By Nermeen Murad

What is the first thing that comes to any regular person’s mind when he/she hears about the establishment of a nuclear plant? I am willing to bet that it is either the Chernobyl disaster or the Hiroshima bomb.

What about when we heard that Jordan was beginning a nuclear programme?

Some may have had dreams – or more accurately aspirations – of Jordan turning into a regional nuclear power, just like Israel next door, suddenly elevating our status from “peace-loving moderate state” to a “peace-loving moderate state with the nuclear clout to make sure everyone else stays peaceful towards us as well”.

I am not being flippant, I am speaking of perceptions and the images conjured by perceptions, which in reality, often have very little to do with the facts on the ground.

There are perceptions of Jordan’s nuclear plans that largely reflect our concerns about environment (Chernobyl), our mortality and its relationship to war and peace (Hiroshima) or the much more culturally relevant Jordanian concerns (who pays the bill, why do it at all and will it affect land prices).

So far, I have heard nothing that would ring alarm bells about the first two concerns, especially that those in the know insist that Jordan has placed the protection of the environment as a critical, determinant, criterion of selection of the company that would undertake the project, and has no intention to undertake a uranium enrichment programme at a level higher than the 4 per cent necessary for a nuclear power plant, which is nowhere near the 90 per cent uranium enrichment process necessary for the fab?ication of a nuclear weapon.

Who pays the bill?

I am told that it will be a private-public partnership that would ensure quality delivery and sustainability against a purchase promise from the government. The bill will be shared and the dividends will be shared, but being a 60-year project (the lifetime of a power plant), Jordan, guestimates indicate, stands to benefit financially in the long run.

Why do it?

I suppose the flippant answer would be because we can. Having discovered 65,000 tonnes of uranium ore in the centre of Jordan alone, with an apparent expectation of over 100,000 more from phosphate extraction and promise of even more from excavations in the north and south of the country, we can safely say that Jordan can embark on a uranium-enrichment programme for peaceful purposes.

But should everyone who can go ahead and do it?

Jordan is perhaps the case study of why a country should. Having always been surrounded by an oil glut that miraculously bypassed Jordanian boundaries, Jordan has been an importer of oil and at times had to depend on oil handouts from friendly neighbours. These handouts have had both a monetary and a political price that at many times – to put it diplomatically – cost more than Jordan could afford.

Realistically, Jordan really cannot afford any longer to continue in its dependency on the traditional sources of fuel and electricity, especially that it has the opportunity to get out of this vicious circle.

More importantly, Jordan is water poor. Had it been a peaceful country with running rivers (to which it controls the taps, therefore the Jordan and Yarmouk rivers do not count) and endless reserves of non-renewable water sources, then perhaps the nuclear plant would not have been such a priority. But Jordan can only expect to utilise rainwater, which we all know hardly exists. Therefore, the country has to depend on desalination plants, which in turn require a huge dependency on electricity and fuel.

I think we all get the picture.

Now I understand, and I believe that Jordan understands, that the establishment of nuclear power plants in the Kingdom is a decision it must take in consultation with its people, its neighbours and the superpowers of the world, such as the United States.

And since this is not a military-type programme, it may be fair to say that Jordan would go the extra mile and welcome the goodwill advice of countries which may have more experience in this field and will adhere to internationally agreed conditions for the safe implementation of this type of project.

But the sticking point appears to be that Jordan wants this advice to be borne out of respect for its self-government and entitlement to pursue new technology to provide an alternative energy source and clean water for its citizens.

Jordan and its friends must now agree not only that Jordan is part and parcel of a global vision, but that it is also a unique case and therefore has its own set of considerations.

And lest I should forget, as far as the effect of this project on land prices, the people in the know would advice not to speculate on land until the location for this proposed power plant is actually decided.