Nuclear Energy in Turkey: Peril or Miracle?

April 27, 2023

By 2026, all four reactors are planned to be operating and Akkuyu will generate about 10 percent of Turkey’s annual electricity needs.
An aerial view of the Akkuyu Nuclear Power Plant (NPP) construction site as the first unit is planned to deploy after the preparation, pretesting and arriving of the nuclear fuel to the site on Apr.27, in Mersin, Turkiye on April 19, 2023. The other three units of the NPP will be run within one year apart. Photo by Anadolu Images


he world is divided: there is little doubt that all states need a sustainable and affordable power supply, but the way they meet their energy needs differs. At the same time, the war in Ukraine has been impacting states’ energy choices with some states sticking to their long-term plans while others redesigning theirs. It is now more obvious than ever that states that adapt to both internal and external factors will be the winners while those that remain faithful to antiquated (outdated? Defunct?) energy policies will be left behind.

As the Russia-Ukraine war has been pushing energy prices up, mainly oil, natural gas, and coal, states dependent on fossil fuels have begun to re-examine their energy plans. Since 2000, the way to avoid coal, the dirtiest of fossil fuels, has been first to use natural gas; if states already use gas, then they have tried to use more of it. Over time, natural gas became a top source for generating electricity, heating homes, and running industries in several countries.

Yet, first, the coronavirus pandemic and, then, the Russian war on Ukraine showed that fluctuating natural gas prices could both relieve and cause heavy harm to economies as the aggressor in Ukraine is Russia – the world’s largest natural gas exporter. Renewables have increased their importance too, but the intermittent nature of renewable power supply hasn’t succeeded in promising sustainable electric power. The only option that has remained and is already known to the world is nuclear power. However, although nuclear power is one of the most sustainable ways to maintain electricity supply and a low-emission source of generating power, there is no consensus among states on the use of nuclear power, or even on ending its use altogether.

Once upon a time in nuclear lands

In 2010, three countries constituted the world’s largest nuclear power generators: the U.S., France, and Japan, generating in total 56 percent of global nuclear electricity. In 2011, Russia replaced Japan, and nuclear electricity decreased to 45 percent in Japan because of the Fukushima disaster. On March 11, 2011, the most powerful earthquake to ever hit Japan occurred in the country’s Tōhoku region causing a powerful tsunami and a nuclear accident  at Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant.

Although no major fatalities attributed to radiation were confirmed, the Japanese government began to pursue an anti-nuclear policy and gradually halted many of its reactors’ operations. In 2014, Japan generated no electricity from nuclear power, and in 2015, only 3.2 TWh were generated, which amounted to 99% less electrical energy than in 2010.

Germany, the sixth-largest nuclear electricity generator in 2010, was also impacted by the Fukushima disaster. Even though the well-known German “Energiewende” is famous for its ambitious goal to phase out coal-fired electricity generation to fight climate change, its origins are rooted in ending the use of nuclear power to prevent any accident like that of Fukushima.

Yet, the probability of an earthquake and tsunami in central Europe is much lower, and the German aversion to nuclear power has created another sphere of dependency: natural gas. In the meantime, countries like the U.S., France, Russia, Canada, and South Korea have continued to use their nuclear power facilities despite higher risks in some cases.

Nuclear power in the new energy security reality

The Ukraine war has once again proved to the world that diversification in every aspect of energy is the key, and sustainable, affordable, and reliable energy supply is a must. As nuclear power is one of the most sustainable, reliable, and cleanest ways to generate electricity, more states brought it back to the agenda. While new technologies like small modular reactors bring more hope, and states like the U.S., France, and Japan are working day and night to use nuclear energy, third-generation nuclear power plants are still the center of attraction. Today, most of the nuclear power plants being built are in China, India, Russia, South Korea, and the United Arab Emirates, and are third generation.

Japan, moreover, has just decided to restart its nuclear reactors gradually while France’s pro-nuclear policy has gained more ground and its government is working on new projects to replace its ageing nuclear power plants. The French government is also trying to unite EU countries to boost nuclear power and push the Union to list nuclear power in green energy finance. Yet, the German federal government still insists on its anti-nuclear strategy and will close its last six reactors by the end of April, although heavy energy bills have exhausted the public and public opinion is against the decision.

Turkey’s 50-year dream coming true

As of 2022, renewable energy including hydropower, accounts for almost 55 percent of Turkey’s total electricity generation capacity. The country also generates electricity from natural gas and coal. One of the reasons for this is that today’s renewable technologies are still exposed to seasonality. Droughts, for instance, negatively affect hydropower, and less rain and snowfall results in a decline in hydroelectric power production. During these times, dispatchable sources of electricity, which constitute a baseload power, are vital to uninterrupted energy supply. Thus, Turkey still needs to diversify its electricity generation capacity and is on the verge of adding nuclear power to its capacity.

Nuclear energy in Turkey goes back to the 1950s. As a first institutional step, the Atomic Energy Commission was founded in 1956, and the first nuclear research reactor was established in 1961. Yet, an unstable political environment and financial constraints prevented the realization of nuclear power plant projects in Turkey. Despite this, Turkey never abandoned its plan to add nuclear power to its energy mix. On May 12, 2010, the agreement on cooperation between Turkey and Russia to establish the Akkuyu Nuclear Power Plant (NPP) was signed. The agreement envisaged the foundation of a 4800 MW nuclear power plant to be built in Mersin, Akkuyu, and eight years later, the foundation for the first of the four reactors was laid.

The National Energy and Mining Policy, released in April 2017, institutionalized Turkey’s ambitions for introducing nuclear energy to the economy. The policy envisioned two nuclear power plants in the next decade, one in Mersin and the other in Sinop. During the construction process of Akkuyu, Ankara’s relations with Moscow were tested; yet, despite Turkey’s and Russia’s conflicting interests in Syria, the coronavirus pandemic, and the Ukraine war, the project has not been called off.

Some states responded to these challenges by upending their energy policies. Turkey, however, decisively stuck to its plans, motivated by securing the country’s energy supply by increasing the use of indigenous resources and introducing new technologies. While Akkuyu NPP’s construction process has continued, negotiations for the second and third nuclear power plants have been ongoing. On April 15, the country’s first nuclear reactor at the Akkuyu Nuclear Power Plant was completed and its inauguration takes place on April 27.

By 2026, all four reactors are planned to be operating and Akkuyu will generate about 10 percent of Turkey’s annual electricity needs. Akkuyu will not only diversify Ankara’s electricity supply sources, but it is also expected to decrease its dependency on imported natural gas and coal by decreasing thermal power plants’ share in electricity generation. With nuclear energy replacing some of its electricity supply, Turkey’s current account deficit which is mostly fueled by fossil energy products’ imports, will also be curtailed.

Furthermore, the low-carbon emission nature of nuclear power will contribute to Ankara’s 2053 carbon neutrality target. Nuclear power-supported renewable power capacity could source a significant amount of Turkey’s electricity supply. Hence, the benefits that nuclear power provides fit well with Turkey’s developing strategies, and if the negotiations on the second and third nuclear power plants are carefully carried out, they also will help the country become more energy independent.

Büşra Zeynep Özdemir pursued her Bachelor of Science at the department of International Relations and EU at Izmir University of Economics. She obtained her M.S. in the department of Sustainable Energy at the same university. Ozdemir is currently a PhD student at the department of International Relations at Sakarya University, and works as a researcher in Energy Studies at the SETA Foundation.