Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Can SMRs Rescue Jordan’s Nuclear Program?

Ask anyone in the Jordan Atomic Energy Commission (JAEC) why Jordan should invest in nuclear power, and you will be given a lecture on the need to achieve “energy security.” And, of course, the JAEC argues that nuclear power could give Jordan what it terms “energy security.”

But carry on the discussion a bit further and you will realize that there are still major obstacles to Jordan’s ambitions of building the country’s first nuclear reactor, despite advancing plans to import a Russian light-water reactor. Unlike other countries in the Middle East that are embarking on nuclear projects or entertaining the idea, such as the UAE and Saudi Arabia, Jordan’s financial constraints are quite severe. An investment of the order of $10 billion is required to build Jordan’s first reactor and this constitutes about a third of the kingdom’s GDP. Even if Jordan were to cover half of the bill, such an investment would strain the kingdom’s slim budget.

Additionally, Jordan’s electricity grid is quite small (about 3.4 gigawatts) and the integration of a large- capacity addition delivered by a large reactor would pose serious technical challenges. The response of JAEC officials to this challenge is the claim that by 2020 and beyond, when they expect Jordan’s first reactor to start generating electricity, the size of the grid will be larger and that existing grid connections with neighboring regions in Egypt, Syria and Palestine would suffice to deal with the impact of shutting down the reactor for maintenance. Regardless of the credibility of these assertions, such a significant capacity addition to the grid would require a grid upgrade expected to cost around $500 million.

During a recent visit to Jordan, I also found many JAEC officials advocating small modular reactors (SMRs) as a solution to some of the major challenges to deploying large reactors in Jordan. Indeed, on paper SMRs could overcome some of these obstacles. Their relatively small power output offers better compatibility with the size of Jordan’s grid. More importantly, SMRs require lower initial investment than large reactors, which would help ease constraints on Jordan’s treasury. Looking at it from these vantage points, Jordan might serve as a textbook case for SMRs. It should be noted, however, that the majority of the SMR designs, including those that excite the JAEC leadership, are still in the development phase and are not really an existing option.

While the concept of SMRs may be appealing to Jordan, they would not be the silver bullet that would solve the country’s energy problems overnight, and several challenges to their development remain. Proponents claim that SMRs hold the solution to the four major problems of nuclear power: cost, safety, waste and proliferation. A recent Princeton University study by M.V. Ramana and Zia Mian challenging that claim pointed out that current SMRs concepts are, at best, designed to deal with one or two of the major issues at the expense of other issues. For example, the “price” for accruing the safety benefits that come with lower SMR power levels is the loss of economies of scale. There is a reason why existing power reactors are much larger than their early prototypes: smaller reactors are typically more expensive on a per unit cost basis. This means that on a per kilowatt basis, SMRs are more expensive to build and run than large reactors.

But the question of whether SMRs are a wise choice for Jordan begs a far larger question — namely whether Jordan, as a newcomer to the field, is ready to acquire nuclear power. Most importantly, there are serious questions about the competence and authority of the nuclear regulator, particularly given the recent merger of the Jordan Nuclear Regulatory Commission with the Electricity Regulatory Commission and the Natural Resources Authority, over which the International Atomic Energy Agency has expressed concern. Beyond that, though, there are other questions about Jordan’s internal political dynamics and how they are affecting the nascent nuclear program. For example, take the choice of a site for Jordan’s first nuclear reactor. After a national site selection committee evaluated a number of sites against IAEA criteria and chose a site near Al-Aqaba, the JAEC switched to another site in Al-Samra, which initially had been ruled out.

This is not the only example of interference by the JAEC with the regulatory and monitoring activities of Jordan’s nuclear regulator — such intrusion led to the sacking of the former head of JNRC and the resignation of his deputy. These developments do not point to a promising start for Jordan’s nuclear program or a solid base for importing reactors, whether SMRs or large reactors.

