Turkey’s Nuclear Move: Deciphering the Developments

20 October 2015, 1249 EDT

This is a guest post by Philip Baxter,  Ph.D. Candidate in International Affairs, Science, and Technology at the Georgia Institute of Technology and a Senior Research Associate with the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. His research focuses on international security issues, in particular nuclear proliferation, deterrence, strategic stability, illicit trafficking, and nuclear safeguards. He can be reached at pbaxter@miis.edu.

A recent article in the National Interest by Hans Rühle, former Head of the Planning Staff in the German Ministry of Defense, argues that Turkey is positioning itself similarly to Iran in its leveraging of civilian nuclear power for potential nuclear weapons breakout capability. His argument, meant largely to justify German spying on the NATO-ally, posits that since Turkey is developing nuclear power plants, potentially developing its own nuclear fuel production capacity, and does not have a provision for spent nuclear fuel to be return to suppliers (a provision not necessary if producing fuel domestically), it is obviously shadowing the Iranian proliferation formula. These arguments are significantly flawed. While the Turkish movement into the nuclear arena could be afforded more clarity, particularly on the heels of a decade of efforts to corral the Iranian program, nefarious purposes should not be assumed; nor, are they immediately apparent.

Rühle argues that the size of the nuclear industry that Turkey is planning, as well as the amount of fuel that would be needed to supply that industry, would provide ample material for a nuclear weapon. From a purely technical perspective, nuclear fuel from most civilian power reactors is not ideal for a weapons program. Turkey plans to construct four light-water pressurized reactors. These light-water reactors make breeding the type of plutonium necessary for nuclear weapons difficult – as purity is key in having a safe and reliable arsenal. Rühle dismisses the point that the less-pure plutonium from a civilian power reactor would not be used for military program. Rather, Ruhle argues that regardless of plutonium purity, a state will seek to acquire any form of nuclear material and use it for a nuclear arsenal. However, the quality of plutonium is a critical factor in understanding and forecasting proliferation strategies.

Not all plutonium is created equal. Having impure plutonium in a nuclear arsenal, an arsenal that a nation would use to deter attack by other states, would be extremely dangerous. When uranium (particularly civilian reactor-grade uranium) is used in a power reactor, plutonium-239, the fissile material used for the production of nuclear weapons, is created. However, other by-products and isotopes of plutonium are also generated. The ratio of these by-products depends on the type of fuel you start with and how long the fuel is used in a power reactor. The longer it is in there, the less pure the plutonium output. While Rühle dismisses this point, other isotopes of plutonium which would be created in the civilian power reactor would be dangerous in a nuclear arsenal, particularly Pu-240 due to its unstable neutron flux which makes the long-term viability of the warhead questionable. With a quicker decay rate than Pu-239, comes the potential for spontaneously released neutrons – which is what starts the chain reaction to detonation. In the short-term, this is less of an issue, but the risk of unintended detonation increases over time. For a state that wishes to have a nuclear arsenal that will be able to deter the use or proliferation of nuclear weapons, a stable arsenal is critical for reliable use if necessary and for the warheads not to detonate on your own territory.

The type of reactor that is used is also important. The reactor models that Turkey plans to build make hiding illicit activities, such as diverting material, difficult. Reloading the fuel in the models being sought halts reactor operations and would stop operations for days or weeks at time. Turkey desperately needs energy. It imports roughly 90% of its oil and natural gas, and is heavily reliant on coal. Domestic energy production, particularly electricity, is lacking. Expanding its energy capacity is critical to Turkey’s economic development strategy. Shuttering a nuclear reactor for weeks or months at a time in order to extract costly fuel does not align with this policy objective. Further, plans for a nuclear energy sector of two dozen or so power reactors, with contracts in place already for eight, points to a desperate need for energy, not a mask for illicit activities.

There are also significant differences in Iran and Turkey’s nuclear sectors. Iran purchased one power facility, Bushehr, from Russia, and then justified its expansion of uranium enrichment by the need for medical isotopes. This justification enabled Iran to enrich up to 20% U-235, which accounts for roughly 80% of the work load to get to weapons-grade material. In terms of breakout capacity, this strategy is designed to conduct enrichment in the open, and then quickly escalate to weapons-grade. Turkey, on the other hand, is justifying its nuclear expansion for economic reasons, driven by shortages in energy. Additionally, recent studies have found that a lucrative market for mining and fuel production could be developed in Turkey. With developing nuclear energy sectors in number of countries (China, Vietnam, UAE, etc.), uranium ore and fuel services will likely be in greater demand. Again, the economic motivations appear to outweigh the security explanations.

Furthermore, the International Atomic Energy Agency would also have greater access in Turkey than it did in Iran in the early years of the Iranian program. Currently, Turkey is a member in good standing and a signatory to the Additional Protocol (AP). The current safeguards regime in Turkey, which includes the advanced monitoring and access that comes from the AP, requires early notification and cooperation with the IAEA as sites that deal with nuclear energy are developed. This access is well beyond what Iran was subjected to during the early stages of its program. As Turkey expands into nuclear energy, be it mining and milling or energy production, under the current safeguards regime, the IAEA would be engaged during the planning stages and would be able to identify at the outset possible anomalies.

Turkey, in order to move into the nuclear arena, also signed a Cooperative Nuclear Agreement, known informally as a 123 Agreement, with the United States in 2008. This agreement places stringent controls on the technologies that Turkey receives from the US, or the technologies from any other state that has a 123 Agreement with the US. With the IAEA safeguards system and other international regimes, such as the Nuclear Suppliers Group, this additional layer of protection would help to prohibit illicit use of materials

Finally, Turkey’s external security outlook and alliance structure are also dramatically different than that of Iran’s. Scholars have examined in depth the determinants of proliferation, with security demands often found to be the primary motivating factor. However, Philipp Bleek and Eric Lorber, among others, have found that security guarantees significantly reduce the likelihood for proliferation. While Iran could be said to have sponsor states in China and Russia, these relationships are largely driven by economic interests and self-interested foreign policy. Conversely, Turkey is a long-standing member of the NATO alliance. The Article V security guarantee ensures Turkey’s existential security. Iran lacked this protection.

The counterargument could be made that Turkey’s current threat situation requires the movement into nuclear weapons to ensure domestic survival, as the Turkish state faces rapidly escalating internal and external threats. The collapse of Syria and corresponding rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), as well as the ongoing conflict with the Kurdish Workers’ Party which many have speculated is moving towards civil war, has created a very unstable security environment. As Josh Busby recently argued on this site, Turkey is on the “brink of something terrible.” This unstable security environment could be argued as providing the motivation for developing nuclear weapons.

However, acquisition of nuclear weapons by Turkey would provide little benefit in assuaging these threats. First, creating an effective deterrent would could take decades. Second, even though ISIS does resemble a state in that it controls territory, a deterrent threat using nuclear weapons would lack credibility and be ineffective, as we have seen in the current nuclear weapons states’ inability to deter terrorist actions. Lastly, while domestic interests have been identified as influencing some states’ proliferation decisions, the current situation is one of internal security threat rather than an issue of prestige or satisfying particular interest groups. Nuclear weapons would provide little assistance in quelling domestic revolt, as it is highly unlike that a state would use these weapons on its own territory.

While Turkey does face an increasingly troublesome threat environment, the movement into the nuclear energy sector is not a harbinger of weapons proliferation. The plans outlined by Turkey align with a state seeking to decrease reliance on external energy sources. And while greater clarity could be afforded to the program’s plans for fuel management, the current material control and safeguard regimes which Turkey is a party to will ensure that it does not go the way of Iran.

* The views expressed are solely the author’s.