On July 30th, 2015, a 5.2 earthquake shook the city of Mersin and was felt all the way to Turkey’s eastern border. Ten days earlier, a devastating wildfire in the Gulnar district caused damage to more than 60 acres. Why does this matter? Turkey is in the pursuit of acquiring its first nuclear power plant in the Gulnar district, Akkuyu, only 50 miles from Mersin.
In addition to environmental concerns, the Akkuyu Nuclear Power Plant poses broader security risks as well. Under the Build-Own-Operate model, the Russian state-owned nuclear energy corporation Rosatom will provide 100% financing, manage the reactors, and take care of the nuclear waste. The model, tailored for developing countries desiring to pursue nuclear energy fast and at a minimal financial cost, does not come with clear guidelines on shared responsibilities between the host country and Rosatom. States pursuing nuclear energy through the Build-Own-Operate model must develop their own domestic nuclear infrastructure and independent nuclear energy authorities to oversee such projects.
Turkey has pursued nuclear energy since President Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace address, falling short in the past because of economic or political obstacles. The ambitious goal of beginning electricity production by 2022 at Akkuyu reflects the current government’s assertiveness in introducing a nuclear energy program. Despite the International Atomic Energy Agency’s cautions regarding the short timeline and undeclared responsibilities between the host country and Rosatom, the Turkish government has asserted its intention to pursue this path.
While the unstable seismic conditions speak for themselves, so do security risks of a nuclear energy program without a viable independent authority for monitoring nuclear activities. In order to address security concerns and advance a domestic nuclear infrastructure, the Turkish Atomic Energy Authority – currently affiliated with the prime minister’s office – must become an independent body.
Mersin’s population has continuously expressed concerns and a remarkable 85% disapproval rate of the project, based on informed observations. Tourism and agriculture are key components of Mersin’s economy, and locals fear that the nuclear power plant will disrupt international tourism and significantly decrease agricultural investments in the region. Despite extensive energy partnerships between Russia and Turkey, locals find this particular agreement worrisome and of a political nature. Two critical questions persist among the locals: 1.) Why are we entrusting the Russians to build, operate, and own a nuclear power plant on Turkish soil? and 2.) Why aren’t we receiving this technology from our Western allies?
The Turkish government should not circumvent popular doubts about the Akkuyu project. It lies in the best interest of Turkey to demonstrate that the administration is making credible and accountable progress. The administration can showcase its will to keep the energy authority out of politics and promote a transparent discourse by separating the Turkish Atomic Energy Authority from the prime minister’s office and halting the Akkuyu NPP until a viable and transparent plan is established. Critics will argue that halting the project would cause major financial burdens and that reorganization of the Turkish Atomic Energy Authority will take years to accomplish. If this is the cost to prevent a nuclear disaster and to enable Turkish authorities to efficiently account for nuclear activities within its territory, then, let it be.
In the likelihood of suspicious or unaccountable nuclear activity at the Akkuyu NPP, the IAEA will hold the hosting country responsible, not Rosatom. Furthermore, safeguarding nuclear material in an already unstable environment will carry greater risks. Domestic turmoil, looming economic crisis due to severed Russia-Turkey relations, and the increased frequency of terrorist attacks enable a greater possibility for nuclear terrorism. Turkey lacks critical capability and infrastructure to account for nuclear activity within its own territory. An independent energy authority would thus serve as a vehicle for preserving sovereignty and maintaining a solid track record with the IAEA.
As other countries in the region, including Jordan and Egypt, have expressed their ambitions to pursue a similar model, Turkey has the potential to become a success story for others to follow in the future, if the shortcomings are acknowledged and the project is halted for reevaluation.
Interestingly, recent Russia-Turkey relations have been severely affected in nearly all aspects, with the exception of the Akkuyu NPP agreement. While moving ahead with the project asserts Turkey’s commitment to commercial nuclear collaboration, the country is not ready for the Akkuyu NPP, nor is the world ready for another Fukushima incident. Halting the Akkuyu NPP and addressing the shortcomings of domestic nuclear infrastructure by creating an independent nuclear energy authority will demonstrate the maturity and credibility of Turkey as a regional player and its commitment to the nonproliferation regime.