This article was published in Nuclear Intelligence Weekly on 27 June 2014

Thursday, 22 May 2014

Uranium enrichment and the dilemma of Iran's practical needs

I think no one was really surprised to learn that the diverging opinions between Iran and the P5+1 on the issue of practical needs for uranium enrichment has the potential of being a showstopper. Indeed, Iran's enrichment plans have always been a serious concern and a source of fear for those wishing for a deal. What is required by the P5+1 is known but what is not known is how far the Iranians are willing to go to save the negotiations. Of course, there is a room for political imagination here and there and face-saving actions on both sides but how will the gap between what the P5+1 is willing to accept and what Iran claims to be its practical needs be bridged?

The main two issues are the quantity and quality of centrifuges and the stockpile of enriched uranium. These two parameters, together would, to the first order, determine the breakout time Iran needs to develop a nuclear weapon if it chooses to.  Analysts suggest that a timeline between six and twelve months could be achieved by limiting the number of centrifuges to between 2000 and 6000 first-generation IR-1 Iranian centrifuges (or significantly lower numbers if more advanced IR-2 centrifuges are included) and reducing enriched uranium stocks, especially near the 20% level. The scale of the gap between what is perceived as acceptable by the p5+1 and what Iran's claims to be its practical needs can be easily measured if one estimates the enrichment capacity needed by Iran to fuel the Bushehr reactor only. Such a capacity would make producing HEU for weapon purposes a walk in the park.

Any given breakout time can be achieved using many different combinations of centrifuges and enriched uranium stocks as shown in the above figure. There are trade-offs between constraints on centrifuges and constraints on stocks that will enable negotiators to consider a range of possible paths but whatever numbers and combinations are chosen, lengthening the breakout timeline to between six and twelve months would require substantial reductions in current Iranian centrifuge and stockpile levels.

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

A Win-Win Solution for Iran's Arak Reactor

The Arak reactor, which has been under construction for years, is one of the key issues at the center of the ongoing negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 group on a “comprehensive solution that would ensure Iran’s nuclear programme will be exclusively peaceful.” Negotiators from the P5+1 states and Iran will meet for a third round of talks in Vienna on April 7-9.
In a new article published in the April issue of Arms Control Today, I and other colleagues at Princeton proposed options changing the fueling and operating power of the Arak reactor to make it less of a proliferation concern. The conversion steps described in the analysis are technically feasible and would not compromise Arak’s usefulness for civilian purposes. The proposed modifications provide a sound basis for resolving one of the key points of contention in the talks on Iran’s program.
The full article can be found on this link

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

A failed pursuit of morality: When a scientist writes a novel

The subject of this post is Robert Musil and his novel “The man without qualities”.  Reading a two-volume novel was always going to be a real challenge, let alone an unfinished one.  George Orwell once said “writing is an exhausting struggle, like a long bout with some painful illness”. Well, reading the man without qualities is equally painful I would say. This post is not meant to be a book review and I’m not qualified to write one in the first place. However, I can’t resist expressing my frustration with the prevailing “nothingness” and absence of any sort of plot in the endless 1700 pages. Yet, the book was certainly worth reading.

 Reading more about Musil’s background and writings, it was evident that very few literary works had the same influence as Musil’s unfinished novel on German and perhaps European modernism. The man without qualities is one of the early works that have absorbed Freudian philosophy. This was particularly apparent in defining the characters’ sexual incentives. Some passages are actually just a reflection of the deep meaning of erotica where a sexually charged scene ends with no encounters.

Another interesting aspect of Musil’s work is the implicit acknowledgment of political and social change, an integral part of the formation of modernism. This change is often characterized by the absence of a reference. Parallel ideas are left in suspension and everything seems blurry and subjective. There was really no shortage of space to layout as many philosophical twists before the reader as Musil’s imagination could produce. Surely, Musil didn’t think of a page limit and had he lived longer, the finished work could have been even more colossal.

