AKKUYU, TURKEY – The Turkish government held a groundbreaking ceremony for its first nuclear power plant in Akkuyu, a small town in the Mediterranean province of Mersin. The Turkish government has tried before to construct a nuclear power plant to alleviate its dependency on foreign imports of fossil fuels, and the nuclear power plant at Akkuyu is the first leg of a plan to introduce the nuclear production of electricity into Turkey’s energy infrastructure.
After a period of remarkable economic growth – Turkey’s GDP grew from $272 billion in 2000, peaking at $950 billion in 2013 – the country now faces challenges of meeting the energy needs of its population of 80 million and becoming energy dependent. A 2017 Jamestown Foundation report noted that Turkey only produces enough energy to satisfy for 26 percent of domestic need. In 2011, Turkey supplied 81.6 percent of its domestic energy with fossil fuels, a number that has remained mostly stagnant.
In 2007, the Turkish government began its first push in the 21st century to construct a nuclear power plant in, passing “The Law on Construction and Operation of Nuclear Power Plants and Energy Sale.” This kick started the negotiations that ultimately awarded Russia’s state-owned nuclear energy corporation, Rosatom, a contract to build a nuclear power plant in Akkuyu, a Japanese-French consortium to build another in Sinop on Turkey’s Black Sea coast, and a third, undecided company to construct a plant in the town of İğneada near the Bulgarian border. These developments have all occurred in the past decade but are the culmination of at least four failed attempts to build a nuclear power plant in the past 50 years.
In 1955, the Turkish government signed an agreement with the Eisenhower administration as part of the Atoms for Peace program to develop peaceful nuclear technology. A plant opened in May 1962 just west of Istanbul for research purposes but closed in 1977. The Turkish Electrical Association established the Department of Nuclear Power Plants in 1972 and decided in 1974 to build a nuclear power plant in Akkuyu. A French-Swiss consortium won the contract for that plant, but the project stalled and never materialized.
In 1982, negotiations began again for the third time, and the major negotiating parties – a Canadian and American firm – decided to move the planned construction from Akkuyu to Sinop. The project again stalled and came to a halt after the Turkish government walked back on its nuclear aspirations, decided that operating a nuclear power plant would be too dangerous. The fourth serious attempt occurred in 1997, when a small collective of Japanese, Canadian and American companies secured the contract to build the power plant, only to have the government decide against continuing the project in 2000.
The Akkuyu power plant is the first of the three currently planned, with four separate reactors and a total capacity of 4.8 megawatts of electricity. The Turkish government plans to have the plant fully operational in 2023. In the initial phases of the bidding process for the plant’s contract, few companies expressed interest in financing the project. After a brief time in 2008 when the Turkish government completely halted the bidding process, direct bilateral talks with Russia resulted in Rosatom winning the contract in mid-2010. Russia halted plans to construct the plant after Turkish armed forces shot down a Russian fighter jet that had strayed into Turkish airspace, threatening the survival of the project. Only after the failed July 2016 coup in Turkey di relations began to thaw and construction started up again. On December 6, 2017, the Turkish Atomic Energy Association authorized three Russian companies to begin producing and enriching radioactive material for the reactors.
The negotiations for the Sinop power plant’s contract concluded in May 2013 when a Japanese-French consortium won the bidding process. This power plant also will also consist of four separate units, each with the capacity to produce 1,120 megawatts. The Turkish government plans to have the first unit operational by 2023.
The final nuclear power plant in İğneada, whose contract the Turkish government has yet to award, faces a somewhat contentious bidding process. Several companies have expressed interest in the project, including the Japanese firm Westinghouse and the American firm General Electric. But more aggressively than anyone else in the running is the Chinese State Nuclear Power Technology Corporation, which signed an exclusive memorandum of understanding with the Turkish government on the development and use of nuclear technologies. While China has not yet won the contract, it appears to be the most likely candidate and is more assertive than its competitors. The Turkish government hasn’t announced any definitive plans for the capacity of this third power plant, but it likely will be similar to the other two plants.
While building nuclear power plants ultimately satisfies domestic energy concerns more than symbolizing broader trends in a nation’s foreign policy, one could assume that recent rifts between Turkey and western nations have been catalyzing factors in Turkey’s eastern shift. Russia, for example, has ostensibly been using nuclear technology as means of coercion against less powerful countries and as a way to increase bilateral relations in spite of western sanctions. Moscow has built nuclear power plants in nations formerly under the influence of the Soviet Union, such as Belarus, Bulgaria and Hungary, but it has also expanded beyond Eurasia to include nations like Brazil, Nigeria, Bangladesh and Vietnam.
Turkey is an interesting example, as it is a longtime NATO member with traditionally close ties to the west. When Turkish President Erdoğan met President Putin in Sochi in November, the third time Erdoğan traveled to Russia in 2017 and the sixth time they held private meetings, they announced a “deepening of ties” between the two countries. Some experts say that Putin is using the recent degradation in Turkish relations with the west to drive a wedge into the solidity of NATO. Turkey won’t be leaving the alliance any time soon, but Ankara undoubtedly sees an opportunity to strengthen ties with Russia at a time when both Erdoğan’s government is growing increasingly distrustful of the United States.
China has also been solidifying its relations with Turkey, characterized by assertive diplomatic endeavors to secure the contract to build the third nuclear power plant. In recent years, the Turkish energy minister, has made several trips to China to hold talks about energy relations, one of which included a visit to the Nuclear Engineering Research and Design Institute in Shanghai and to a nuclear power plant. This wasn’t the first instance of an improved China-Turkey relationship. China has been moving briskly around the globe, enticing developing nations with development and foreign investment. China’s big adventure now, what it has dubbed the New Silk Road, includes a 7,000-mile railway connecting Beijing to London. The final leg of the railway in Asia runs through Turkey. Arms sales have also alarmed western officials, such as China’s attempt to sell a $3.4 billion air defense missile system to Turkey that never went through. That both countries see themselves as underdogs and successors of prominent empires undoubtedly contributes to this relationship
Turkey’s push to advance its own policies of energy security has been a long time coming, especially since the country is highly dependent on foreign energy imports. Nuclear energy has always embodied modernization and development, and crossing this bridge indicates Turkey’s eagerness to join the ranks of the world’s most powerful nations.