Turkey: Saying Goodbye To Nuclear Power? We Don’t Think So!

Debate in Turkey with respect to utilizing nuclear energy is heating up, as the adverse consequences of the Japanese earthquake on the forty-year-old Fukushima power plant continue to unfold. Talk of a large-scale nuclear disaster triggered fear in Turkish society – among the Chernobyl-victim countries – amplifying the voices of opposition to nuclear energy within Turkey, which were in turn augmented by the popular U-turn of various European countries on nuclear energy.

The Turkish government is nevertheless maintaining a firm stance against objections, with the Prime Minister confirming the official policy of proceeding with Turkey's long-range plan to establish and operate a nuclear power plant (an "NPP"), first formulated in the early 1960s. Although several nuclear power tenders have been held, none have been successfully finalized. In order to overcome shortcomings under current legislation, the Turkish government has revamped its strategy on nuclear energy by adopting a case-specific approach for establishing NPPs, and has chosen to proceed with the establishment and operation of NPPs through the medium of "intergovernmental agreements" ("IGAs").

Accordingly, the governments of the Republic of Turkey and the Russian Federation entered into an IGA for cooperation in the construction and operation of an NPP in the Akkuyu district of Mersin – a city on Turkey's Mediterranean coast – that was published on 6 October 2010. This IGA constitutes the legal basis for the establishment and operation of the first NPP in Turkey, and regulates various matters in detail, such as the permitting and licensing mechanisms, periods of construction and operation, terms of the power purchase agreement to be entered into by and between the project company (to be entirely owned by the Russian state nuclear energy company, Rosatom) and Turkish Electricity Trading and Contracting Company ("TETAŞ") (acting on behalf of the state as the purchaser of the electricity generated by the NPP), site allocation, insurance requirements, waste management and decommissioning activities.

Apart from the entry into force of the IGA, the Turkish Atomic Energy Authority ("TAEK"), the main regulatory authority responsible for supervising and licensing NPPs (i.e. site license, construction license and operation license), further focused on the preparation of secondary legislation. In this respect, very recently, three draft regulations were published on TAEK's official website:

  • Draft Regulation on Radioactive Waste Management (Radyoaktif Atık Yönetimi Yönetmeliği Taslağı): This regulates the general terms and principles for managing radioactive waste that is generated during utilization of nuclear energy and ionizing radiation sources in a safe way. The potential cross-border effects on human life and the environment will also be taken into consideration in waste management. As per the draft, necessary security measures must be adopted to hold radioactive waste to a minimum, and at reasonable levels in terms of volume and activity. However, such measures will be determined based on the specific classification of the respective radioactive waste (e.g. short-life wastes, mid-level wastes). The draft further introduces the requirements to be complied with by radioactive waste facilities, including provisions with respect to certification, physical measures and safety principles.
  • Draft Regulation on Physical Protection of Nuclear Facilities and Nuclear Substance (Nükleer Tesislerin ve Nükleer Maddelerin Fiziksel Korunması ve Yönetmelik Taslağı): This regulation mainly emphasizes physical security measures to be adopted for the physical protection of the nuclear facilities, as well as the nuclear substances that may be kept, used, stored or transported to or from the facilities against the risks of sabotage and theft. Accordingly, all nuclear facilities must be designed on the basis of the requirements of physical protection with respect to nuclear safety, and all related parties must strictly adhere to nuclear safety policies at every step of the activities conducted. As a general principle, license-holders will be liable for maintaining physical safety during performance of the licensed activities. Prior to the commencement of any activities, the license-holder is obliged to prepare a confidential physical safety plan and submit it to TAEK. Following TAEK's approval, the license-holder will be required to implement the physical protection system in accordance with the approved plan, and to confirm the effectiveness thereof. Another measure will be to establish a central alarm station (merkezi alarm istasyonu) with limited party access within the facility for the purpose of constant review of data from detectors, cameras and alarm equipment.
  • Draft Regulation on Protection of Subcontractor Employees from Ionizing Radiation (Harici Görevlilerin İyonlaştırıcı Radyasyoondan Korunmasına Dair Yönetmelik): The regulation provides for the imposition of preventive safety measures on license-holders with respect to the employment of subcontractor/third-party employees in certain sections of the NPP emitting radiation above the minimum emission dosage limits. Such measures include, among others, medical reports, use of certain types of dosimeters, preliminary workload planning for the respective employees, and regular recording requirements.

While a big question mark still looms over the sustainability of nuclear energy as an energy source with all of the risks involved, Turkey is continuing with its plan to promote nuclear power plant investment with an undertaking to its public to ensure that the maximum safety standards are maintained. As per the IGA's entry into force, and following the legal framework to be implemented in line with the entry into force of the foregoing regulations, we believe that the stage will be set for establishing future NPPs. It is also noteworthy that negotiations are underway with certain governments with respect to the construction and operation of a second NPP in Sinop, in northern Turkey, and possibly a third one in the Thrace region, in northwestern Turkey. Given the energy demand forecasts for Turkey, nuclear energy seems to remain as one of the prioritized sources of energy. Yet, one cannot help but wonder about the upcoming elections in Turkey in June 2011, and how the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel – who reversed the gradual exit mechanism set forth by her predecessor, Gerhard Schröder – made an abrupt 180-degree turnaround upon seeing the results of elections in various states in Germany.

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