IFNEC Series: Kamal Araj (Jordan)
Birth of Jordan’s Nuclear Program (0:00-9:00)
How Kamal Araj became involved with the nuclear sector and his mission to bring the technology to his home country of Jordan
Q: What is your background and how did you get involved in the nuclear sector?
A: Kamal Araj received his Bachelor’s degree in physics and nuclear engineering from the University of Michigan, interested in nuclear energy in the early days. His PhD at MIT focused on nuclear engineering with a specialty in reactor engineering and energy technology policy. Kamal’s doctorate thesis was done on global climate change. In 2000, there was a large build-up of nuclear energy but slowed down after a change in power. At this time, the capacity to build up nuclear energy was 50 gigawatts per year, a combined capacity for various manufacturers. The goal was a limit of 450 parts per million, but the temperature increased 1.5 to 2 degrees Centigrade. The model captured renewables coming up at a very rapid rate, but was still insufficient to be able to show the effects. The same conclusions predicted at that time are still valid. They saw a lot of variability in the seasonal changes, such as tornadoes and quick changes in weather that have been predicted around the globe. A realization from the study was that reactor design should be standardized. There cannot be 100 types of reactors built around the world. In order to reduce nuclear to the competitive prices it had in the beginning, massive construction programs should have a large learning curve with lots of sharing of equipment and supplies. Vendors have to work together to create business for all. The only option is for the nuclear industry to work together, in terms of construction engineering methods and best practices. After graduating from MIT, Kamal worked at Brookhaven National Laboratory on advanced reactor design, specifically high temperature gas-cooled reactors and pebble bed reactors for nuclear propulsion and other innovative applications. He then spent two years at Harvard as a visiting professor, working on severe accidents after Three Mile Island for the American Physical Society. After his time at Harvard, Kamal returned to Brookhaven, then moved to the U.S. National Academy of Sciences to conduct studies on relevant energy technologies, advanced reactors, and energy policy. He then transitioned to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) where he spent five years in the policy planning group. In 2006, he returned to Jordan, his home country, to work on starting a nuclear program. King Abdullah II was very supportive of the program and thought nuclear energy could advance the industrialization of Jordan and the capacity building for advanced technologies. Jordan has a lot of naysayers that compare the cost of natural gas with nuclear, or now the very low prices of renewables, which no one knows how to calculate.
Jordan’s Energy Portfolio (9:00-22:55)
A look at Jordan’s current energy sources and the country’s first research reactor
Q: Why is it so difficult to calculate the true cost of renewables?
A: The cost of renewable energy is difficult to calculate because it is calculated by the developer of the technology. All the costs of system connection and grid stability - and at night, the back-up power required - are all taken by the government. The technology developer only gets paid for its electricity during the day time. The developers make very good internal rate of return (IRR) and still there are 5-7 cents per kilowatt-hour of cost for interconnection. This cost should be paid by the electricity providers. All the natural gas providers must be kept on hot standby in case the sun is shadowed or the wind goes away. Jordan wants to increase renewables from 20% to 31% by 2030. Kamal Araj predicts this will cause a lot of instability in the grid and intermittency. Natural gas is cheap now, but still the prices will go up and C02 emissions need to be reduced. There are a lot of other applications for natural gas that are higher value than just burning it. Dr. Khaled Toukan is the chairman of the Jordan Atomic Energy Commission and the foremost authority on nuclear energy. He has been shepherding Jordan’s nuclear program since the 1980’s. When Kamal returned to Jordan in 2008, they established an independent commission and Kamal was appointed by the King as the Commissioner for International Cooperation. A regulator was established immediately and became an independent authority that also reported to the Prime Minister. The commission also worked on uranium exploration and research reactors. Jordan now has a 5 megawatts operating research reactor to produce isotopes and be used for research. The reactor was built as a turnkey by the South Koreans, but it is not 100% operated by Jordanians. The reactor is a cornerstone for human resource development and research and development. It was built on the campus of the Jordan University of Science and Technology where they have established a nuclear engineering program. The reactor is also open to the university researchers for things such as neutron activation and solid-state physics. It now produces radiopharmaceuticals such as iodine-131 and molybdenum-99. The licensing for the research reactor was done by the regulator, Energy and Minerals Regulatory Commission, which essentially follows the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) two-step approach. Former U.S. NRC commissioners advised the licensing and the Koreans used their regulatory body to assist as well. Jordan has abandoned the idea of large reactors for at least two decades and is now focused on small modular reactors (SMR). Jordan hopes to have a certification of design from the country of origin to apply in Jordan, but in the absence of that, Jordan would have to rely on the regulator from the country of origin. Jordan is not looking for first of a kind, only nth of a kind. The NRC requires a 10-mile evacuation zone for nuclear reactors, including SMR’s. Kamal argues that SMR’s should have zero-mile radius evacuation zones and that sheltering indoors is much safer than evacuating.