The book in a way is a reflection of Musil’s life and the transitions he encountered. An engineer turned into an obsessed psychologist and philosopher is an unusual transformation. Yet, his scientific background has left the most impact on his unfinished novel. The relativity of ideas and values is another transformation of Einstein's theory of relativity in Musil’s mind. The man without qualities is full of observations of personalities, ideologies and society that can only be spotted by a scientifically trained observer. Perhaps Musil, the scientist, had acknowledged the turbulent human nature and that being different is normal but when normality prevails morality fails.

Friday, 13 December 2013

The Saudi proliferation question

The question of Saudi Arabia’s nuclear intentions has recently resurfaced after the BBC published a lengthy review about an alleged, implicit, agreement between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, in which, a variety of sources including Pakistani and Western government officials, concluded that the kingdom “could obtain a bomb at will”.

While one wonders if the timing of such claims has something to do with the then ongoing Iranian-P5+1 talks in Geneva, reminders of Riyadh’s proliferation intentions seem to have intensified when a possibility of deal on Iran’s nuclear program appeared on the horizon. The fact that the current negotiation in Geneva is to assure Iran as a non-nuclear weapon state should come as good news for the Saudis, so why are they angry?



Friday, 4 October 2013

Nuclear power: a reality check

The world is dancing a dangerous waltz with nuclear power, taking endless steps backwards and forwards, with the industry lurching between renaissance and recession. With progress stilted, mounting costs are dragging the industry into a dangerous quagmire. How much longer can we afford to dance around?

Nuclear power was once considered a utopian dream – a technology that would change the human landscape forever, a 'beautiful' energy source that would utilise nature's most mysterious forces, and an undeniable sign of technological and political supremacy. Yet, nearly 60 years after the world's first civilian reactor was built, nuclear power is still fighting for public acceptance. Between risk, threat and misperceptions lay many questions and uncertainties. Is nuclear power safe? Is it environmentally friendly? Is it sustainable?  Such questions have spawned a heated debate over the role of nuclear power in the global energy scene.

Unlike other energy fields, nuclear power is heavily regulated. While it takes less than a year to build a gas-fired power plant, nuclear vendors need about 5 years to prepare a sound new build proposal to submit to regulators. Following this, regulators take the same period of time, if not more, to study the proposal – and this does not include the time consumed by endless public consultations and parliamentary debates. With rapidly growing economies and environmental challenges, nuclear power is just too slow to deploy. Some may argue that, in the past – specifically the early 1960s – nuclear power plants were built from scratch within a period of 3 years. But, nowadays, the global political landscape of the 1960s has been effaced, and the reasons for accelerated nuclear builds are no longer relevant.

With the continuing drama of Fukushima running in the background, it is difficult to overcome the negative public perception of nuclear safety and acknowledge that new nuclear builds are safer than these built in the 1960's. Concepts like ‘defence in depth’ and ‘passive safety’ are now the cornerstones of any new build proposals. While the former aims to prevent severe accidents by deploying successive lines of defence throughout the plant’s systems and structures, the latter introduces safety systems that do not rely on electric power or human involvement. Such reliance initiated the events that eventually led to the Fukushima meltdown.

Radioactive waste legacy and nuclear proliferation are major concerns to governments and the public, equally. It was once thought that all of the waste produced by a nuclear power plant in a single year could be stored underneath a desk. Unfortunately, the reality is slightly less containable. In the US alone, the roughly 100 operating reactors will create 87,000 tonnes of spent fuel in their lifetime. Worldwide, more than 250,000 tonnes of spent fuel will require disposal. A conservative projection of the amount of spent fuel that will be produced by 2050 is around 1 million tonnes. Currently, research is focussed on new reactor concepts that incorporate nuclear waste as fuel. However, it is very unlikely that these new reactor concepts will be able to eliminate the problem of waste completely. Moreover, there are doubts that the potential recycling capacity of these reactors would be high enough to process all of the waste produced by conventional reactors, let alone the colossal inventory of existing waste.

