No, Turkey isn’t going nuclear

The issue of Turkey’s nuclear intentions has generated speculation: Is Turkey Secretly Working on Nuclear Weapons? | The National Interest

Pantelis Ikonomou, a former International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspector, writes: 

  • Does Turkey aspire for nuclear weapons?
  • Is Turkey’s ambitious civilian nuclear program the cover for a military aim?

These tough questions arise when Turkey’s nuclear energy program is viewed in the perspective of other factors. Turkey has signed bilateral agreements that in principle cover the entire nuclear fuel cycle. Those with Russia and Japan include clauses related to enrichment and reprocessing capabilities. These have raised concerns about nuclear ‘’weaponization.’’ In addition, Turkey’s is determined to achieve regional political hegemony along with its latest advances in military industry, missile development and space technology. The nuclear cooperation of Turkey with Pakistan and A. Q. Khan’s network in the 1980s adds another significant dimension.

A state like Turkey that adheres to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) would have two routes to developing nuclear weapons:

  1. “Sneak-out” by trying to carry out clandestine activities related to nuclear weapons development (as were the cases of Iraq 1991, Romania 1992, North Korea 1993, Libya 2004 and lastly Iran 2006).
  2. “Breakout” of its Safeguards Agreement (as North Korea did in 2003) by using advanced components – enrichment or reprocessing – of its civilian program for military purposes.

Both options would cause severe international responses, but more importantly neither is currently feasible.

Turkey, as a signatory of the NPT is subject since 1982 to the Safeguards inspection regime of the IAEA, whereby the ‘’correctness’’ of its State Declaration is continuously verified. Since 2001 Turkey has also accepted the Additional Protocol to its Safeguards agreement that provides for confirmation of the ‘’completeness’’ of the State Declaration. This confirmation stems from a “broader conclusion” drawn from implementation of rigorous and unrestricted monitoring and verification based on State-specific parameters, relevant satellite imagery and reliable third-party information.  The broader conclusion for Turkey has been drawn annually since 2012 and confirms the ‘‘absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities for the State as a whole.’’ Sneak-out is not a viable option.

So far as break-out is concerned, Turkey’s State Declaration to the IAEA includes only two small research reactors, one of them inactive, and one pilot fuel fabrication plant on an experimental level.

Turkey has decided for two Nuclear Power Plant (NPP) projects of four reactor units each for electricity production. One project is to be built and operate at Akkuyu and the other at Sinop.

The Akkuyu project officially started in 2007, but its progress is unusually slow. Although the agreement between Turkey and Russia’s State Atomic Energy Corporation (Rosatom) to build, operate and own (BOO) the NPP was signed in May 2010, final approval of the site license was granted in February 2017 and application for the construction license of the first reactor at Akkuyu was submitted in May 2017. Turkey has also signed a preliminary protocol with Rosatom to acquire a 49 percent stake in the Akkuyu NPP, which will further delay the pre-construction process. Turkey plans to commission the first reactor at Akkuyu at the centenary of the Turkish Republic in 2023 and the second in 2024.

The Sinop project has practically not yet started. Since May 2013, when the relevant cooperation agreement between Turkey and Japan was signed, no application for site licensing has been submitted.

The overriding fact is that there are no NPPs in operation or under construction in Turkey. Likewise, there are no nuclear materials, facilities and activities related to any dual use capability.

If Turkey’s ambition were to achieve nuclear-weapons capability through “breakout,” an advanced civilian nuclear program including enrichment and reprocessing capabilities would be the decisive prerequisite. They do not exist and are an improbable long-term hypothesis. Moreover, the “sneak-out” option of a concealed military nuclear program would be practically not achievable under continued IAEA comprehensive Safeguards measures, including country specific monitoring of the Additional Protocol.

Turkey’s nuclear armed capability shouldn’t be a real concern. It is rather an induced fear, or even a destructive phobia.

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