Global Insider: Turkey’s Nuclear Ambitions

Turkey’s civil nuclear program has recently gained momentum with a signed deal with Russia to build the country’s first nuclear power plant and talks of a possible $20 billion contract with South Korea for the construction of up to four nuclear energy reactors. In an e-mail interview, Henri Barkey, professor at Lehigh University and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, discusses Turkey’s nuclear ambitions.

WPR: What is driving Turkey’s renewed interest in nuclear energy?

Henri Barkey: There are three reasons. First, the Iran debate has highlighted how far behind Turkey is on nuclear energy, as there are no installations in Turkey. Second, this also underlines the absence of a critical set of skills for one of the world’s largest economies. Turkey is missing out on a whole lot of potential economic feedback loops that would come from a nuclear energy industry. Third, there is a real need in Turkey for energy, as well as for reducing long-term reliance on hydrocarbons and foreign sources of energy.

WPR: What regional impact might Turkey’s civil nuclear ambitions have?

Barkey: Technically, it should not matter to the proliferation debates. Turkey is unique, in that it does not need nuclear weapons because it enjoys the NATO and American nuclear umbrella that includes some 90 tactical nuclear weapons deployed in Turkey proper. A Turkish nuclear energy program would, on the other hand, help reduce dependence on imported gas and oil. But even here, one nuclear plant would not make much of a difference, given the growing Turkish economy and the corresponding increase in its energy needs.

WPR: What are the implications of Turkey’s increasing energy ties — including nuclear cooperation — with Russia?

Barkey: Russia is no longer an enemy. In fact, it has become a close friend and Turkey’s No. 2 trade partner. So it is natural that ties with Russia will expand. Where it matters for the U.S. and Europe is whether the Russians are benefiting from preferential treatment in this regard. Are they getting contracts that they would not deserve under competitive bidding processes? There is no evidence to that effect, but it is a concern for the West. Even Turks are somewhat worried about their dependence for energy on Russia. No country likes to make itself vulnerable to anyone, including a friend.

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