Despite the public’s ambivalence, nuclear power remains a prime option in the fight against climate change and its adverse effects. Current technology does not reflect the full potential of nuclear power to offer safer, cheaper and more sustainable energy. While rapid advancements in renewable technologies continue to overcome major challenges, nuclear power suffers excessive regulations and lack of public confidence. This makes it more likely that alternative energy sources will gain a bigger share of our future energy market – a market that is expected to grow with the deployment of smart grids that could resolve fluctuations in electricity supply and demand. 

Sunday, 14 July 2013

Poetic abyss

Sylvia Plath
Recently I came across Ted Hughes' Last letter, an unpublished poem discovered 12 years after Hughes' death in 1998. The poem was too personal to be published as it deals with the controversial suicide of Sylvia Plath, Hughes' first wife. The poem itself is indeed very unsettling and exposes to a great extent the link between creativity and self-destruction, a subject of interest to me. Tragedies, as in this case, always attract my attention as I have the tendency to look at the underside of life. Reading more about Sylvia Plath, a highly admired poet in her own right, has triggered many thoughts in my mind about finding poetic inspiration through depression, unwisdom and being a victim. Admittedly, I'm not able to translate all these thoughts into words because of their complexity and the lack of my creativity. 

Young poets often shop around for a style and often align themselves to an already established school of writing at an early stage of their literary life. Ted Hughes' early poetry was influenced by Eliot and Yeats and so was Plath's. As they prove their ability of forging timeless verses and their poetic personality starts to form, poets then begin the journey of looking for their own voice. This journey is often shaped by two contradicting themes: dwelling in the past and rebelling against it.  Amid the psychological havoc of finding the real self, self-destruction seems to be the way of escaping present. The first victim of this process are happy memories. The reader of Path's poem, Daddy, would form an exactly opposite picture of Plath's father whom she always admired and loved the most. Perhaps it was her anger of his early departure that left her with permanent psychological scars rather than of him.

Plath's suicide remains a mystery in terms of what motivated her to take her life and the circumstances of the then failing mariage with Ted Hughes who had been accused of being abusive towards her mainly by feminists and many of Plath's admirers. Perhaps Hughes' unfaithfulness had fuelled some of Plath's anger and intensified her insecurities but she was also the victim of her ambition to find her own poetic voice and real self. 

There's a stake in your fat black heart
And the villagers never liked you
They are dancing and stamping on you
They always knew it was you
Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I'm through.

Sylvia Plath, 1962

Thursday, 16 May 2013

Small Modular Reactors: Remaining Challenges


Small modular reactors (SMRs) are the subject of increasing interest in recognition of their potential to offer a cheaper, safer and simpler alternative to the large-scale nuclear power plants currently used. The concept of SMRs is based on small reactors that are assembled from factory-fabricated parts or "modules". Each module represents a portion of the finished plant and, in comparison to current large nuclear power plants, SMRs require much less site work to assemble the components into an operational power plant. 

The interest in SMR's technology arises from the fact that SMRs are not only cheaper to construct, run and maintain but can also be built faster than the conventional large nuclear reactors because of their simple design and modular nature. These features make SMRs very attractive to a wide range countries especially those with limited financial capabilities and small (below 10 GW) electricity grids.

Despite these clear advantages, SMRs must overcome a number of challenges before being accepted as a deployable technology in the near future. The main challenge is an institutional one. Current nuclear regulatory bodies lack the human and technical capacities to licenses SMRs, especially the designs that have no performance history or track record such as  the high temperature gas-cooled reactor concept. In addition, the industry lacks a SMR initial project that would prove the point with regards to cost, flexibility and adaptability claims. Such a project would definitely provide many answers and inspire confidence in SMRs. 

