October 17, 2007

Turkey's rising nuclear ambitions

As Turkey pushes ahead with its nuclear energy ambitions in the face of predicted energy shortfalls and a perceived threat from Iran, critics express concerns about internal safety, security and a regional arms race.

By Dorian Jones in Istanbul for ISN Security Watch (15/10/07)

"Nuclear energy is not an option. It is a necessity. Turkey is a strong state and has to be strong in nuclear energy as well," Turkish Energy Minister Hilmi Guler told an audience of journalists in Ankara earlier this month.

The announcement to go nuclear was one of the government priorities outlined in Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's address to parliament following his election victory in July. But Turkey's nuclear aspirations raise a number of environmental, safety and security concerns.

By 2015, Turkey plans to build two nuclear power stations, with further plants expected to follow. Since the 1960s, Turkey has toyed with the idea of building nuclear stations. Successive governments have committed themselves only to be scuppered by prohibitive costs. But with the Turkish economy booming and the budget enjoying surpluses, the government is now in a strong position to realize its dream.

Enjoying record growth for the past five years, Turkey is becoming increasingly energy hungry, and there are predictions that the country could face an energy shortfall soon enough, with industry already complaining of power cuts.

Energy Minister Guler explained to the parliamentary energy commission recently that nuclear power would become an integral part of meeting that shortfall. "We are establishing Turkey's energy balance on five main pillars, which are coal, natural gas, water, renewable energy and nuclear energy."

Turkey has limited fossil fuel reserves. It produces only 50,000 barrels a day but consumes over 700,000, while its coal reserves are of poor quality.

Turkey is heavily dependent on imported oil and gas primarily from Russia and Azerbaijan. Last winter, it suffered an acute energy shortage because of a dispute between Russia and Ukraine over gas supplies. A key pipeline passes through Ukraine to Turkey. Since then, calls for an independent energy source have being growing.

Environmental questions
The Turkish government is also playing the environmental card, with Guler stressing that nuclear energy is "environment-friendly, with its carbon free emissions, and it enables continuous use due to its cheap price compared to natural gas and petroleum."

But environmentalists across the region see Turkey now as a crucial battleground. "We are now engaged in a major campaign to stop the program," Paul Horsemen, Mediterranean campaigner officer for Greenpeace, told ISN Security Watch.

Horsemen believes the Turkish nuclear program could have far-reaching consequences for the nuclear industry. "Turkey is crucial in terms of being a major entry point to developing nuclear power in this region. This is part of what the nuclear industry regards as their renascence. They are trying to prove that they have the answer to providing major sources of energy without causing greenhouse gas emissions. […] So it is crucial that we persuade the Turkish government that nuclear energy is a dirty, old technology and especially in a region which is threatened with security and conflict."

Environmentalists do have a strong hand. Turkey has experienced first hand the dangers of nuclear power. Twenty-one years ago, radioactive fallout from the Chernobyl nuclear accident spread across the Turkish Black Sea coast. For several days, inhabitants were told to stay in doors, while locally produced tea was destroyed. It remains unknown how many people died as a result, but environmentalists claim there is strong anecdotal evidence that the region now suffers from a high cancer rate because of the disaster. The Turkish state, despite repeated calls, has refused to carry out research.

Added to those concerns, the whole of Turkey is at risk of earthquakes. In 1999, two earthquakes, both close to Istanbul, killed more than 20,000 people.

But Turkish advocates of nuclear power continue to make bold claims about safety.

Speaking to ISN Security Watch, Professor Yalcin Sanyalin, former head of the country's atomic energy agency, says that today's reactors are much safer and that even during a major earthquake or in the event that a Boeing 747 would strike a reactor building, the reactor would safely shut itself down without emitting any damaging radiation.

The Iran variable
Safety concerns are not the only thing troubling Turkey's nuclear aspirations.

The announcement of the country's nuclear energy plans coincides with a deepening concern over neighboring Iran's own nuclear program.

"There exists between the two countries a certain parity - militarily, economically, socially, politically - [and] many people in Turkey and around the region believe that if or when Iran develops nuclear weapons it will tip the balance in favor of Iran," assistant professor Mustafa Kibaroglu of Bilkent, an expert on nuclear proliferation, told ISN Security Watch.

Kibaroglu argues that a change in the balance of power could have profound regional implications for Turkey's strategic interests.

"This will block Turkey's influence in the Caucasus and Central Asia […] it is essential for Turkey to establish and sustain its close links with the Turkish people and Turkic republics. Iran may be given more incentive to use it [nuclear weapons] as a tool for leverage or for political blackmail in its relationship with Turkey. In the past 300 years, Iran and Turkey have not fought a major war. This is because of the parity that has existed for so long. Therefore, if the balance is tipped in favor of Iran, the Iranian leadership may feel compelled to advance its policies, which may run counter to Turkey's interests."

Such concerns are shared within Turkey's powerful military circles.

"We have a competition with Iran; we don't want to pass regional control to Iran," retired General Armagan Kuloglu, head of Strategi, a Turkish regional think tank, told ISN Security Watch.

Kuloglu warned that Iran's nuclear aspirations could even pose a direct threat to Turkey, and that Turkey was obliged to "prevent this position in advance with the United States and the United Nations."

If Iran does in fact possess nuclear weapons, well, then "Turkey needs nuclear weapons also," he said.

But such a step would mark a major break in Turkish policy.

"Turkey is not a state that has ever attempted to develop weapons of mass destruction. Turkey is a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation treaty," said Kibaroglu.

Still, he said, "the government has to be extremely careful in explaining its motives to the international community. In order to make sure this capacity will only be used for peaceful purposes it will be desirable for Turkey make a self-binding declaration […] because in the 70s and 80s it was US concerns about Turkey's possible intentions which prevented Turkey from developing these capabilities. If Turkey does not make its intentions even more clear, the US and other countries will retain their concerns and there may be a backlash."

With every step Iran takes towards the possible development of nuclear weapons, Turkey's nuclear ambitions are likely to gain momentum.

Kibaroglu warns that the region could be on the verge of a regional nuclear arms race. "If another country introduces nuclear weapons into the region [there] will be a chain reaction of chain reactions. It will really render the region into a very chaotic situation."

Dorian L Jones is an Istanbul-based correspondent reporting for ISN Security Watch. He has covered events in Northern Iraq, Turkey and Cyprus. He is also a radio documentary producer.

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