Turkey’s nuclear future?

Michael Pooler reports from Istanbul about opposition to nuclear power in the run up to elections in Turkey

June 11, 2011
4 min read

A walk around one of the popular districts of Istanbul gives an insight into the excitement that has gripped Turkey ahead of Sunday’s parliamentary elections: streets are draped with multicolored bunting, posters of candidates cover every inch of wall while an army of party vans circles through the roads blaring out propaganda.

The main issues of the day are economic growth, unemployment and the raft of constitutional and judicial reforms proposed by the ruling AK (Justice and Development) Party.

One issue which has been largely sidelined from the debate is the government’s proposals to build Turkey’s first nuclear power plants, which they expect to provide a fifth of the country’s energy by 2020. But last Friday a group of environmental activists – from groups including Greenpeace and the Turkish Green Party – set up camp in Istanbul’s Taksin Square in opposition to the AK Party’s plans to build a nuclear reactor in partnership with the Russian government

Now numbering over two dozen tents and with more sleeping by night, the protestors are calling on the main political parties to withdraw the proposals which they argue are scientifically unsound, and to instead consider renewable energy alternative.

Onur Fidnngül, an activist staying at the camp, explained:

‘Permission for the construction of the reactor was given back in 1972, long before disasters such as Chernobyl and more recently Fukushima. There has been no reassessment of the safety of the plans nor evaluation of the risks it could pose to human health and the environment.

‘Since [approval was granted] two of the three independent scientists who put their name to it have died. The remaining one now wishes to withdraw his endorsement and has indicated that there was some degree of pressure at the time.’

Meanwhile there are fears over the suitability of the site for the reactor, with the proposed location situated around 180km from Adana – the city which was hit by an earthquake measuring 6.2 on the Richter Scale in 1999 – and a mere 25km from the Ecemiş seismic fault line. With renewed scrutiny following the disaster at Japan’s Fukushima plant, the government responded by stating that the reactor would be a newer generation build. Yet this did not dampen the criticism of the plant plans, with nuclear physicist Hayrettin Kilic – who campaigns against nuclear energy projects – arguing that the ‘Russian technology does not comply with Western standards’ while pointing out problems with its cooling systems.

Energy security is without doubt an issue of great political and economic importance in Turkey. A pattern of high economic growth over the last twelve months has seen the annual increase in energy demand hit 6-8%, far outstripping the global average of 2.1%. In an attempt to curb high reliance on imported gas and coal governments over the past ten years have embarked on large-scale hydroelectric dam projects which now provide 25% of electricity, but which have proved contentious due to the environmental damage they have caused.

On a political level, the nuclear aspirations form part of the nationalist rhetoric of the ruling AK Party, who are expected to be successful at Sunday’s polls. On massive billboards throughout the country they boast of their desire to make Turkey one of the most powerful eight nations in the world by 2023 – the centenary anniversary of the birth of the secular Republic – and nuclear credentials appear to underline this bid.

However the protestors reject both of these energy production avenues and say that only by increasing the meagre 4% of energy currently provided by renewables (excluding hydroelectric) can Turkey balance sustainable growth with environmental protection.

‘Turkey has massive potential for renewable energy,’ says Bilge Otturk of Greenpeace. ‘We have the location with the second largest wind power potential in the world but the government is not doing enough to exploit it’.

So far the response from the establishment towards the camp has been derisory, as Onur Fidnngül explains:

‘The Prime Minister said that this is simply a site of festivities and that you can’t change things by fun. And the energy minister has simply stated that the plans are to go ahead and the reactor will be closed by 2071’.

Three out of the four parties represented in parliament remain committed to the plans, despite an opinion poll which indicated that 68% of the population are opposed to nuclear power.

Meanwhile a law restricting political demonstrations twenty-four hours ahead of elections means that the camp could be ejected by Saturday. But in the words of Mehmet:

‘Already in the last week it has forced the issue onto the election agenda. We hope that us being here – something quite unusual which has attracted attention – will make people start to think about the ecological future of the country as well as the economic’.

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