x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 22 November 2017

Jordan and Qatari bank in nuclear energy discussions

Jordan's nuclear programme, set to become the second in the Arab world, is gaining interest and a possible investment from a Qatari bank.

Geologists work at a uranium mining project in Jordan, home to the world's 11th-biggest uranium deposits. Salah Malkawi for The National
Geologists work at a uranium mining project in Jordan, home to the world's 11th-biggest uranium deposits. Salah Malkawi for The National

A Qatari bank is in talks with Jordan to back the Arab world's second nuclear energy programme.

Qatar Islamic Bank's UK subsidiary has held discussions with the government in Amman to help finance or even take part-ownership in Jordan's planned US$5 billion (Dh18.36bn) plant, said Khaled Toukan, the chairman of the Jordan Atomic Energy Commission.

"They were interested in becoming financiers for the government of Jordan in terms of providing money for the debt and also in terms of becoming a potential investor," said Mr Toukan, adding that the discussions were preliminary.

Bank officials in the UK and Qatar did not respond to requests for comment.

Jordan plans to select its reactor technology by the end of next month from among three consortiums - Canadian, Russian and one comprising the French, Japanese and British - with the winning bidder expected to take an equity partnership of at least 49 per cent. Construction is to start in 2014 and power generation in 2020.

In addition to the Qatari interest, Jordan has secured promises from the Russian government and French, Japanese and Canadian export credit agencies to help finance the plant if their consortiums win, which would be backed by a mixture of 30 per cent equity and 70 per cent debt, said Mr Toukan.

Jordan's progress in securing financial backing sets the stage for other developing nations to build their own nuclear reactors, which cost billions of dollars to construct but offer the long-term prospect of cheap energy with zero carbon emissions.

So far, the only Arab nation more advanced in its civil nuclear programme is the UAE, which has a $20bn programme scheduled to begin delivering power in 2017.

Jordan's selection process also hinges on safety adaptations, from a reactor's ability to withstand an aircraft crash to a core-catcher that would contain any radioactive material in the case of a meltdown.

Safety considerations, heightened after last year's Fukushima accident in Japan, are part of the justification for requiring a foreign operator to invest in the plant.

"The issue is not just in terms of helping on finance," said Mr Toukan. "The issue is we want to establish a robust culture of safety in the operation of the plant."

Jordan, home to the world's 11th-biggest uranium deposits, also harbours long-term hopes of becoming a provider of nuclear fuel to the Arab world.

With a foreign partner assisting in enrichment, Jordan could contribute to an Arab fuel bank that would mirror an existing international one, Mr Toukan proposed.

"At the end of the day, Jordan is not thinking of enriching in the near future. However 10 or 15 years down the road, we would like to have a fully sustainable supply," he said. "It will have huge economic benefits for the country and for the region in terms of sustainability of fuel independence and reliance."

These goals have led to a stand-off with the US, which had hoped Jordan would sign a nuclear cooperation agreement that would include a promise not to pursue enrichment or reprocessing.

"We will be interested in signing a standard '123 agreement' with the US. We see no reason to adopt a gold standard," said Mr Toukan.

"The issue is not just enrichment. The position is giving up any sensitive nuclear technology indefinitely, and that to us is just unacceptable. If it is a fair agreement we will be more than happy to sign it."

ayee@thenational.ae

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