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March 24, 2011

Turkey Presses Ahead With Nuclear Power Plant Plans

by Dorian Jones

The tide may have turned against nuclear power elsewhere, following the Fukushima Daiichi disaster in Japan, but Turkey is moving forward with its plans to build its first nuclear power plant.

On Istanbul's main high street, thousands of people protested against Turkey's nuclear energy program. The protest follows Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's announcement last week that the country is forging ahead in its plan to build its nuclear plant.

For one demonstrator this stance causes disbelief and fear.  

"I don't understand why he is so stubborn" he said. "There is an ongoing disaster and he just does not care. This unbelievable. It's dangerous in Chernobyl because of cancer, and I want my child grow up in a natural and healthy environment."

Japan's recent disaster resonates strongly with many Turks. The country has first hand experience of a nuclear disaster when the Chernobyl nuclear power station spewed radioactive fallout all over Turkey's Black Sea coast in 1986.

The only advice people received then was to stay at home, along with words of comfort from the then president Kenan Evren  "that radiation is good for the bones."   

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.

In 1999, the Istanbul region was hit by a powerful quake killing 30,000 people.  But Prime Minister Erdogan plays down the risks.

"Sure all the investments can have negative outcomes," he said. "But you can't give up your investments just because there can be some negative outcomes. We cannot say that there will be no earthquake. Sure it can be and our country is on a seismic zone. But we take all the precautions."

But  with leading nuclear energy users like Germany and China putting their own programs on hold, criticism is growing over the prime minister's stance.

Pinar Aksogan of the environmental group Greenpeace argues the disaster in Japan shows nuclear energy can never be truly safe.

"There are three reasons that nuclear power plants are always fragile: for natural disasters; for human faults; and, mistakes during their construction," he said. "So these three things can never be avoided. So its very obvious, the  whole world is rethinking of no longer building nuclear plants. So the insistence toward Turkey on building new plants is not logical."

Still, Turkey is forging ahead with its nuclear plans by recommitting itself to building three nuclear reactors, with construction on first starting as early as this April.

The program seeks to bridge the country's growing energy  gap, the result of its rapidly expanding economy.  

Turkish President Abdullah Gul, while voicing caution, says the nuclear program should continue.

"It is a fact that Turkey imports energy from abroad," he said. "I don't think it is right for Turkey to immediately give up on the plans for nuclear energy at once. After the Japan incidents these technologies should be reviewed and the contracts and ground work to be carried in minute details."

Experts says energy is seen as the Achilles' heel because it currently imports nearly 95 percent of its oil and gas. With most of the imports coming from volatile regions like Iran and Iraq and the Caucasus reducing that dependency is seen as key both for security and for economic reasons.

The controversy over Turkey's nuclear energy program has now spread beyond its borders. Turkey's European Union  neighbor Greece has reacted with alarm that Ankara is still continuing with its program. Turkey's  first nuclear power station will be located on the Mediterranean coast, not far from its Greek islands, in Akkuyu.

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.

Athens is  calling on Turkey to follow EU nuclear energy guidelines that restricts the building of nuclear reactors in such vulnerable places. But Ankara although its an EU candidate has dismissed the call saying its not bound by the guidelines as its not a member.