Last fall, a pilot group of Turkish students arrived in the forested "Science City" of Obninsk, a once-secret location for Stalin's nuclear program 60 miles outside Moscow. Sponsored by Russia's nuclear industry, the students are the first of some 600 Turks who will be brought to Russia in small groups over the coming years to enroll in a six-and-a-half-year program to learn Russian and earn degrees in nuclear power and engineering, embarking on a program that will help bring Turkey into the nuclear club of nations.
I spoke with some of these students over tea and strudel at a quiet café in Obninsk. They were relieved to practice their English after months of grueling Russian lessons and spoke of missing their families but also their bright futures in the nuclear energy industry. The Russians claim that more than 9,000 Turkish math and physics students competed for these first scholarship slots, which will guarantee employment at four Russian-built reactors slated for construction next year on Turkey's Mediterranean coast. With solid careers and good salaries ahead, they seemed more than willing to put up with freezing winters and Skype-filled nights.
"It's possible we will be the first group to open the gates of our country's first nuclear power plant -- our country is counting on us," says 21-year-old Gokcehan Tosun, who hails from the port city of Samsun on the Black Sea.
It's been a long wait for nuclear boosters like her. Turkey has been flirting with nuclear power since President Dwight Eisenhower's "Atoms for Peace" cooperation agreement with the country in 1955 -- a program of shared equipment and technology that sought to foster peaceful and transparent use of the energy resource, and helped build the first reactors in Pakistan and Iran. At the time, Turkey was just one of the many countries anxious to harness nuclear power. But even though feasibility studies into commercial scale reactors were first carried out in the 1960s, decades of efforts stalled. The reasons were myriad, but included the government's failure to guarantee financing, post-Chernobyl jitters, and a deadly 1999 quake in Turkey that underscored the country's dismal construction practices.
But with new legislation in 2007 easing multiple bureaucratic hurdles and a novel financing deal with Russia's state-controlled nuclear corporation, Rosatom, the "Akkuyu" site along the Mediterranean coast -- first licensed in 1976 -- is expected to soon be the home of Turkey's first reactors.
Nuclear suppliers from Japan, South Korea, China, and Canada have also sought deals in the new Turkish market. But Russia is first in line with an unusual and aggressive marketing plan they hope to spread to other nuclear "newcomers," as Rosatom execs like to call new-to-nuclear countries like Turkey: the "build-own-operate" or "BOO" model. In short, the reactors built under the program reside in a foreign country -- in this case, Turkey -- but will still be owned by Russia. The BOO model has been used in other industries worldwide, such as water treatment and telecommunications, but the Russian-Turkish Akkuyu deal is the first time the model has been used for a nuclear power plant.
"We are a country without a nuclear power plant," Turkish Energy Minister Taner Yildiz told visitors at the World Economic Forum on the Middle East, North Africa, and Eurasia in Istanbul in June. "However, we are determined to have nuclear power plants [with] at least 23 nuclear units by the year 2023." That's pretty ambitious, especially with the inevitable lengthy negotiations and construction times involved, and the first four reactors only expected on line by 2019 at the earliest. "It takes between 10 and 15 years from start to finish for one nuclear power plant," says Sharon Squassoni, director and senior fellow of the Proliferation Prevention Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Her bet? They'll have "two by 2023."