Mark HibbsScratching Erdogan’s Nuclear Itch

News media reporters can be counted on to scratch their Country X-is-going-nuclear itch whenever its armed forces burst across its borders, and this week was no exception following Turkey’s invasion of Syria. On October 22 the New York Times went over the top in headlining that President Recip Tayyip Erdogan “says he wants nuclear weapons” after he complained in public appearances in September and October that the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) is unfair.

At the United Nations General Assembly on September 24 Erdogan said in fact: “nuclear power should be either free for all or banned.” In Turkey the week before, Erdogan said he “cannot accept” that a few powerful states have nuclear weapons on missiles while the rest of the world is denied the right to have them.

Turkey would have the legal right to have nuclear weapons if it quit the NPT, a treaty Ankara has been party to since 1980. Alternatively, if indeed Turkey wanted to develop nuclear weapons it could instead stay in the NPT and cheat. Either way, Erdogan’s recent statements likely made it more difficult for him to conceal secret nuclear activities. So what to conclude from all the noise before the microphones? Erdogan’s words loudly signaled that he intends to heed Turkey’s national interests as he defines them, but they hardly amounted to a programmatic announcement that Turkey wants the Bomb.

The Times article is on more solid ground in pointing out that Turkey is on a trajectory toward raising its nuclear industry profile, but it did not identify any specific activities that Turkey is currently or plans to be engaged in that would move Ankara closer to having a nuclear weapons capability. 

During the last decade, most of the things Turkey has been doing in the nuclear field have been documented by researchers including myself and a few colleagues. The Times mentioned in passing this research, then indirectly cited former IAEA safeguards director Olli Heinonen, without giving details, as estimating that Turkey could get to the threshold of having a nuclear bomb option in “four or five years, or sooner, with substantial foreign help.” That may sound worrying, but I could draft a list of maybe two dozen other NPT states parties that fall into that same category.

PIE in the Sky?

In the meantime Turkey has gone forward with its project to deploy Russian VVER-design nuclear power reactors, and that raises the question, also noted by the Times, whether Turkey’s VVER spent fuel might become a potential nuclear weapons asset. So far, Russia and Turkey have not specified that the spent fuel will be repatriated to Russia for reprocessing followed by return of separated highly toxic wastes to Turkey.

Would Russia help Turkey in the sensitive areas of spent nuclear fuel management? Russia and other VVER-operating states have shared considerable experience they have gathered about the behavior of nuclear fuel materials. There is a lot to know, and Turkey will doubtless learn it if its nuclear power program with Russia is successful.

But more questionable and even doubtful is whether Turkey will get Russian approval to venture into areas that would generate valuable know-how related to spent fuel reprocessing, by carrying out destructive post-irradiation examinations (PIE) on its Russian-supplied spent fuel. Doing this requires specialized hot laboratory equipment including glove boxes, hot cells, and robotic devices. Because of its sensitivity, in some cases the United States has been reluctant to share this knowledge and technology with certain partner countries, most notably South Korea.

From the inception of the Soviet Union’s foreign nuclear cooperation activities, Moscow has been very restrictive about cooperating with its VVER recipient states on PIE. This policy appears to have both security/non-proliferation and commercial drivers; in recent years Russia’s state-controlled nuclear vendor Rosatom has been challenged by Western companies aiming to make VVER fuel; Rosatom regards PIE data on Russian nuclear fuel as proprietary. This 2007 report concluded that the only hot lab in eastern Europe outside of Russia that could do a PIE for VVER spent fuel is in Romania, a country that has no VVERs.

Russia is an NPT nuclear weapon state and it has a special responsibility to establish limits on its cooperation with Turkey and other states where it has supplied VVER power reactors. Russia knows this very well: At Bushehr it has been prudently cooperating with Iran since it took over Germany’s defunct nuclear power plant construction project in 1995. The JCPOA in 2015 committed Iran not to reprocess irradiated reactor fuel, and not to carry out any destructive PIE for at least fifteen years. In any case, all the spent fuel from Bushehr-1 is expected to be repatriated to Russia, and it may be therefore assumed that no PIE in Iran for Bushehr would be necessary. Russia will have to decide whether to permit Turkey to do PIE for its spent fuel should the fuel not be sent back to Russia for reprocessing.

Some Western officials speculate that Russia believes its strategic interests are served by permitting its client states to develop dual-use nuclear capabilities and grey areas in their nuclear programs that Russia in its bilateral relationship with these states might exploit in its favor and against Western powers. True or not, ultimately Russia knows that a nuclear power plant investment has a lifetime of a century or more, and that Moscow may not be able to control its long-term nuclear cooperation clients—North Korea being the best example. Rosatom is not only a state-owned enterprise but also a commercial company doing business worldwide; it has no interest in acquiring an international reputation for abetting the spread of nuclear weapons capabilities. The same goes for nuclear safety and security. Russia has gone the extra mile to make sure that Iran—the only state with an operating nuclear power reactor that is not a party to the global Nuclear Safety Convention–operates Bushehr-1 safely.

Turkey’s prime nuclear R&D center, CNAEM, has a laboratory equipped with a large hot cell. It was set up to facilitate the transport of radioisotopes and it might not be equipped to handle irradiated uranium reactor fuel. Turkey could in principle import reprocessing-grade hot cell equipment from a foreign supplier to do spent fuel PIE, but that equipment is specifically listed for export control on the dual-use annex of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (Turkey knows this because it is an NSG member).

The IAEA is familiar with the CNAEM hot cell and its operation, and this nuclear activity has not deterred the IAEA from giving Turkey the so-called Broader Conclusion for safeguards annually since 2012 as I described in this previous post, meaning that the IAEA is satisfied that all nuclear material in Turkey is in peaceful use.

The IAEA re-evaluates Turkey’s safeguards compliance every year. With respect to Turkey’s Broader Conclusion, it may be assumed that the IAEA will consider Erdogan’s recent statements during the course of its next annual safeguards state evaluation.