December 20, 2010

Travel Blog: Natural Security in Jordan

While most of you were enjoying Thanksgiving cheers with friends and family this year, I was in Jordan taking part in extraordinarily informative discussions on resource issues and climate change. The words were all spoken off the record, but this week I hope to give you a general sense of some of what I learned.

First, the basics of what drew me to forego very, very important holiday time: pay attention to all things Jordan and nuclear. This was the most-discussed topic for me personally, though others in the group focused more heavily on water and food concerns in the MENA region resulting from climate change. I think the “nuclear renaissance” is exaggerated, save for big technical breakthroughs (there are many natural checks on its advance: public opinion, adequacy of sites, funding, and on and on). But for a variety of energy and security reasons, we can expect at least a few additional countries in the MENA region to build nuclear reactors in the coming decade. Watching Jordan’s decision making processes will be informative.

This is an ever-morphing situation, but news last week was that the government was ready to accept bids to determine who will build its first nuclear reactor.  After the success in convincing the UAE not to process or enrich fuel for its reactors domestically, attention turned to what Jordan will do on that front; it claims its rights to enrich fuel domestically (which the U.S. doesn’t argue with on a technical front). Making matters particularly interesting, uranium reserves were discovered in Jordan that could be economically viable to exploit, which Areva is now lending Jordan a hand with.

As with resource-starved countries like Japan, Jordan is now witnessing debate over just how “domestic” it can make its nuclear program, assuming it moves forward. It has the uranium – why not enrich it at home, decreasing its dependence on others? If a French company is a major part of the mining process, does this even count as “domestic” in terms of the country’s independent technical capabilities? Or is that just a bumper sticker to sell the government’s decisions (something all governments are guilty of)?

The international and regional positioning and politics of Jordan moving toward nuclear (and its decisions on enrichment) have seen a few interesting quirks as well. In June, King Abdullah claimed that Israel was trying to block its ability to draw foreign investment in its nuclear sector. Last week, he also signaled an interest in a thaw in relations with Iran. These are just a few public examples of the dynamics of the debate on the region’s nuclear future. A good reminder: if this case is described a year from now as a smooth process of everyone being on the same page on enrichment questions and peaceful nuclear energy expansion, you should remember to question that characterization. These things are never simple for any country’s foreign policy decision making – nor should they be.

Watch for indicators of domestic public opinion on Jordan’s nuclear path as well. I heard a great range of concerns for the country installing nuclear reactors. The most interesting one: it presents a great big target. Others included the potential harm to fragile and unique ecosystems, and a dampening effect on much-needed tourism revenue if a plant is eventually built in Aqaba. Of course, any reliance for energy on the country’s limited water resources is concerning. A less-frequently heard concern someone spoke of was the extensive cost of retiring reactors once their working lifespan has ended – in particular, there was concern that while countries are lining up now to help invest in building and fueling Jordan’s nuclear facilities, they may not be so willing to assist with clean-up costs.

In the academic world of unconventional threats and in studies of the world’s nuclear history, we’re forced to examine how countries have made decisions on their nuclear paths: embracing nuclear energy or not; fuel cycle questions; and whether or not to pursue nuclear weapons capabilities, or how close to that threshold to get. It was quite a privilege to see one country’s decision making in-process and up close.

Of course, the best parts of these gatherings are sidebar conversations and the personal connections established. Some of my fellow conferees wrote exceptionally insightful input statements on Desertec, distributed energy networks in places like Egypt, water issues, and more. I hope in the future to be able to share some of their words with all of you, and in the meantime, I’ll post a few more of my own insights over the next few days.

Note to readers: as we're on vacation the next two weeks, we are unlikely to post natural security news. If we see any major news, though, we may post it here or on our Twitter feeds, @clparthemore and @wmrogers.