opened yesterday, provided a platform for experts, academics, NGOs and international nuclear manufacturers to exchange information and perspectives.

The main theme of the two-day gathering, organised by the Jordan Nuclear Regulatory Commission and Balqa Applied University, is to take an in-depth look on how the accident at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi reactor in March has affected atomic energy programmes worldwide.

“There is no doubt that the Fukushima Daiichi incident was a defining moment in the nuclear path… what happened is that the plant was hit by a very strong earthquake and it was not designed to [withstand] an earthquake this size,” Russell Gibbs, senior safety officer at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), said.

“We are continuing to stand with the Japanese government. The situation is now stable: The fuel was cooled and the reactors are controlled,” he noted.

Highlighting the agency’s efforts to make nuclear safety more effective, Gibbs referred to the IAEA Action Plan on Nuclear Safety, which was approved by the agency’s member states earlier this year at its 55th General Conference.

He also noted that the agency established a Regulatory Cooperation Forum (RCF) in 2010 to assist in the development of effectively independent and robust regulators of nuclear power.

The RCF is a worldwide forum in which senior regulators from countries with advanced nuclear programmes, countries with small nuclear programmes and those considering nuclear power for the first time can exchange knowledge and safety methods, according to Gibbs.

“The Fukushima Daiichi occurrence has introduced new nuclear safety measures… we are discussing this thoroughly today, despite the fact that we need two to three more years to reach the point of choosing a location for the reactor in Jordan,” JNRC Director General Jamal Sharaf said.

He underlined that any company that wishes to build the reactor will have to be transparent when approaching the commission.

“If the applicant decides to hide any information from us, we will not give him a licence,” he indicated, explaining that this stance is in line with several agreements Jordan has signed.

Responding to a question raised by Raouf Dabbas, senior adviser in the environment ministry, on the safety of building the reactor in Aqaba as has been proposed, Sharaf underlined that the commission has no role in the site selection process.

“It’s not our business to suggest if a particular site is safe or not. When someone comes to us asking to install a reactor, he should provide us with all the required studies, including the safety of the location at all levels,” he indicated.

Citing the situation in the Arab world, Abdelmajid Mahjoub, director of the Arab Atomic Energy Agency, noted that “unfortunately, Arab countries want to work alone when it comes to nuclear power and do not want to share their experience in this regard”.

Participants from the local community highlighted their fears of the anticipated establishment of a reactor in Jordan, urging authorities to reconsider renewable energy as safer alternatives.

Middle East Scientific Institute for Security Director General Sharif Nasser said the Fukushima incident has “reinforced the belief that we can never eliminate the safety risks associated with nuclear energy but can only mitigate them”.

He noted, however, that Jordan’s interest in nuclear power can be traced to several factors, including its water and energy challenges.

“A Jordanian nuclear power project that is linked to desalination would be able to effectively address all these issues and would also be one way in which we could save the Dead Sea, which is shrinking by one to two metres annually,” he stated.

Sharif Nasser indicated that the economic feasibility component also adds to the importance of Jordan’s nuclear programme for peaceful purposes.

“Estimates of uranium deposits seem to be very promising, ranking the Kingdom somewhere in the top 10 or 15 countries worldwide,” he added.

“The main challenge as I see it, as a private citizen heading an NGO, is how effectively will new entrants to the nuclear energy industry address the 3 S’s of nuclear energy: safety, security and safeguards,” Sharif Nasser noted.

26 October 2011