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"Turkey's Nuclear Reactor: A Tempting Target?" The National Interest

As the controversy between Washington and Ankara over Turkey’s deployment of Russian S-400 anti-aircraft and missile systems continues to simmer, there is a different air defense concern that both the US and Turkey should discuss – the vulnerability of nuclear reactors to accurate missiles and drone attacks. In Turkey’s case, this problem was highlighted last month by a large explosion at the construction site of its first commercial nuclear power plant.

In the attached piece in The National Interest, “Turkey’s Nuclear Reactor: A Tempting Target,” Wohlstetter Fellow John Spacapan and I explain how the construction site explosion set Turkish locals at Akkuyu on edge. According to the building contractor, the explosion, which caused serious damage to surrounding homes and injured two people, was “planned.” Those living near the plant, though, had a different take. They’re concerned that this explosion was no mishap and that it presages a more catastrophic accident in the future. The plant, they point out, sits on a seismic fault.

What no one has paid enough attention to, however, is that future disasters could be planned by local terrorists. Recently, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party terrorist organization used drones to attack a military base. It could, if it chose, attack the nuclear plant at Akkuyu with its armed drones, which are capable of travelling 60 miles and fast enough to outwit Turkey’s military jamming technology. The possible knock-on effects of such a strike include inducing public panic to igniting a spent fuel fire that could mimic Chernobyl. 

What should we do? John and I recommend that the Biden Administration quietly encourage Ankara to drop its controversial nuclear power plans. Turkish critics of the Akkuyu project, including the Republican People’s Party, Turkey’s largest opposition Party, argue it would be far cheaper and safer to kill the reactor project and invest instead in renewables and natural gas. Washington and others should help Turkey with those alternatives. 

Feb 19, 2021
AUTHOR: by Henry Sokolski & John Spacapan

Turkey’s Nuclear Reactor: A Tempting Target?

February 19, 2021

by Henry Sokolski and John Spacapan


Although it got little attention from the U.S. media, an explosion late last month at a Turkish nuclear power plant construction site raised eyebrows in Turkey. It should raise eyebrows in America, too. Donald Trump pushed nuclear exports to the region when he was president. His replacement, Joe Biden, should not. The recent Turkish explosion clarifies why: nuclear plants in unstable regions are tempting targets that could explode, and not by accident.

The blast injured at least two people and caused serious damage to homes in the area. The Russian-Turkish nuclear construction firm, Akkuyu Nuclear Inc., claims the explosion took place when a subcontractor carried out “planned drilling and blasting.” So far, Ankara has kept mum on the story.

Angry local officials and opposition party leaders, though, aren’t buying the construction firm’s account. A member of the leading political opposition, the Republican People’s Party, said locals are losing sleep “thinking about the possibility of more blasts that might happen in the future when the nuclear power plant starts to function.” Meanwhile, the local governor has ordered a special police team to investigate the incident and to “hold those responsible to account.”

Whether or not the explosion was planned, the Republican People’s Party leaders, Turkish citizens, and local Akkuyu politicians worry about reactor accidents. The Akkuyu plant sits on a major plate tectonic fault line. Besides natural accidents, they should worry about another threat—terrorist and proxy missile and drone attacks. Certainly, if government officials ignore local opposition to the nuclear project, then they will have to worry that the PKK (a Kurdish terrorist group that seeks an autonomous state in southeastern Turkey) might hold the Turkish government hostage by threatening to strike the plant.

Nearby, last July, the Azerbaijani defense ministry’s spokesman did precisely that, publicly threatening to use precise Azeri missiles to strike Armenia’s Metsamor nuclear power plant. It was shortly after this threat was made that Russian president Vladimir Putin called Turkish president Recep Erdogan to restrain Azerbaijan’s military. The Iranians and their proxies also have toyed with attacking reactors. Hezbollah, armed with Iranian-made rockets, has threatened to strike Israel’s Dimona nuclear reactor.

Another Iranian proxy, the al-Houthi group in Yemen, claimed that they fired a missile at the UAE’s Barakah nuclear power plant, which it failed to hit. They claim they intend to try again.

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