Instead of distancing itself from its Western partners after the failed coup attempt of July 15, Turkey is trying to upgrade technological capabilities and secure access to clean energy through the nuclear deal with China. Beijing’s SNPTC is in the race for Turkey’s third nuclear power plant and it offers a number of advantages for the Turks like capacity improvement throughout the entire cycle of nuclear energy generation.

ISTANBUL – With the ratification of the Sino-Turkish Agreement for Cooperation in Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Energy by the Turkish parliament last week, Ankara and Beijing have officially become nuclear partners.

Turkish minister visits nuke plant
Turkish Energy and Natural Resources Minister Berat Albayrak being briefed by a professional during his visit to a nuclear plant in China

While this development is likely to add fuel to the recently popular yet rather ill-founded proposition that Turkey is distancing itself from its Western partners in the aftermath of the failed coup attempt of July 15, the agreement has been, in fact, long in the making.

Instead of seeking geopolitical reorientation, Turkey is making efforts to address the pressing needs of its mildly growing economy, such as upgrading technological capabilities and securing access to clean energy; and the ratification of the agreement with China appears as a promising step toward those ends, although at the moment its concrete outcomes remain to be seen.

The agreement that was ratified last week was actually signed four years ago, in 2012. After inking a deal with Russia in 2010 to build Turkey’s first nuclear power plant in Akkuyu on the country’s Mediterranean coast, Ankara was in search for a partner to launch the second projected plant, this time to be located in Sinop on the Black Sea Coast.

These projected plans are part of the country’s strategy to expand indigenous energy generation capabilities to reduce dependence on imported hydrocarbons, which are a major source of Ankara’s chronic current account deficit problem. Japan was the first choice back then. However, due to concerns arising in the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster, talks were held with other potential suppliers as well, such as China, Canada and South Korea.

The Chinese alternative was praised by Turks for the favorable conditions it was offering, such as bringing its own finance and not requiring government guarantees. However, at the end of the bidding process, in May 2013, a Japanese-French consortium was awarded the project, due to the technically more superior conditions it was offering.

Although the second nuclear power plant of Turkey was not awarded to the Chinese, neither the agreement signed in 2012 nor the idea of working with the Chinese in nuclear energy related issues were shelved away by Turkish authorities.

In November 2014, Turkey signed an agreement of exclusivity with the Chinese State Nuclear Power Technology Corporation (SNPTC) for the third nuclear plant, and this year has been witnessing an increasing traffic of diplomacy between the energy authorities of the two countries.

In March 2016, Turkey’s energy minister Berat Albayrak went to China, where, in addition to the official talks held between the two sides, he also visited the Nuclear Engineering Research and Design Institute in Shanghai and a third generation nuclear power plant built by SNPTC in Weihai.

Albayrak returned to China in June, this time to attend the G20 Energy Ministers’ Meeting in Beijing. At the sidelines of the summit, a memorandum of understanding was signed by Turkey’s Energy Ministry and China’s National Energy Administration regarding mutual development of nuclear technologies.

In early August, China’s deputy minister of foreign affairs, Zhang Ming, came to Turkey. His official business was expression of solidarity with Turkey’s elected government after the failed coup attempt.

However, while in Ankara, Zhang made a stopover at Energy Minister Albayrak’s office as well to discuss energy issues that over the past six months have propelled to the top of the bilateral agenda between Turkey and China. Finally, only a fortnight after Zhang’s visit, Turkey’s parliament ratified the 2012 nuclear cooperation agreement with China.

With Turkey and China’s dialogue on energy issues developing rapidly over the past few months and the agreement for cooperation in peaceful use of nuclear energy finally in effect after four years of waiting for ratification, China’s SNPTC is now one step ahead of the competition in the race for Turkey’s third nuclear power plant, which will incorporate four nuclear reactors with a total installed capacity of 5,000 megawatts, and will have a price tag somewhere between $22 million and $25 million.

The bidding process for Turkey’s third nuclear plant is expected to be opened in 2017, and while the Chinese option is edging ahead at the moment, things can change if competitors can come up with better offers. A bilateral nuclear agreement is a necessary but neither sufficient nor decisive condition for awarding the construction of a nuclear plant. Working with China, however, offers a number of serious advantages for the Turks.

To start with, the agreement with China promises capacity improvement throughout the entire cycle of nuclear energy generation, and not just the delivery of a power plant as the final product.

The agreement that was signed in 2012 and ratified last week is not only about constructing a nuclear power plant in, it is rather a detailed blueprint for a more comprehensive partnership, incorporating:

  • Research and development in nuclear energy
  • Design, construction, operation, refurbishment, modernization, testing and decommissioning of nuclear power plants
  • Exploration and mining of nuclear minerals; processing and disposal of radioactive waste
  • Joint development of innovative reactor- and fuel-related technologies
  • Nuclear safety
  • Training of nuclear engineers and qualified personnel
  • Supply of nuclear materials.

For the Turks, what matters is not replacing one form of dependence with another, but being self-sufficient in every sense of the word, which requires not only indigenous energy generation on home soil, but also the technological capabilities and know-how that will ensure sustainability in the long run. The agreement with China comes with these promises.

The Chinese option comes also with the advantage that it actually entails joint development with the Americans. The third generation nuclear technology offered by SNPTC is a product of the company’s collaboration with the US-based Westinghouse Electric Company, and as stated in the agreement of November 2014, SNPTC and Westinghouse agree to cooperate in the Turkish project, if their bid is successful.

This tripartite arrangement provides not only technological edge for the project, but also significant political clout. The problems experienced with the missile defense system deal, which Turkey had awarded to a Chinese company only to cancel it afterward due to objections from NATO partners, are not likely to be repeated this time as the Chinese are making efforts to enter the Turkish market together with their American partners.

Before the bidding process opens next year, two major events that will bring together Turkish and Chinese authorities are likely to provide early ideas about the direction that the Sino-Turkish nuclear partnership can take in the near future.

First there is the G20 Summit in Hangzhou on September 4-5 where energy will be the key issue during the bilateral talks between Turkish and Chinese delegations.

Later on, the 23rd World Energy Congress that will be held in Istanbul on October 9-13 will bring together the key players of the global energy sector, including energy ministers, producers, distributors, technology and state-owned enterprises, including several from China.

As a continuation of a process of intensive dialogue between Turks and the Chinese that started with Albayrak’s visit to China last March, talks in Hangzhou and Istanbul are likely to take the evolving nuclear partnership between the two countries one more step forward.

As long as mutual benefits are at stake, there is no reason, political or economic, why the agreement ratified last week should not pave the way to a full-fledged practical cooperation between Turkey and China in energy-related issues.

Dr. Altay Atlı is a research associate at the Asian studies stream of Istanbul Policy Center.

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