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HTRs will not help establish nuclear power in Jordan

May 10,2018 - Last updated at May 10,2018

Chairman of Jordan Atomic Energy Commission (JAEC), Khaled Toukan, has announced that the organisation is in “serious and advanced” talks with China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC) to build a 220 megawatt High Temperature Gas-Cooled Reactor (HTR) in the Kingdom. Viewed in light of earlier announcements by JAEC and its failure to realise any of its proposed plans since 2007, this pronouncement suggests that the Kingdom is downsizing its nuclear plans in a desperate bid to keep alive the possibility of building a nuclear plant in the country. But this effort is as misguided as prior ones and the best option is to stop investing any more effort, or money, into developing nuclear power.

Perhaps the most important earlier announcement worth recalling is from three years ago, when, amid much fanfare, Jordan signed an inter-governmental agreement with Russia to build two 1,000-megawatt reactors, at a total cost of $10 billion. The two reactors were “expected to be operational by 2022”. Reports suggested that Russia was to finance 50.1 per cent of the project and Jordan would find financing for the other half. But Jordan struggled to come up with its share.

Although there has been no official announcement to that effect, the project is likely dead. This is presumably why there is now talk of a smaller reactor.

The shift to smaller reactors could make the job of obtaining financing for the project easier because the total cost is lower. According to JAEC, the agreement for the HTR is expected to be worth $1 billion. The problem, though, is that it will also produce much less electricity. The reason that existing power reactors generally are much larger in terms of electricity generation capacity than their early prototypes is that small reactors are generally more expensive on a per unit basis and thus the electricity they produce is also costlier than electricity from larger reactors. 

The former factor can be deduced from the $1 billion price tag for 220 megawatts of power output. This implies a per unit cost of nearly $5,000 per kilowatt; even the most highly priced European Pressurised Reactor being constructed in Taishan in China is reported to cost only around $3,600 per kilowatt.

Now compare these to solar photovoltaic (PV) technology. The most recent solar PV project in Jordan is $150 million for 105 MW, or around $1,400 per kilowatt. PV costs are rapidly declining, and by the time any nuclear reactor can start generating electricity, solar costs will be even lower. In other words, Jordan will spend several times as much for each unit of electricity generation capacity by investing in a HTR.

That the electricity produced by HTRs will be expensive is also seen in China. Back in 2012, as China began constructing the first HTR in Shandong province, there were plans for eventually constructing further 18 units of the same type at the same site. But that is no longer the case and the promoters of the HTR now propose to construct a larger 600 MW design. 

Whether that happens or not remains to be seen, but the main motivation to switch to this larger design is “to improve project economics”. It has been reported in the trade journal Nuclear Intelligence Weekly that the cost of generating electricity at the HTR will be nearly 40 per cent higher than the corresponding cost at the modern light water reactors which China is also constructing. Fabricating the fuel for these reactors, in the shape of small spheres with multiple covering layers to prevent the escape of radioactivity, is also an expensive process and will drive up the cost of generating electricity at HTRs.

Mr Toukan has also promoted the HTR by terming it an “inherently safe reactor”. This is misleading. High temperature reactors can undergo severe accidents and release radioactive materials, primarily as a result of air or water coming into the system.

Operational experience with high temperature reactors that have been constructed in the United States and Germany have been disappointing, with reactors being prone to a variety of failures and being shut down ahead of targeted lifetimes; in turn, the shorter lifetime for such reactors will increase the cost of produced electricity.

To summarise, nuclear power remains a costly and risky solution, and a move to small reactors will not eliminate the problems with the technology. In fact, it will make them worse in some ways. The most economic way forward to address Jordan’s energy and water demands is for a larger scale expansion of renewables, especially photovoltaics, supplemented with natural gas or storage technologies to deal with their intermittency. 


Ali Ahmad is director of the Energy Policy and Security in the Middle East Programme at the Issam Fares Institute at the American University of Beirut in Lebanon. M. V. Ramana is the Simons Chair for Disarmament, Global and Human Security at the School of Public Policy and Global Affairs at the University of British Columbia in Canada and author of “The Power of Promise: Examining Nuclear Energy in India” (Penguin Books, 2012).  The writers contributed this article to The Jordan Times

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