Quietly, the Mideast Goes Nuclear

By Tom Peter

AMMAN, Jordan - While the world focuses on nuclear programs in Iran and North Korea, around the globe more than 60 nations are looking to develop nuclear power for the first time - about 10 of them in the Middle East.

Over the last two years many Middle Eastern countries have either launched or revived their nuclear program, but unlike Iran they've maintained high levels of transparency. Among them is Jordan, which has been striving to reach the front of the Arab nuclear pack, hoping that atomic energy will help carry it into the next stage of its development. Still, as more Arab nations pursue peaceful nuclear programs, there are concerns that the rush could pave the way for an arms race if Iran builds a nuclear weapon.

"We have to secure a source of energy for Jordan in order to reach our goals and elevate the standard of living for Jordanians," said Ned Xoubi, director general of Jordan Energy Resources Inc., which promotes the development of atomic energy here.

The need for an alternative power source is apparent in Jordan. It currently imports more than 95 percent of its energy. Fuel alone accounts for 25 percent of the country's total imports. Consequently, the country is acutely sensitive to price fluctuations in oil and plagued by concerns about the security of its supply line.

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Additionally, Jordan is the fourth most water-poor nation on earth and will face a major crisis if it cannot find a way to get more water. While desalination could solve many of Jordan's problems, that process requires large amounts of electricity that the country doesn't have.

But while Jordan has few natural resources, it does have uranium mines. Energy officials are still exploring the country's uranium resources, but presently it is home to an estimated 65,000 tons, enough to power the desert nation for centuries.

Despite those uranium resources, when Jordan announced its intentions to go nuclear two years ago it was starting from scratch. None of the kingdom's nearly 30 universities even had a nuclear engineering program. The Ministry of Education ordered the top science school, the Jordan University of Science and Technology (JUST), to create one.
"It was built for a purpose, as part of the Jordan nuclear program," said Khaled Mayyas, head of the engineering department at JUST. "Our job is to prepare human resources for this program, especially for the nuclear power plants and other applications."

The program will not graduate its first batch of students until 2013 and most will need to go on to masters and doctorate programs overseas to get the necessary credentials to operate a nuclear power plant. JUST also sent 15 students to the U.S. to get advanced degrees that will qualify them to teach in the nuclear engineering department.

For many of the students currently enrolled in the program, the future remains uncertain, reflecting the tenuous state of the nuclear program. While Jordan originally announced plans to have a plant operational by 2015, now most officials are reluctant to offer an estimate.

"We don't know if there's going to be a nuclear plant and nothing is actually definite. Are we going to get jobs or are we not? We could end up as physics teachers and that's kind of like tough luck after studying for five years," said Danah Azizi, a second year nuclear engineering student at JUST.

Still, Xoubi insisted that "Nuclear energy in general is a long road." Until the country is ready to break ground on a power plant, which takes an average of five years to build, he said it will be impossible for anyone to offer a precise estimate. However, he said that he has no doubt that it will happen.

Despite assurances from international nuclear officials that programs like Jordan's are peaceful, many beyond Jordan and the Middle East are keeping a close eye on Arab nuclear initiatives.

While it's highly unlikely that Jordan would ever pursue the development of a nuclear weapon, David Schenker said it is possible that nations like Egypt and Saudi Arabia may feel pressured to create one if Iran were to develop a nuclear device. While having a civilian nuclear program does not necessarily translate to the ability to build a nuclear bomb, it could greatly expedite the process.

"There is concern among some about potential proliferation risk in the long run, but overall I think people are more comfortable with states having nuclear programs that are under the direct supervision of the international community," said Schenker, director of the Program on Arab Politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

For those preparing for a role in Jordan's nuclear program, concerns about the program being used to create a weapon aren't even worth mentioning.

"It would be really, seriously cool to be part of solving the crisis we're having in Jordan. We don't have water, we don't have energy and to get water we need to have energy to desalinate," Azizi said. "Nuclear engineering would offer a solution to that and it would be very neat to be a part of that solution."

Tom A. Peter covers Jordan for GlobalPost. Since becoming a journalist in 2005, he has reported from Iraq, the West Bank, Kuwait, Jordan, and other locations. Before joining GlobalPost, he spent nearly two years working for the Christian Science Monitor in their Boston headquarters.

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