By Taylor Luck

MAFRAQ – Sheikh Ahmed Mashagbeh has nuclear on the mind.

For the last six months, the 70-year-old tribal leader has broken from his traditional role of brokering engagements and land disputes to reading up on atomic energy and nuclear waste disposal.

Now a self-proclaimed nuclear expert, Mashagbeh has one simple message for decision makers.

“If they think they will build a nuclear reactor here, the Bani Hassan tribe will go nuclear,” Mashagbeh said.

As weeks and months have passed since the announcement of the leading site for the country’s first nuclear reactor in Balaama near Mafraq, some 40 kilometres northeast of the capital, 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 programme officials maintain is key to the Kingdom’s energy independence.

Blind ambition?

When Jordan embarked on its nuclear programme in 2007, the goal was ambitious: the construction of four reactors to produce 60 per cent of the Kingdom’s electricity needs and meet electricity demand, expected to grow 7 per cent annually over the next decade.

With the presence of at least 85,000 tonnes of mineable uranium ore in the central and southern regions, energy officials have seized on the potential of atomic energy to transform the Kingdom from an energy importer to an electricity exporter.

As Jordan’s nuclear dream comes closer to a reality, with the Jordan Atomic Energy Commission (JAEC) announcing the relocation of the site from Aqaba to Balaama last December due to lower construction costs, more citizens are turning against the programme, claiming that the Kingdom of 6.5 million people has no room for a nuclear reactor.

Environmentalist and activist Basel Burgan is one of several Jordanians spearheading efforts to unplug the nuclear programme 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.

Burgan is not alone

From a crowded office supply store in downtown Mafraq, a group of concerned citizens are launching their own crusade against the atom.

They are part of a coalition known as Irhamouna (or give us a break), a loose grouping of 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 neighbours.

“Our message is simple: We are against any nuclear reactor on Jordanian soil,” says Fayez Madarmeh, Irhamouna coordinator.

Activists’ main objection is the proximity of the planned site to residential areas, lying a few kilometres from the Balaama and Hashemiyeh towns, home to some 20,000.

With the presence of grey water produced by the nearby Khirbet Al Samra Wastewater Treatment Plant for reactor cooling, JAEC maintains that the Mafraq site became the only suitable alternative.

JAEC officials stress that the proposed site leaves a five-kilometre residential-free safety belt, well within International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) guidelines.

Residents are quick to point out that the Balaama-Hashemiyeh area is already home to several industries including the Khirbet Al Samra Wastewater Treatment Plant, the Samra Power Station and paint and steel factories.

For residents who already suffer both flies and fumes, adding a nuclear reactor to the plethora of plants and factories that border their homes would be a step too far, they say.

“Our children are already sick from fumes. Do we need radiation too?” said Mohammed Khawaldeh, a Balaama resident.

“People will build a house next to a refinery, no one will build a house next to a nuclear reactor,” said Nawwaf Khawaldeh, a Mafraq MP who also lives in Balaama.

Activists also call into question the feasibility of the cooling scheme, pointing out that the 35 million cubic metres (mcm) from Khirbet Al Samra will come in the form of grey water, which is rarely used in reactor cooling.

“It seems that everyone knows that a nuclear reactor must be near a lake or an ocean except us,” said Tareq Owaidat of the Mafraq Popular Youth Movement, part of the Irhamouna coalition.

JAEC has defended the cooling scheme, which is based on the experience in Palo Verde, Arizona, the only nuclear plant in the world not located near a body of water, where treated wastewater is currently being used to cool three 1,000-megawatt reactors.

Another point of contention is the little-discussed issue of security, with the anti-nuclear camp claiming that the presence of the Generation III reactor will place Balaama and the Greater Mafraq area on the map of every would-be terrorist and saboteur.

“They blew up the gas pipeline in Egypt; is it really that difficult for someone on a donkey to take out a pipe from Khirbet Al Samra?” Burgan remarked.

