Jordan closes in on deal with Russia to build two nuclear reactors

Jordan is close to a deal to begin building the first of two Russian-design nuclear reactors, with work expected to start in early 2017 and the reactors ready for start-up in 2024, the head of the country’s nuclear programme said.

Jordan is part of the vanguard in the Middle East of countries with plans to add nuclear to their energy mix to meet rapidly rising demand and to help improve their energy security and reduce reliance on imported fossil fuels.

Russia has already claimed a significant share of the region’s nuclear business and is poised to gain further.

Iran was the first in the region to go nuclear with its controversial Bushehr plant, which after a saga that spanned four decades was finally commissioned as a primarily Russian-implemented 1,000-megawatt reactor in 2011.

With the largest and fastest-growing electricity demand in the region, Iran has announced aspirations to increase its nuclear capacity 20-fold by 2020, starting with a deal for Russia to build two more reactors at Bushehr of 1,000MW each. The cost of those plants would be about US$11 billion, Russia’s energy minister announced last week.

The UAE is the first country in the Arab world to start a nuclear building programme – and, with Belarus, the first in the world in decades to start a nuclear programme.

Turkey is expected to begin construction of its first, Russian-designed reactor at Akkuyu next year, with a total of four planned for that site.

Other countries in the region with nuclear plans include Egypt, which signed a memorandum of understanding in February this year and is in final negotiations with Russia on terms to build its first reactor, and Saudi Arabia, which plans to add up to 17 gigawatts of nuclear by 2040 and signed a cooperation deal with Russia in June.

After a long bidding process that started in 2007, Jordan had already settled on the Russian AES 92 model for two reactors with 1,000MW capacity each, to be built at Qasr Amra, about 80 kilometres south-east of Amman, at an estimated cost of $10 billion.

Plans have now been accelerated by a year so that Jordan expects to have both 1,000MW reactors online before the end of 2025, said Khaled Toukan, the chairman of the Jordan Atomic Energy Commission (Jaec), after returning from recent talks in Russia.

“We are now conducting basic studies – on the cooling water, the electricity market, the grid — and we are into the detailed side of the environmental impact study,” said Mr Toukan, who has a nuclear engineering doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and was a former energy minister for Jordan.

“We are now in trilateral discussions and seeking strategic partners – technology providers as well as finance partners,” Mr Toukan added.

Contrary to some reports, Jordan has not yet reached agreement on an ownership structure or financing.

Jaec is in talks with China National Nuclear Corporation about a potential equity stake in the Qasr Amra development, as well as participation in the construction phase for the turbine islands and other aspects of the plant, the company said.

Additionally, Jordan is in talks with Industrial and Commercial Bank of China about non-equity financing.

“It should be made clear that these discussions are still ongoing,” said Mr Toukan. “Operation structure is not being discussed at this point with third parties but is an option for qualified ones.”

Jaec is also talking to potential partners elsewhere, including France and the UK – for example with Rolls-Royce about potentially providing cooling systems for the plant.

Mr Toukan said Jaec will go on an international “roadshow” to hold further discussions with potential partners and plans to have all of the primary deals in place “by early next year”, with building on the first of the reactors starting at the beginning of 2017.

The addition of nuclear power is crucial for Jordan, which forecasts rapid growth in electricity demand, from about 3,000MW this year to 8000MW in 2030, a similar rate as Iran and UAE from their much higher bases of about 70GWand 40GW, respectively.

Hitherto, it has imported almost all of its energy needs in the form of natural gas and oil.

Jordan has the advantage of being rich in uranium deposits and has a $140 million project in place to develop a mining and milling operation at deposit sites south of the capital, which will supply the 400 tonnes needed for the Qasr Amr reactors and rise to 1,000 tonnes thereafter with excess supply going for export.

Jordan has also held preliminary discussions with vendors of small nuclear reactors (SMRs), an emerging technology that Mr Toukan said may provide 400-500MW of additional generating capacity.

“SMRs are surely a viable option for Jordan, once demonstrated elsewhere, as they are easier in terms of finance and siting,” he said. “Preliminary discussions have taken place with SMR vendors – still, the option for installing additional 1,000MW size units is not out of the question,” he adds.

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Anthony McAuley

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