Economics of Small Modular Reactors (22:35-33:25)
Insight into which SMR’s Jordan is currently considering and how they measure up to current energy sources
Q: As you look at the landscape of technologies in the small modular reactor (SMR) approach, do you see them being able to achieve such cost reductions?
A: Kamal Araj believes there ought to be a large reduction in the cost of nuclear power. At the time nuclear came, it only cost 1-2 cents per kilowatt-hours and was cheaper than coal. Kamal does not see new SMR technology achieve the necessary cost reductions. Jordan has evaluated most of the SMR’s that will come into the market by 2030. The cheapest cost was 10 cents per kilowatt-hour, even with a very low interest rate and discount factor. It’s important to rethink the financing for nuclear power. Nuclear power should be treated as a global common because carbon dioxide is a global common problem and nuclear energy is a global common mitigation strategy. The fatal mistake may have been continually increasing the size of the nuclear reactor design. A standardized design would help achieve nuclear goals. Jordan has looked at all SMR’s globally, selecting the designs which the country thought they could make commercial by 2030. They have not looked at liquid metal reactors or molten salt reactors, as they view those current designs as higher risk. Jordan is currently interested in NuScale, GE 300, and the Chinese HTR-PM based on price and simplified design. One company, X-Energy, offered Jordan a turnkey SMR product, which would also include contracts for fuel. This is one option, but the only barrier is the purchase agreement because the price is still much higher than the renewable energy or natural gas in Jordan. In the current climate, 8-9 cents per kilowatt-hour is a good price for nuclear power that could justify the technology. There ought to be government intervention for implementing carbon taxes and making nuclear power more affordable. Jordan imports natural gas from its neighbors, but when that import gets interrupted multiple times per year, the country has to run off diesel instead of natural gas. This use of diesel was subsidized by the government instead of the cost going back to the customer. With the global climate change and the disaster that could come from that, the Middle East will become the hottest region in the world. Jordan has a lot of water shortages, which is a major constraint on the country’s nuclear thermal power because water is required for cooling. Kamal brought members of his Parliament to Palo Verde Nuclear Plant in Arizona, where treated wastewater is used in conjunction with the power plant to provide cooling.
The Reality of Climate Change in the Middle East (33:25-43:08)
Kamal’s perspective into why nuclear energy is a critical response to global climate change
Q: How do you get things through in the nuclear world if you have political opposition?
A: Most of the political opposition are propped from outside and are not really local, indigenous sources. They may visit some countries that are anti-nuclear and get a lot of information, especially about waste. Kamal Araj encourages his country that Jordan can deal with nuclear waste like every other country, following the U.S. by storing waste on-site and using it as a resource for fuel. There are a lot of misunderstandings about nuclear and a lot of it is in bad faith. The anti-nuclear lobby is very rich. Many German foundations sponsor a lot of those people to visit sites like Fukushima. Most of the fatalities at Fukushima were due to ill-though evacuations. This fear-mongering causes apprehension in the public’s eyes. Jordan had no problem with nuclear until Fukushima, which caused people to question the technology and people needed explanations for what happened. Even second generation nuclear reactors are safe enough. The total risk picture needs to be looked at, in terms of all industrial accidents across different sectors, to appropriate funding. Jordan is a long-term member of the International Framework for Nuclear Energy Cooperation (IFNEC) and hosted a small modular reactor (SMR) workshop in 2014. Still, Jordan is following this technology. It’s important to have international cooperation between newcomers and advanced countries. In IFNEC, every country has a vote and a voice. SMR designs should be down-selected to only one or two designs, which should be standardized and certified internationally. Creating enough global supply chain for this design could assist in international deployment by reducing the price to affordable and competitive with natural gas. The nuclear industry has to work cooperatively to serve an international, global problem, which is the global atmosphere and climate change.This should have higher value attached to it, as it contributes to civilization worldwide.