Turkey is set to go nuclear. The Erdoğan government has put all the pieces in place for the beginning of the construction of Turkey’s first nuclear power plant. There is nothing wrong with Turkey’s civil nuclear ambition, except there is no need for it.
The government has a ready-made answer for why Turkey needs nuclear power – 7 percent growth in electricity demand in Turkey; inadequate conditions to develop big hydro; volatility in the global gas and oil markets, and so on.
This is all déjà vu. Countries that have developed nuclear capacities used the same arguments. This is to say, there is nothing Turkish about this logic, which begs the question: are there really no alternatives?
Turkey is at an energy crossroads, like so many other emerging economies. The choices and programs that Turkey puts in place today will shape the future of the energy structure in this country for the next half-century. The timing for a real debate about Turkey’s energy future couldn’t be more critical. The European Union, too, should pay attention and help structure the Turkish energy debate.
Producing nuclear power is extremely expensive and the commitments are long term. Typically, the life cycle of any given power plant is between 40 and 50 years. Add to this two to three years for planning, five to seven years of construction, and a lifetime of obligations in managing and properly storing the uranium waste. Furthermore, nuclear power plants are massive in terms of their output, which means there’s an inherent risk of major power shortages in the case that one plant goes offline or is damaged because of an accident or an attack. Given Turkey’s neighborhood and prickly domestic-security situation, a nuclear power plant carries additional risks, which also means additional obligations on the part of the government.
Has the government put in place sufficient controls to protect the civilian population in the case of a nuclear disaster, and is there even sufficient know-how in Turkey to run a nuclear power plant and to deal with the nuclear waste? These are critical questions to which the government has not yet provided sufficient answers.
Because of the monstrous upfront costs associated with nuclear power, pursuing it will come at the expense of alternative green energy. The government’s pockets are not deep enough to dish out both the money for nuclear power – amounting to billions of dollars – and to subsidize wind and solar parks in order to make them commercially viable.
In light of the trends in the region, going nuclear is a missed opportunity for Turkey. Iran has been on the front pages of global news, defiant in the face of increasing international pressure to end its nuclear program. The authorities in Tehran claim they need nuclear power to meet their growing domestic demand for electricity. With so much gas and oil, and the option to pursue green energy, it takes a wild imagination to buy Iran’s arguments, which are ultimately not so different from what Ankara is saying. Other countries in the Middle East, as well as Egypt, are also chasing this nuclear dream. But nuclear power isn’t sustainable, especially not at the rate at which it is projected to develop internationally. Uranium is not a renewable element and it is a commodity that has to be transported because it is not available everywhere. Hence, Turkey’s argument that by going nuclear, the country will save its energy sector from the price volatility of the oil and gas markets is false.
There is an alternative to a nuclear Turkey, which is truly sustainable and which will offer Turkey a meaningful degree of energy independence – decentralized green energy. Numerous European countries have also made this choice – Austria, Denmark and Spain for example. Going green basically means two things. Firstly, that Turkey would embrace an energy system based on renewables like wind, solar, small hydro and third-generation biomass, and secondly, that Turkey would put in place a decentralized energy production architecture where a high number of small power stations would replace big centralized units.
To make a small-scale power production system work in Turkey, the grid has to be transformed. The current two-way grid will have to be upgraded to include redundancies and loops, which basically means making it easy for electricity to travel from any point to any other point on the grid in real time. Such a system would basically ensure that energy flows from where there is abundance to where there is a shortage, without risking a grid collapse. It would also ensure that the price of electricity tracks real-time demand, which means Turkey would get a highly efficient electricity market, and because the power production units in question would be small, the risk of a massive loss of power in any area would also be reduced.
If Turkey is ready to embrace a real energy revolution, the technology is available to turn Turkey into a 21st century green-energy hub, the first among its neighbors. As such, Turkey would stand as a vivid alternative to the nuclear-obsessed elites throughout the Middle East. By setting an example, Turkey could then play a larger role in shaping the region’s debates over energy and nuclear power.
Borut Grgic, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, is the founder and chairman of the Institute for Strategic Studies in Brussels. This essay was previously published as “Turkey’s nuclear ambition clouds its real potential” in Hurriyet.