Going Nuclear

Even as the debate over whether Jordan needs to generate nuclear power rages on, work is forging ahead on building an entirely new energy industry to run the Kingdom’s controversial nuclear program.

For some, the answer to Jordan’s energy crisis is sitting in a glass-clad building at the end of dusty path in the grounds of the Jordan University of Science and Technology. It’s here that experts from the Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute and the Daewoo Group are building Jordan’s first research and training nuclear reactor.

At a cost of $130 million, the five-megawatt reactor is a version of Korea’s 30-megawatt Hanaro reactor with new developed features. It’s also one component of Jordan’s ambitious nuclear program, along with human resource development and the controversial nuclear power plant itself. The three ingredients combined will form the basis of a completely new energy sector for Jordan, which has been weighed down during the last few years by a staggering energy crisis.

Nuclear 101

Well-educated and skilled workers form the base for any robust industry. For nuclear in particular, a well-trained workforce is vital, but add local to the formula and you can guarantee a strong foundation.

“The nuclear power program consists of three projects, the most important part is human resource development,” said Khaled Toukan, chairman of the Jordan Atomic Energy Commission. Of the 61 Jordanian students who were on scholarships to study and train on nuclear engineering in countries like South Korea, Russia, China, and France, 14 have already returned home and a further 19 are expected back by the end of the year, Toukan said.

Khaled Toukan, Chairman of the Jordan Atomic Energy Commission

Khaled Toukan, Chairman of the Jordan Atomic Energy Commission

Some of them completed their masters degree in nuclear energy and nuclear engineering, while others were specifically dispatched to train on operating and maintaining the reactor itself. Thirty more students will be dispatched in the near future.

Nuclear educational programs in Jordanian universities started in 2007 with the creation of a BSc program in nuclear engineering at the Jordan University of Science and Technology, and an M.Sc. program in nuclear physics at the University of Jordan. Other programs include a medical physics one at the University of Jordan, and another in nuclear physics at the Balqa Applied University.

According to Khalifeh AbuSaleem, a PHD holder in experimental nuclear physics from Illinois Institute of Technology who will head the research reactor, more programs are in the pipeline to further fortify the nuclear base. “We are planning to introduce an advanced program at the M.Sc. level in nuclear management at the University of Jordan and we have plans to establish another M.Sc. program in nuclear safety at the Jordan University of Science and Technology,” he noted.

AbuSaleem said Jordan opted to create its own home-grown manpower before having the reactor up and running. “We should depend on our scientists and engineers so they are ready to handle the national nuclear program and the planned power reactors. It is very wise to build our own capacity and to train our people in advance so that when we go for nuclear we are truly ready for that.”

He believes that young Jordanians will be more than capable of running nuclear reactors in Jordan and elsewhere in the region (by coleman) . Some have already been handpicked to work at the UAE’s fledgling nuclear energy program.

With these national and external educational programs, the country’s first generation of nuclear scientists will assume their roles at the research reactor, the nuclear power plant once it’s built, and the uranium exploration, mining, and extraction projects.

Kafa Khasawneh, 29, is one of those scientists. Between 2011 and 2013, she studied nuclear energy in Paris, specializing in Nuclear Reactor Physics and Engineering. “It’s a new field and I think it’s important for the country. If we don’t start this today, then we will start in five or even 10 years,” she said of Jordan’s nuclear program and the path she chose for herself. “I am very excited to start work. We have the capabilities to build the basis for this sector,” she told Venture.

Venture also met up with Anas Kokash, a holder of a BA degree in Electrical Engineering and an MA degree from France in nuclear research reactors, following his return from South Korea where he spent nine months on a training program. Perhaps one of the reasons behind his interest in the nuclear sector was his work at the National Electric Power Company, which he said was an eye opener to the country’s energy shortage. “I understand the reasons why we would consider such solutions, we live in a country with limited energy resources. This motivated me to look into bulk energy generation in addition to the research sector. Research and industry go hand in hand and I think we made the right choice to start work on the research facility first,” he said.

Currently most of the nuclear engineering graduates are based at the Jordan Atomic Energy Commission, though not for long. Led by AbuSaleem, the team will soon be based at the research and training reactor site where they will all spend the coming years perfecting their skills and developing their careers.

The Training Facility

According to Khasawneh, up until this date, it was difficult for graduates of scientific streams to hone their skills due to the absence of a scientific research center. To help students get their hands-on training, Jordan has commissioned the China Atomic Energy Agency to create a subcritical assembly, which is a teaching reactor at the Jordan University of Science and Technology. The$3 million reactor, which took three years to construct, has already been setup and is up and running.

