Azraq, Jordan – Double-trailer cargo barrels along the highway, known simply by locals as “Death Road”, a crumbling strip of asphalt connecting eastern Jordan to Saudi Arabia.
Despite its grim moniker, the road has long served as a lifeline for the desert oasis town of Azraq, whose freshwater wetlands made the Bedouin, Chechen and Druze settlements an important stop-off for caravan traders and modern trucking lines into Iraq and Saudi Arabia.
In recent weeks, however, local residents say the highway has taken on a more personal meaning for the often over-looked desert community: It is a battle line in the growing dispute over Jordan’s nuclear programme.
About 70km east of Amman and a few kilometres before the highway to the Azraq Wetlands Reserve (Jordan’s only wetlands), dozens of tribesmen, farmers and environmental activists gather at the foot of the 1,300-year-old pleasure palace of Umayyid Caliph Walid II, known as Qusayr Amra.
|Qusayr Amra has been the site of anti-nuclear meetings in Azraq [Areej Abuqudairi/Al Jazeera]|
Instead of commemorating the area’s rich historical and cultural past, they say they have come to defend its future.
For the next two hours, tribal leaders, MPs and former nuclear engineers voice their objection to the government plan to build twin nuclear reactors a few kilometres from Qusayr Amra and in the heart of the Azraq oasis.
“We absolutely reject the nuclear power project on our land,” declares Shaish Khraisheh, a former MP for the central Badia district, and leader of the Khraisheh tribe.
“This will only bring harm to the residents of this area,” he told Al Jazeera.
A group of 5,000 young men from the Bani Sakher tribe – one of the largest tribes in Jordan – formed the so-called “Bani Sakher Awakening”. The group has launched a series of civil disobedience campaigns to prevent construction crews from ever reaching Azraq.
“As Bedouin, we have always defended this country; and we will not allow any one to dig or construct anything in our land,” said Fawzi Jabbour, head of the group.
In October 2013, the government unveiled a plan to have Russia’s state-owned Atomstory Export construct two nuclear reactors in the desert oasis by 2022. The deal was hailed by Amman as an end to chronic energy woes in Jordan, which imports 97 percent of its electricity needs at a cost of nearly one-fourth the country’s GDP.
Everyone knows Jordan is facing a severe energy crisis, especially amid the political turmoil in the region.
Officials, including Prime Minister Abdullah Ensour, have prioritised nuclear power as key to securing energy independence for Jordan.
“Everyone knows Jordan is facing a severe energy crisis, especially amid the political turmoil in the region,” Chairman of the Jordan Atomic Energy Commission (JAEC) Khaled Toukan, told Al Jazeera.
During the Saddam Hussein era, Jordan relied on receiving oil for free or at subsidised prices from Iraq, until the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 toppled the former president and interrupted the deal.
For a while, a deal with Egypt filled the gap. But within weeks of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s ousting in 2011, the main pipeline supplying gas came under regular attacks, repeatedly interrupting the supply. Jordan’s national energy bill ballooned to over $5.64bn and widened the state-owned National Electric Power Company’s budget deficit to over $7bn.
The rising costs forced the Jordanian government to raise electricity rates three times in a little over a year, triggering waves of protests.
JAEC feasibility studies indicate that once operational, the reactors will provide the country with electricity at one-third the current rate, Toukan said. But energy experts and environmentalists dispute JAEC’s findings, accusing energy officials of omitting plant decommissioning, insurance, maintenance and water costs in their estimates – costs they claim could push the nuclear programme’s final price tag to over $50bn.
“In the West, dozens of countries are turning away from nuclear [power] because the end costs are so prohibitive,” Ayoub Abu Dayaa, a Jordanian energy expert and environmental activist, told Al Jazeera.
With a $2.8bn budget deficit that has forced the government to take several austerity measures over the past year, including lifting flour and fuel subsidies, activists argue that the nuclear costs are simply too much for the aid-dependent country to bear. Former energy officials have urged decision-makers to take advantage of Jordan’s untapped solar energy potential, rather than rely on atomic energy.
“We have other sources of renewable energy which we should pursue, such as solar energy, instead of jumping into quick and unsure solutions,” former Jordanian energy minister Malek Kabiriti said.
Beyond the economic costs, Azraq residents see plans for the twin nuclear reactors as an assault on their rapidly disappearing, traditional way of life. The fringes of the central Badia region are home to some of Jordan’s last remaining nomadic herdsmen, small-scale farmers and shepherds who live off the land.
Toukan told Al Jazeera that the plants will be built 25km away from the nearest residential area, and that as per International Atomic Energy Agency guidelines, local residents will be able to “live, herd and harvest” within three kilometres of the planned site. But locals are not convinced.
Who is going to buy our products once these reactors are placed on the land where we herd and grow?
“We have lived all of our lives as herdsmen and growing wheat and barley,” Khaled Jabour, a herdsman from Azraq, told Al Jazeera. “Who is going to buy our products once these reactors are placed on the land where we herd and grow?”
Local residents and farmers claim that despite plans to break ground on the power plant being over a year away, the looming shadow of the twin reactors has already harmed their businesses, forcing many to sell off their flocks of sheep and ancestral farmlands.
“No one wants to buy produce form Azraq anymore,” said Ahmed Hamad, owner of a farm about 30km west of the Qusayr Amra site. He told Al Jazeera he has suffered over $8,400 in losses since the JAEC’s announcement in late October.
“The reactors are not even built and we are known as a ‘nuclear area'”, he said.
The government says the project will provide as many as 2,000 direct jobs, in addition to indirect economic benefits, to the underprivileged community, where unemployment hovers at around 40 percent. But locals remain sceptical that they will benefit from job opportunities in the highly specialised sector.
The site for the planned reactors, meanwhile, sits directly atop the Azraq aquifer, a major source of freshwater for the Jordanian capital. Environmentalists warn that one accident may instantly poison up to one-third of the country’s water networks.
“We cannot risk the country’s limited water resources,” said Omar Shoshan, head of Jordan’s Federation for Environmental Societies (JFES) and an Azraq resident.
Ranked as the fourth water-poorest country in the world, Jordan has an annual per capita water supply of 145 cubic metres, less than 15 percent of the water poverty line, set by the United Nations at 1,000 cubic metres.
|Environmentalists say Jordan shouldn’t use its already-depleted water supply on nuclear power plants [EPA]|
Environmentalists have also called into question Amman’s plans to allocate water resources to cool the twin reactors, an operation that is expected to require as much as 500 million cubic meters (mcm) annually.
Toukan admitted that energy officials face a “tough” task in establishing the reactors, as Jordan “does not have enough sea shores and rivers”, but said Amman has a ready answer for critics who believe the arid desert cannot yield or sustain a nuclear reactor.
“Here is a successful example,” Toukan said, pointing to a photograph of the Paolo Verde Inland power plant in Arizona, the golden standard and inspiration for Jordan’s reactor. It is the only one out of 430 active nuclear reactors across the world to utilise treated wastewater, or grey water, for cooling. Initial plans call for the Jordanian reactors to use grey water; the nearby Khirbet Sara Wastewater Treatment Plant will provide up to 300 mcm of cooling for the reactors.
“If this is a technique that has barely been used in experienced nuclear countries, how can we attempt to apply it in Jordan?” Kabiriti responded.
As the debate rages, the Jordanian government has started meeting with tribal leaders in Azraq, in what opponents say is an attempt to negotiate a “back-room deal”. Activists and local residents have since moved their protests from the desert to the heart of Amman and across Jordan.
“We refuse any nuclear reactor,” Soshan said, “even if they want to build it in the southern end of Jordan.”