Forging Ahead on Nuclear Energy in Turkey


ISTANBUL — Struggling through throngs of shoppers on the pedestrian Istiklal Avenue last weekend, a couple of thousand marchers with their anti-nuclear placards did not seem to be getting anywhere. “No to nuclear plants,” the protesters chanted, banging on drums to make themselves heard. But few in the crowd swirling around them appeared to be listening.

The tide may have turned against nuclear power elsewhere, following the Fukushima Daiichi disaster in Japan, but Turkey is being swept along by a different current. Even as governments around the world scrambled to freeze or review their nuclear energy programs last week, Turkey announced the imminent start to construction of the first of its own nuclear plants, and experts say that a majority of Turks probably support the decision.

The cornerstone for the Akkuyu nuclear power plant near Mersin on the Mediterranean coast could be laid in April or early May, said Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey following his talks in Moscow last week. Russia has agreed to build the plant under a $20 billion deal signed in May. A similar deal with Japan, signed in December, involves the construction of a second plant near Sinop on the Black Sea coast, while the location of a third proposed plant was undecided.

It is a tricky decision to make, as Turkey is located in one of the most active earthquake regions in the world, and more than 90 percent of its territory is prone to earthquakes. The Akkuyu site in particular is close to a fault line, as the government concedes. Small tremors are registered in the region almost daily, and a quake measuring 6.2 on the Richter scale struck the nearby city of Adana in 1998.

Still, Turkey is forging ahead with its nuclear plans in the wake of the Fukushima scare, “even though some environmentalists are doing their best to sabotage the project,” Mr. Erdogan said in Moscow, referring to doubts voiced after the tsunami in Japan, Turkish newspapers reported. “Any project can go wrong, you can’t just drop it because of that. Otherwise you shouldn’t be using gas bottles in your houses, and we shouldn’t have an oil pipeline passing through the country.”

Risk was just a fact of life, agreed the environment minister, Veysel Eroglu, speaking in Ankara. “If you drive a car, you are taking a risk,” the Ihlas News Agency quoted him as saying.

Nuclear experts on both sides of the debate are aghast at such comparisons.

“I have never seen such ignorance about nuclear energy in my entire life,” Tolga Yarman, a nuclear scientist and professor at Okan University in Istanbul, wrote in an e-mail, adding that the government was “making it sound like nuclear explosions are chestnuts exploding on the heater.”

Professor Yarman, who said he and his peers had believed in the safety of nuclear power production until recent events, called the government’s comments a “manifestation of nuclear hooliganism.”

Ozgur Gurbuz, an energy specialist and anti-nuclear campaigner, said Mr. Erdogan’s remarks were proof that the government had no idea of the risks.

“Nothing, absolutely nothing has changed in 25 years,” Mr. Gurbuz said Monday during an interview, referring to the Turkish government’s response to the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, fallout from which hit Turkey’s Black Sea coast.

According to a Greenpeace report published in 1996, Cahit Aral, the trade minister at the time of the Chernobyl meltdown, coaxed Turks to drink tea from the contaminated harvest, telling them that “a little radiation is good for you.” Mr. Aral, now 84, drank the tea on television to persuade compatriots to follow his example. The then-prime minister, Turgut Ozal, proclaimed that “radioactive tea tastes better,” while Kenan Evren, then president, claimed radiation was good for the bones.

Even without a nuclear reactor, Turkey in 1999 rated a level 3 incident on the International Nuclear and Radiological Event scale, classified as “serious,” when a container of highly radioactive Cobalt-60 turned up at an Istanbul junkyard, Mr. Gurbuz said.

“There is probably no institution in the world that should be kept as far away from a nuclear power plant as the Turkish Atomic Energy Institution,” the regulator charged with supervising nuclear material, he said. A plant run by the Turkish government and supervised by the institution “would be an incredible danger not only to Turkey, but to the whole world,” he added.

Nevertheless, even President Abdullah Gul — who is normally more cautious and conciliatory than the prime minister — has weighed in on the nuclear plans. “Energy is an important motor of development and prosperity,” Mr. Gul told Turkish reporters last week during a trip to Kirikkale Province, just east of Ankara. He noted that Turkey depended on imports for much of its energy needs and could not meet the requirements of its rapidly expanding economy with alternative energies.

“I think it would not be right for Turkey to suddenly renounce nuclear energy” because of Japan, Mr. Gul said. “Turkey is already lagging behind other countries in adopting nuclear energy.”

The opposition, sensing an opening, has called for a referendum, but given the popularity of the government, a majority would be likely to support the nuclear plans, Mr. Gurbuz said.

Environmental concerns are not high on the priority list of many Turks, as evidenced by a Green Party that has yet to muster branches in at least half of the country’s 81 provinces as a prerequisite to standing for election. Mr. Gurbuz, a co-founder of the party, blames the legacy of the 1980 military coup, which still hampers such organization in Turkey.

Cengiz Aktar, a political scientist at Bahcesehir University in Istanbul, agreed that the government would probably win any referendum on its nuclear plans. “Turks are currently discovering the consumption society, just as Europeans did 30 or 40 years ago, they are happy to consume,” Mr. Aktar said by telephone. If the government emphasized that aspect in a referendum campaign, it might well win the vote. Still, the absence of open protest against the nuclear plans did not mean that Turks were completely unconcerned, Mr. Aktar said.

“The way the government is advocating for the Russian deal in Akkuyu raises questions in people’s minds,” he said. “Why so eager, why so aggressive?”

That question was echoed by Mr. Gurbuz: “Why could they not suspend construction for three months, like other countries?” he asked. “Why not even one single month?”

One possible answer was offered by Taner Yildiz, the energy minister. “Turkey has set itself great economic goals for the 100th anniversary of the republic in 2023,” he said on the state-run Turkish Radio and Television channel. “We cannot reach those goals with renewable energies alone.”

The New York Times

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