Activists, who have joined forces with Greenpeace and other environmental groups, question the overall safety of nuclear power, citing the Fukushima incident as grounds for halting nuclear energy all together.

“There are some of the older generation who can’t read or write, but they watch television and saw what happened at Fukushima and they do not want to live to see that happen in Jordan,” Madarmeh said.

Khaled Toukan, minister of energy and mineral resources and former JAEC chairman, stressed that the seismic activity of the Balaama area, which lies near the Halibat and Sarhan fault lines, is extremely low, with little chances of a tsunami rolling into the deserts of Mafraq, which lie some 400 kilometres inland.

The Bani Hassan tribe, which accounts for the majority of Mafraq residents, has a solution of their own: Place the nuclear reactor by Tuba in the arid plains of the Central Badia near the Jordanian-Saudi border, where residents are sparse and nomadic.

The tribe even has a solution for water to cool the plant: draw water from the Disi Water Conveyance Project, which is to run from the southern desert to the capital, and extend it out into the desert.

Energy officials dismiss the proposal. The 35mcm of water required to cool the plant would take a sizeable amount of the 110mcm generated by the water mega-project, they say, while the cost of transporting the water some 90 kilometres into the desert would be “astronomical”.

Environmentalists are also unsatisfied with the proposal, claiming that a move to the far eastern desert would not be far enough.

“If it is in Mafraq, we are against it, if it is in Salt, we are against it, if it is in Maan, we are against it,” said Oweidat.

“We don’t want a nuclear reactor. Period.”

Dinars and sense

Jordanian nuclear officials and the anti-atom camp are split over the potential impact of the nuclear programme on the budget and the benefits for the local economy.

JAEC quotes a $4 to $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 activists claim that according to 2011 prices a reactor would cost the Kingdom closer to $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 generate some $450 million in electricity sales in a year, a number that is to reach $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 programme as an example, where even Dubai’s nuclear regulatory commission has been imported from abroad.

Energy officials stress that the vast majority of staff, some 70-95 per cent, will in fact be Jordanian nationals, a number they believe will only increase as the programme takes off.

“This plant will be run and staffed by Jordanians. This is something we have prioritised from the start,” Toukan said.

At its peak, the reactor’s construction will lead to the creation of some 5,448 indirect jobs in addition to an estimated 2,205 direct employment opportunities, with officials claiming that according to current labour market growth projections, the reactor will have the ability to reduce Jordan’s unemployment by nearly 1 per cent.

Activists contend that local residents lack the education and expertise to take advantage of job opportunities at the future nuclear power plant.

“We have doctors, lawyers, electric engineers,” said Ahmed Mashagbeh.

“We don’t have nuclear engineers in Mafraq.”


Environmentalists claim that the focus on the Kingdom’s nuclear programme has come at the expense of the development 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,” Irhamouna activist Fares Shdeifat said.

Ahmed Shaqran, Irbid lawmaker and Lower House Environment Committee member, alleged that the ministry is overlooking renewable energy in its “blind pursuit” of atomic energy.

“We have such abundant resources in wind and sun, we have to ask ourselves: What if we spend $5 billion on solar energy instead?” Shaqran said.

The ministry highlights the immaturity of renewable energy technology, which cannot be base-loaded, is limited in size and capital intensive, as reasons why solar and wind are not the immediate solution to the country’s energy needs.

“People talk about solar and wind, but the technology is just not there yet,” Toukan said.

Jordanian energy authorities have instead focused on a more modest goal: Renewable energy sources are to account for 10 per cent of the country’s domestic energy mix by the end of the decade and are set to proceed with the country’s first wind farm later this year.

Solar mega-projects, meanwhile, have faced delays due to legislative issues and difficulties importing solar technology, according to industry experts.

“Renewable energy will be an important part of the energy mix, but it can’t be the only solution,” Toukan said.

With Jordan on pace to commission, the country’s first reactor by 2020, activists 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 rumours and misinformation surrounding the nuclear programme, 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, 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?’”