Momentum for Turkey’s Nuclear Ambitions

After decades of planning, Turkey may finally see the first four reactors at the Akkuyu nuclear plant completed by 2023.

The country has had plans to establish nuclear power generation since 1970, but several attempts to develop a reactor at the Akkuyu site on the eastern Mediterranean Coast near the port of Mersin were foiled for a variety of reasons, mostly political or economic instability. Turkey suffered four military coups between 1971 and 1997. As the World Nuclear Association notes, a 1993 attempt to revive the project proceeded as far as receiving bids for a 2-GW plant from a number of international companies, but the government thereafter delayed its decision “no less than eight times between June 1998 and April 2000, when the plants were abandoned due to economic circumstances.”

In 2006, the government selected Sinop, a port city on the Black Sea, to host a nuclear plant, citing plans to have three nuclear plants operating by 2012–2015 at both Akkuyu and Sinop. Though the country will miss that deadline, that measure has put Turkey much closer to its ambitions—which are made even more urgent owing to its rapid annual increase in national electricity demand and lack of indigenous energy resources—to increase the share of nuclear power in its power profile to at least 10% by 2023.

One aspect that sets this latest initiative apart from those in other nations with nuclear ambitions is that in May 2010, the government signed a unique contract with Russian state-owned nuclear firm Rosatom to build, own, and operate (BOO) four 1,200-MW VVER-1200 third-generation reactors as a $20 billion project. “It is the first time in the history of nuclear power that this approach has been used,” explained Jong Kyun Park, director of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA’s) division of Nuclear Power and team leader of the IAEA’s nuclear infrastructure review mission that visited the country last November. “This method is very interesting because it solves two of the biggest challenges that newcomers face: financing and experienced operators.”

Rosatom has contended with a number of other formidable state-supported export ventures—and won lucrative nuclear plant contracts in newcomer countries. But the BOO contract for Akkuyu differs from Rosatom’s other approaches to support newcomers, for example, to localize onsite construction and manufacturing as it has done in China, India, and Belarus, or to provide a turnkey project, as agreed for Iran, Vietnam, and Bangladesh. The BOO model for Akkuyu will require that Rosatom train local personnel, maximize local content, support local legislation development, and cooperate in licensing and nuclear safety. The Russian firm will also ensure a lifetime supply of fuel; upgrade, maintain, and decommission Akkuyu; and ensure treatment of spent fuel and nuclear waste. The owner/investor return is reaped from selling power produced by the plant. Rosatom is expected to retain at least 51% of the project company, Akkuyu NPP JSC, though Turkish firm Park Teknik and state generation utility Elektrik Uretim AS (EUAS) will also take up significant shares. The Turkish Electricity Trade & Contract Corp. (TETAS) is expected to buy a fixed portion of Akkuyu’s power (70% from the first two units and 30% from Units 3 and 4) at a fixed price of $0.12/kWh until 2030; the remainder will be sold on the open market. After the 15-year contract expires, the project company will designate 20% of its profits to the Turkish government.

Plans for a 5-GW nuclear plant at Sinop are also under way. In May 2013, the government accepted a proposal from a consortium led by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and AREVA for four ATMEA1 reactors at a cost of $22 billion and later that year signed an official agreement for the project. The consortium replaced a 2010 deal made between EUAS and South Korea’s Korea Electric Power Corp. (KEPCO) to build four APR-1400 reactors because KEPCO insisted on receiving electricity sales guarantees from the government, rather than from TETAS. Turkey had also courted a Japanese consortium comprising Toshiba and the Tokyo Electric Power Co. for ABWR units, but the Fukushima accident eroded that option. The Sinop project lacks Akkuyu’s sovereign guarantees.

Yet several factors could stymie Turkey’s nuclear ambitions, observers note. One is that the country has an infrastructure gap, and significantly—though its economic prospects are soaring—it has a staggering account deficit of 6% to 7% of gross domestic product. Turkey’s regulatory infrastructure poses another hurdle: Both the Akkuyu and Sinop reactors need construction and operating licenses from the Turkish Atomic Energy Authority, which lacks independence and is prone to conflicting political interests posed by the prime minister’s office.

Both Rosatom’s VVER-1200 and MHI/AREVA’s ATMEA1 are first-of-their-kind designs. Four VVER-1200s, an evolutionary development of the well-proven VVER-1000 design, are being built simultaneously in Russia at Novovoronezh II (Figure 1, due to start between 2014 and 2015) and Leningrad II (between 2016 and 2018). The ATMEA1, a three-loop pressurized water reactor that uses the same steam generators as the EPR, was only approved in February 2012 by France’s nuclear regulator.

1. Serial No. 1. This September 2012 image shows construction of the first of two planned VVER-1200 reactors at the Novovoronezh II nuclear power plant, which is nearing completion and is slated to begin operations in 2014. The second unit will come online in 2015. The VVER-1200 is a first-of-its-kind third-generation reactor that has been proposed to be built at Turkey’s Akkuyu plant under a unique build, operate, and own contract. Courtesy: Rosatom.

Other aspects, many afflicting all newcomer nuclear countries, are that Turkey must develop a nuclear workforce and update existing nuclear laws.

Finally, experts contend, there is bound to be staunch public opposition to both proposed new builds, which are sited in seismically active areas, and to Turkey’s position in a region of the world that is deeply concerned with nuclear proliferation.

Sonal Patel, associate editor (@POWERmagazine, @sonalcpatel)