Jordan to go nuclear by 2020
Amman - Economically, Jordan is straining at the seams. Regional tensions and refugee spillover from Syria and Iraq have crunched Jordanian resources and jolted its International Monetary Fund-backed reform programme into the red.
The energy bill of cash-strapped Jordan, which lacks the oil riches of the neighbouring Gulf Arab region, is surging. It needs a way to curb its reliance on imported oil and natural gas to fuel basic necessities.
Jordan is working on a strategy to meet a rising demand on electricity by 6-8% a year through a series of projects. The country’s national energy strategy entails reducing energy imports from 97% to 60% by 2020 through projects in oil shale, renewable energy, gas and others to produce electricity.
Following repeated cuts in natural gas supply from Egypt, which Jordan relied on to produce 80% of its energy, the country expedited the implementation of several projects. Consequently, energy-poor Jordan decided to go nuclear.
It is a risky business but, if done right, Jordan will start producing milled uranium ore — yellowcake — at commercial quantities by 2020 to fuel a nuclear power plant and potentially sell to other markets, Samer Kahook, general manager of the state-owned Jordan Uranium Mining Company (JUMCO), told The Arab Weekly in an exclusive interview.
Yellowcake, also called urania, is a uranium concentrated powder obtained from leach solutions during the processing of uranium ores. Milling uranium ore into yellowcake is the first step towards enriching uranium for use in nuclear power plants.
Amman, which has completed a process and a design to extract yellowcake from Jordanian ore, is building a pilot facility in central Jordan that will produce several kilograms of yellowcake. The facility, which is about 70% complete, is expected to be operational by the end of 2015.
“This facility will help in the design of a mega facility for the commercial production of yellowcake,” Kahook said.
The bigger $140 million mega facility, which is expected to be operational by 2020, will initially produce 300-400 tonnes of yellowcake per year. The volume can be increased to 1,500 tonnes per year based on the country’s needs and global market demands.
In 2016, the company is to begin studies related to the water and power needs of the facility as well as research related to infrastructure and other issues, Kahook said. He pointed out that the pilot facility will help lead to the final design of the main factory.
The government, according to Kahook, will finance part of the facility and will soon start work on attracting a strategic partner to be involved in yellowcake production.
“We believe this is a very important project not only for Jordan but for many countries in the region,” Kahook said. “Jordan enjoys large concentrations of uranium resources and many countries in the region, including the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt, are either working on creating nuclear plants or have plans to.
“This facility will ensure security of supply of nuclear fuel for the kingdom and can meet the demand for nuclear fuel for many countries in the area.” In 2014, Jordan selected a Russian firm to build a nuclear plant with two reactors, each with a capacity of 1,000 megawatts (MW). The reactors need some 300 tonnes of yellowcake a year to be fuelled.
According to Rosatom, which will build the $10 billion nuclear plant, construction of the reactors is to start in 2017 and be completed by 2022. According to the Jordan Atomic Energy Commission strategy, about 40% of the country’s electricity needs will come from nuclear energy by 2025.
“Recently, we also reached a deal with Russia to send it the yellowcake when produced for enrichment and it will be later sent back to Jordan to be used as nuclear fuel,” Kahook said.
Legally, Jordan can enrich the yellowcake for peaceful purposes domestically but it is not feasible now, according to Kahook, and the kingdom may consider doing this if it has six to eight nuclear reactors.
“The yellowcake is a very important, stable, local and effective source of energy for the kingdom, which suffers from a serious energy crisis,” Kahook said.
Jordan imports about 97% of its energy needs annually at a cost of about 18% of gross domestic product, according to the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources.
“Jordan is rich in uranium and we will make sure to optimally utilise these resources,” Kahook emphasised. An area of Jordan about 80 kilometres south of Amman is home to 36,389 metric tonnes of uranium oxide that is easily mined and can be extracted cost-effectively, Kahook said, citing a study by his firm and international experts.
“The current uranium resource in the central area of Jordan only is enough to provide nuclear fuel for the two planned reactors for 130 years,” Kahook said.
“This is very promising”.
Kahook noted that uranium resource can be increased to 65,979 metric tonnes if mining of uranium of lesser concentrations is done.
“There are many other areas in the central and other parts of the country that are still not explored yet. When we are done with explorations in more areas, the volume of uranium resource is definitely going to increase,” he said.
Kahook said there are about 400 operational nuclear reactors across the world. By 2020, more than 70 nuclear additional reactors will start operations, which will boost demand for yellowcake. Currently, major producers of yellowcake include Kazakhstan, Australia and Canada.
“Jordan will be part of the countries producing yellowcake in the next few years. This is a strategic project for the country and we will engage in serious efforts to attract a strategic partner in this respect,” he said.