But research will take a completely different turn with the intended research and training reactor, which is already half way through assembly. It should be fully functional by mid 2016, and will include a nuclear active waste treatment facility for treating low and medium nuclear waste from hospitals, medical clinics, and the reactor itself, said Toukan.

As part of the agreement with the Korean consortium, they are also expected to provide training for the local staff. “According to the contract between JAEC and KDC, the Consortium should train our employees and students in Korea in several fields related to the nuclear reactor, including operation, maintenance, utilization, quality assurance, and others,” said AbuSaleem, also associate professor at the University of Jordan for Nuclear Experiment  and Nuclear Physics. Korean experts will train around 54 Jordanian engineers, scientists, and technicians, and should be around during the warrantee period which is three years to ensure a smooth flow of the process.

Funding the small reactor was not an issue, according to AbuSaleem. Some $70 million of the research and training reactor’s cost was met in soft loan by the South Korean government for an interest of 0.2 percent, he said, adding that it will be paid back within 30 Years. The remainder of the costs, $60 million, comes from our government’s budget.

Jordan's research and training nuclear reactor

Jordan’s research and training nuclear reactor

But how safe will this reactor be? “The sign outside [of this building] says the safest reactor in the world. That’s our target,” said Jang-Kyu Choi, the Korean consortium’s site manager. Daewoo has a long history building nuclear reactors. It built three commercial nuclear power plants in South Korea, each of around 1,000 megawatts. They also offer technical support to other reactors overseas in China and Taiwan.

“The technology is almost the same for both [small research reactors and major power plants], including all the safety regulations and standards,” explained Choi, stressing the importance of applying the safest methodology to guarantee facility’s safety, whether it is located in populated areas or hosted within a university. Choi said this particular site at the Jordan University of Science and Technology was chosen as the location for the training reactor due to its particularly hard subsurface. “We drilled many places around here and we chose the safest and the hardest rock condition area,” he said.

AbuSaleem also referred to an environmental impact assessment study that was carried out by a specialized center at the university in cooperation with the Ministry of Environment before the green light was given for construction to start. To guarantee further safety and enhance training, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is also involved. “We send people to be trained under training fellowship programs by the IAEA, we are also working with them on the security and management system,” noted AbuSaleem. “They are very involved.”

The third component of Jordan’s nuclear program, and most controversial, is its nuclear power station. Although it hasn’t been built yet, the commission has made progress in the preparation process. Qusayr Amra in eastern Jordan has been selected as a site for the power station, with Russia’s Rosatom selected as the preferred bidder for its construction.

“There’s a selected site, Qusayr Amra. We have already selected a preferred bidder, Rosatom, who conformed with our requirements, and now very soon we will start a detailed site characterization and an environmental impact study,” Toukan said. The last part is expected to take two years, during which the commission will focus all their efforts on attempting to convince a skeptical public, government, and parliament of the project’s feasibility and importance.

Safety wise, Toukan said it’s a safe reactor whose reference plant has already been licensed in Russia and Bulgaria, and constructed and operated in India. “This is very important particularly for an emerging nuclear state, you cannot jump into a technology which was not licensed or built before,” said Toukan. “We don’t have the experience.”

Rosatom also ticked the right boxes by offering to cover 49.9 percent of its construction cost, as well as offer to share the risk.

As for uranium, Toukan said they were in the process of carrying out a very detailed re-exploration of central Jordan and things are looking up. With the rubberstamp of five international experts, Jordan will soon announce proven resources in Jordan for surficial uranium deposits. Toukan insisted that the quantities that we will get will be double what was reported using radiometric measurements.

As demand for energy increases by the day, Jordan is clearly pressing for a better energy mix. And it seems the political will is present to make a nuclear power plant part of that mix.

Toukan said the sector will require thousands of scientists, engineers, and technicians, as at least 1,000 will be trained to operate and run the power plant when it’s constructed. During construction, he said, 12,000 people will be on site on a daily basis, and during operation there will be 2,000 to 3,000 in the plant every day. It will also require new roads and new electricity lines.

Regardless of one’s stance on the divisive topic of nuclear energy, there’s no denying that Jordan’s energy crisis has kick-started the foundations of a nuclear sector which wasn’t there before. “We are creating a completely new industry in Jordan which never existed before. It’s difficult,” said Toukan. “We are preparing the ground for an industry that will last for decades to come; training people, building this science and technology at our universities, and we are digging for natural resources. So we are preparing the grounds for nuclear applications in Jordan.”