Erdogan’s Nuclear Ambitions*
By Sol W. Sandersand a comment by Dr. Pantelis Ikonomou, a Former IAEA nuclear inspector
Saturday, December 23rd, 2017 @ 11:32AM
Turkey is rapidly developing into a threat to peace and stability in the Middle East.
The regime of President [formerly Prime Minister] Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his AKP Justice and Development Party are increasingly authoritarian. Their effort to obtain nuclear power with its military offshoots would make it an imposing and new threat to the whole region.
Behind Erdogan’s efforts, of course, is nostalgia for Turkey’s once dominant role in that part of the world. The Turkish Empire at its zenith in the early 19th century stretched from the gates of Vienna to Aden to Gibraltar, incorporating most of the eastern Mediterranean. Its collapse in World War I left behind a truncated nationalist state dedicated to linguistic Turks although with considerable racial and ethnic minorities.
Today the Republic of Turkey stretches from the peninsula of Anatolia in Western Asia across the Dardanelles Straits separating the two continents with a smaller portion of the Balkan peninsula in Southeast Europe. It is bordered by eight countries. Some 80% of the country’s 80 million, identify themselves as ethnic Turks, with Kurds, altogether a 45-million ethnic minority spread throughout the region, making up another 20% of its population. Kurdish nationalists recently have agitated for autonomy against resistance in Ankara, especially in southeastern Syrian border areas where they are dominant.
Meanwhile, Erdogan announced over the summer that he had signed a deal with Russia’s State Atomic Energy Corporation [ROSATOM] to begin building three nuclear power plants. Since 2001 Ankara has refused investment in its dilapidated conventional power structures largely dependent on imported natural gas, for the country’s inadequate electricity supply.
The $20 billion deal with Moscow, in the works since 2010, involves the construction of the Akkuyu nuclear power plant — Turkey’s first-ever – theoretically to be operational in 2023. Turkey is only the latest to benefit from Russia’s ROSATOM, with Moscow’s earlier nuclear cooperation deals signed with Iran, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. This growing civilian nuclear sales program is seen not only as a Moscow play for power in the Middle East but also providing desperately-needed revenue for Russia, hurt by sanctions imposed on Moscow following its invasion of Ukraine.
With the highest rate of growing energy demand among OECD countries over the last 15 years, Turkey has long been looking to the possibility of nuclear power. Before 2015, Tehran and Moscow were Turkey’s main suppliers of fossil fuels for its conventional plants. Pressure to abide by the U.S.’s sanctions against Iran has been one of the factors which have pushed Turkey to consider nuclear energy a viable option to supplement or replace its conventional fossil-fueled industry. Ankara is looking at China as well as Russia with Beijing having ratified a nuclear agreement it reached with Turkey in 2012, a $20 billion deal for the construction of four nuclear power plants. Although there have been no sales, in 2008 Turkey also reached an ”Agreement for Peaceful Nuclear Cooperation” with the United States.
Turkey claims its budding nuclear power program is for civilian purposes only. And while it is true that Ankara’s interest in nuclear energy dates back to the 1960s, when it studied the feasibility of building a 300-400 megawatt nuclear power plant, three decades before the rise of Erdogan and his AKP party, it is clear the program has taken on new significance.
A nuclear power base could easily move on to weapons production. And given Erdogan’s pretensions to return to imperial Turkey, that could be the ultimate outcome of the power program.
* This article titled “Turkish Threat” has been posted on Yeoldecrabb, on December 10, 2017.
*Below is a comment by Dr. Pantelis Ikonomou, a Former IAEA nuclear inspector
Nuclear Turkey – Realities and Vigilance
Turkey is a Non Proliferation Treaty signatory since 1982 and is subject to IAEA Safeguards inspections. The country also accepted the Additional Protocol (AP) in 2001.
Turkey’s active nuclear program is minimal. However, there is an ambitious plan for developing an extended nuclear fuel cycle, whose start has officially been attempted five times in the last 50 years.
Today, there is no Nuclear Power Reactor (NPR) in Turkey – neither in operation nor under construction.
Plans for building and operating four NPRs at Akkuyu are remarkably delayed. The project was officially announced in 2007, followed by a relevant Agreement with Rosatom in 2010. As of now, the final construction license of the first reactor is still due.
An equivalent plan for four more NPRs at a Sinop site has not yet been put in practice. No application for site licensing has yet been placed, although the related Agreement between Turkey and Japan was signed in May 2013.
There are two small Research Reactors in the country – one of them inactive due to seismic upgrading – and additionally some minor facilities.
Obviously, there is no basis for serious concerns that Turkey would “break-out” of its Safeguards Agreement. There are neither declared nuclear fuel cycle components in the country, such as enrichment and reprocessing, nor are there significant quantities of direct-use nuclear material which could be suddenly used for a military purpose. Thus, a “break-out”, as North Korea did in 2003, is not a realistic medium-term option, let alone an imminent threat.
However, a possible “sneak-out”, namely the development of a clandestine nuclear weapons program, is a possibility that needs to be considered in direct relation to “country- specific-parameters”; these are a number of different but unique realities, such as:
- The unusual clauses in the nuclear agreements between Turkey and both Russia and Japan, the two suppliers of the planned NPRs in Akkuyu and Sinop respectively. These provisions relate to the acquisition of enrichment and reprocessing capabilities by Turkey; moreover, they have been included upon insisting of its president in person.
- The remaining questions related to Turkey’s “grey” cooperation with Pakistan during the 1980s. They refer to the “fourth customer” of A.Q. Khan – beside North Korea, Iran and Libya – and to a shipment of centrifuge parts “disappeared” in 2003 during a journey to Tripoli.
- The uncertain future of the U.S. tactical nuclear weapons deployed in southeast Turkey which further augments apprehension.
- Last but not least, Turkey’s authoritarian, highly ambitious and unpredictable political leader, as well as his geopolitical aspirations. This unique reality in connection with the social instability that characterizes Turkey and its wider region requires increased international vigilance on behalf of all the States which are directly or indirectly affected through potential nuclear developments.
The international community applies in Turkey, through the highly competent organization IAEA and its AP, a rigorous and unrestricted monitoring and verification regime based upon thoroughly identified “country-specific parameters.” This is also the case for many countries, including Iran, who have ratified or accepted the AP. The continuous goal is, to draw the “broader conclusion” on the “correctness and completeness” of the country’s State Declaration. Namely, confirm the “absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities for the State as a whole”.
The conclusion is, “stay tuned but not carried away.”
Dr. Pantelis Ikonomou
Former IAEA nuclear inspector
28 Dec 2017