With a political regulator, Turkey’s nuclear ambitions could go kaboom

In a symbolic gesture after years of not seeing eye to eye, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan attended via teleconference a ground-breaking ceremony for a Russian-built nuclear power plant near the Mediterranean coast on Tuesday.

However, the $20 billion project may not rest on firm foundations, as despite years of promises by the government to bring in a new law governing the regulation of nuclear power, the project is beginning construction before that legal framework is in place.

Until Turkey’s nuclear law is redrafted, the regulation of nuclear energy will be carried out by an institution controlled by the Turkish prime ministry. That means it will not be insulated from political pressure.

Turkey’s media environment means that it cannot air serious criticism of the safety risks, and the plant’s stakeholders – the Turkish government, the Russian government, and possibly businessmen known to be close to Erdoğan – have ample incentives to cut corners in terms of plant safety in order to speed up construction.

For one thing, the plant is likely to be a loss-leader for the Russian side: a goodwill gesture towards Turkey and a subsidy for its ailing industrial sector. But the sooner the plant comes online, the fewer losses the Russian state will have to bear.

In Turkey’s eyes, the project is a matter of prestige. Having a nuclear power plant operative by the hundredth anniversary of the founding of the republic in 2023 will be one of the crowning achievements of the government’s dash to prove itself worthy of the legacy of founder Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.

Rosatom, the Russian company behind the project, says it is committed to meeting the 2023 deadline, despite the technical difficulties that speeding the project up might pose. And it only begins recouping its capital once the plant is producing money. Any overruns or extra costs will push further into its bottom line.

It is still trying to sell a 49 percent share in the project after foreign investors turned their noses up at the idea and a consortium of companies close to Erdoğan pulled out of the deal in February.

And Russia’s reserve fund, which was formerly used to subsidise the country’s export of civilian nuclear technology, has dried up as a result of drops in the price of oil.

Turkey is also seeking to ease Rosatom’s financial burden by promising generous tax exemptions for the entire duration that the plant is in operation.

Amid all this pressure to cut corners, the need for a strong, independent nuclear regulator that can ensure that the plant is properly built is overwhelming.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has been pushing Turkey to create one for many years.

Its recommendations to Turkey in 2014 included “enacting a law on nuclear energy which establishes an independent regulatory body and putting a national policy in place that covers a wide range of issues, as well as further developing the required human resources”.

But in the present circumstances, the costs associated with careful construction and operation may render unfeasible the completion of the project in time to act as a symbol of the present government’s achievements as Turkey hits its centenary.