Bassel Burgan is a Jordanian businessman and a leader of the movement to stop the Jordanian government’s plans to generate nuclear power. Jillian Schwedler, an editor of this magazine, conducted this interview with Burgan by e-mail on June 24, 2014.
What, in your view, are the important factors motivating the push for nuclear power in Jordan?
The government was convinced that it needed to start a nuclear project to profit from the expected proceeds from uranium mining. The nuclear lobby relied on speculative calculations of the size of the country’s uranium reserves in Jordan to commission international companies like the French Areva, the Australian Rio Tinto and the Chinese SinoU to start digging. All three companies withdrew from the excavation works because they did not find uranium in commercially viable quantities.
Areva was the last to depart. This French company was given an exclusive mining contract for 25 years that the government signed before finalizing the exploration or a feasibility study on the designated area, called the “fertile zone.” Before leaving, Areva announced that Jordan has 12,000 tons of uranium. But its reports neglected to specify the quality of the reserves, which seems to be so low-grade that the uranium is unusable for commercial purposes.
After all three companies had left Jordan, the Jordan Atomic Energy Commission (JAEC) insisted that the companies’ analysis of samples was incorrect, claiming that the testing had been done by radiometry rather than through laboratory chemical analysis. But, in fact, Areva had done chemical analysis.
The government then went ahead and established a Jordanian company to mine uranium on its own.
Why do you oppose these plans?
The government has not been transparent about any part of the project, and has consistently released misleading information. I personally oppose the whole project because there is indisputable evidence that nuclear power plants raise cancer rates many miles away, even in the absence of accidents. I also oppose the project because it is not a sovereign project, while other sources of energy, such as clean renewable energy and oil shale, are sovereign. It is basically a corruption project.
What is the social composition of the anti-nuclear movement?
When the movement first started in 2009-2010, it was mostly made up of environmentalists from the middle class. After meetings were held all over Jordan, however, and once the economic, political, health and environmental consequences were understood, people from all walks of life started to oppose the project. Nuclear engineers and nuclear physicists also began to join us, particularly after they were expelled from the project by its director for clashing with him over the release of misleading or false information.
An opinion poll released by the International Republican Institute in March 2014 found that Jordanians favored nuclear power as a modern technology and a source of cheap electricity. When informed about the possible health impact, however, 48 percent said they were less likely to support the idea.
What are the biggest challenges facing the movement?
We have absolutely no access to the official media to convey our perspective. Despite numerous requests, state-run TV and radio have refused to host any of our activists, even though they periodically host JAEC officials. We have repeatedly reached out to the relevant decision makers in Jordan to share our concerns, but again we have no access, while the nuclear lobby has a direct line to the cabinet and the king. The JAEC has had a budget of 8-23 million Jordanian dinars [$11–32.5 million] (depending on the year) for the last six years, so it has a lot of money to promote the project and to send MPs on all-expense-paid trips to see nuclear power plants in Europe and the United States. We do not.
How much interaction have you had with pro-nuclear officials?
The pro-nuclear officials refuse to appear with us on TV or radio or to face us at public meetings. They do not respond to the hundreds of questions we have posed to them via privately owned TV channels or news websites. That experience has taught me that the nuclear project is bound to fail.
How do your concerns about the nuclear program relate to controversies surrounding other big infrastructure projects?
Now is not the time to launch any mega-projects, at least not before legislation is passed and enforced.
Another mega-project that I strongly oppose is the “Red-Dead,” a huge canal that is promoted as a way to “save” the disappearing Dead Sea (whose headwaters were stolen by Israel in diverting the path of the Jordan River in the 1950s) and to desalinate its waters, 50 percent of which are to be sold to Israeli settlements. Jordan is then supposed to purchase water from Lake Tiberias (which is untreated) for use in northern Jordan.
The country’s water shortage can only be addressed with desalination units on the southern shores near ‘Aqaba; that water could be mixed with water being pumped from the Disi aquifer along the Saudi Arabian border. As it stands, the Disi waters have excessive levels of radioactivity.
How can Jordan meet its energy needs without recourse to nuclear power or more and more burning of fossil fuels?
Jordan can depend on a mix of energy sources. There are more than 330 days of sunshine per year. There are many spots in the country where wind speeds routinely exceed 4 meters per second. Solar and wind power could supply 50 percent of Jordan’s needs and oil shale could supply the rest. Oil shale reserves in Jordan are estimated at 40 billion barrels of crude oil; since we consume 150,000 barrels per day, the reserves are sufficient for 700 years.
Any country that wants to head toward 100 percent dependence on clean, renewable energy must have the correct infrastructure and the correct preparation for a smart grid. Maybe in 30 years’ time.