While nuclear waste is considered the main problem of the nuclear industry as a whole. SMRs could add an extra complication by being spread out in remote places, as it has been suggested as one of their potential uses. This will make the management of the waste more difficult. A given amount of highly radioactive nuclear waste is easier to manage from one site rather than multiple.  It should be  noted, however,  that fast SMRs have the potential of being able to recycle the waste to breed new fuel while generating power. This will require more R&D in fast SMRs which are less favourable, so far, than thermal (water) SMRs.  Fast SMRs should be given more funding to demonstrate their superior features particularly with regards to recycling actinides (the long-lived part of the nuclear waste) in the fuel as well as incorporating thorium which could prove to be more sustainable than the current uranium- and plutonium-based fuels. 

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Sustainable energy: redefinition



In his 1865 book, The Coal Question, William Jevons, a British economist, first raised the issue of finite coal reserves and, therefore, limited energy resources as well as the relation between economic growth and energy consumption. Today, and 150 years after Jevons' book was published, we find ourselves in the same position, questioning the availability of resources but with added environmental and ethical concerns. It is no surprise that the world's energy demand is increasing exponentially given the rapidly growing global economy. According to the World Energy Outlook report prepared by the US Energy Information Administration (EIA), the world marketed energy consumption is expected to grow by about  50% from 2007 to 2035. 

The concept of sustainability has evolved over the last few decades. It has shifted from merely representing the availability, efficient use and security of resources to a more ethical notion that considers environmental impact. Although individual countries may still put energy security at the top of their agenda, they now realise the need for a collective global effort to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases, to tackle the problem of climate change.


The consumption of energy to drive the world's economy is not environmentally harmless. Apart from renewable and nuclear energy, all other energy resources contribute, in one way or another, to climate change and air pollution. The undeniable damaging effects of the use of fossil fuel to generate power on the environment have contributed to a shift towards more environmentally friendly plans, especially in Western economies. If the world's reliance on fossil fuel continues to increase, carbon dioxide emissions due to the use of fossil fuel, which comprised about 57% of the total emissions of greenhouse gases in 2004, will increase, too. On the other hand, and according to the International Panel of Climate Change (IPCC), carbon dioxide emissions should be reduced by 50-85% by 2050 to ensure that the global average temperature does not increase more than two degrees. 


Saturday, 16 March 2013

Political change and emerging subcultures: Egypt as an example

The reason why sociologists started studying the formation, evolution and effects of subcultures in the 1960's was the fact that subcultures reflect something more than just a 'style'. Although some of these subcultures, especially the hippie-related ones, may seem ephemeral or superficial, beneath this perceived triviality lies something that is quite profound and significant.  Bearded Islamists or much-maligned hipsters are not simply diversions of mainstream society but rather an 'evolutionary' result of socio-cultural changes.


In Egypt, one might argue that the rapid emergence of many unique formations of youth subcultures is mainly driven by the transitory political scene. Rapid political transformations always send a shockwave across society and often produce a margin of time for suppressed subcultures to grow. For example, Ian Law's book, Red Racism: Racism in Communist and Post-Communist contexts, explains the formation of organised racist skinhead gangs in central and eastern Europe following the collaps of the Soviet Union. The recent Egyptian 'revolution' has induced many interesting youth subcultures which are very indicative of Egypt's future. 

I was recently watching an episode of 'Al-Bernameg', a satire show presented by Bassem Yousef, who started his career as a comedian in response to the Egyptian 'revolution'. Durring the show, Yousef introduced 'Like Jelly', a band, which by their own words, "translates aggression into a mellow sound". Like Jelly, as a representative of Egypt's new subcultures, proves that the consequences of political change on subcultures' formation are aslo evident within the  creative young Egyptians musicians, filmmakers and writers. Interestingly, the vocabulary to describe such youth subcultures has shifted from haraam (sinful), weird, offensive to creative, fashionable and nice!

Like Jelly: El-Doodah