Anti-nuclear power activist Pinar Demircan reminds us that Russian reactors are dangerous everywhere—and Turkey bites the smart financing bait.
Hundreds of radioactive accidents have occurred since the first atomic bomb was exploded but Chernobyl and Fukushima are easily the worst. The Chernobyl disaster was assigned the highest rank on the seven-point International Nuclear and Radiological Event (INES) threat scale. Estimates vary as to the number of deaths it caused, but a realistic appraisal attributes half a million deaths to it, besides illnesses of 8.6 million people in Europe alone. The Fukushima disaster occurred 25 years later with the same 7-level INES score as Chernobyl.
Accidents can occur in the processes of uranium mining, transportation, operations, managing wastes, as well as nuclear war. The hazardous ecological consequences cannot be limited by either geography or time. In fact, this war in Ukraine reminds us that the effects of Chernobyl will persist hundreds or thousands of years and can be recreated without limit in a war environment. Ukraine’s 15 nuclear reactors continue to pose threats that vary with the country’s changing relationship to Russia.
Unfortunately, many people regard nuclear power plants as a solution to the climate crisis.(1) Their hope is creating investment opportunities for the nuclear industry in countries that had not otherwise developed nuclear power. But the purpose of such investments definitely is not to produce energy. The deeper aim can be seen in the case of Russia, which is seeking geopolitical dominance globally through the projects of a state-run enterprise, Rosatom.
Today, Rosatom has 13 overseas nuclear power plant projects and will add more by its investments in the Middle East, including Turkey, Irtan, and Egypt. These projects will help Russia control the eastern Mediterranean region and increase its influence throughout the Middle East, just as the US and France do with their own nuclear power plant investments. Rosatom is made attractive to potential customers by credit-financing models such as Build-Own-Operate (B.O.O.). Here I will discuss the Akkuyu Nuclear Power (NPP) Project, which started early but has already almost built a fourth reactor.
There are currently two nuclear power plant projects in Turkey, one of which is under construction and the other at the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) stage. One of them is Akkuyu NPP, on the coast of the Mediterranean in the city of Mersin. The international agreement for it was signed between the governments of Russia and Turkey in 2010. It is currently under construction but not yet operational.
The second one is Sinop NPP at the Black Sea coast, for which an agreement was signed between Turkey and Japan in 2013. It was decided that the reactors would be constructed by a Japanese-French consortium, Mitsubishi and Areva, via B.O.O. again. The government was delighted with this financing model, as with the Akkuyu project, for it enabled them to have a nuclear power plant without making any payments before the facility starts operating. Despite the withdrawal of the Japanese side and the builder company Mitsubishi in 2019, the project has proceeded to the EIA stage but it has neither a manufacturing company nor a solid plan for the type of reactor to be established. This irrational and illegal example had also been experienced in the EIA processes of Akkuyu NPP Both instances prove that institutional politics has lost meaning and that excecutives have gained power. The same trend was seen in 2018 when Turkey abandoned parliamentary democracy in favor of a presidential system.
According to its international agreement, the Akkuyu NPP will have a capacity of 4800 megawatts and will provide about 5-7 percent of Turkey’s energy needs. For the project, the bidding process was skipped for the first time in history and the intergovernmental agreement was followed by a reactor agreement with the Russian state facility Rosatom to establish four VVER1200 reactors (Generation III plus). Rosatom provided a Build-Own-Operate (B.O.O.) financing model; Rosatom will build the reactors, will be the owner of the facility, and will have the sole right to manage it, as Rosatom will never have less than 51 percent of the shares. Today Rosatom still has 100 percent of the facility’s shares. The project will cost $20 billion, totally funded by Rosatom. When the nuclear power plant is established, the return of $20 billion investment will be achieved in 15 years by paying 12.35 cents(3) per kwh for the electricity produced by only two of the four reactors.
In Turkey, this populist desire for a nuclear power plant is related to the possession of nuclear weapons and membership in the worldwide nuclear club. The supporters desire “to be a strong state.” While the investors just expect to gain business opportunities at the construction stage, others also expect to gain from the birth of a new sector. It is marketed as “employment opportunities for millions,” in misleading government advertisements.
However, although civil society exposed the risks in Turkey, political power managed to change the laws to suit their objectives, and society’s opposition has been overcome within ten years. Usually it takes seven to ten years to construct one reactor, but at Akkuyu NPP it has taken only three or four years for all four reactors. The government has pushed the work and allowed for no change in the construction schedule because it has been planning to open it on the 100th Anniversary of Republic Day on October 29, 2023. Despite the country’s huge economic and social problems, the president will use starting the first reactor as a symbol to appeal to nationalists who associate owning nuclear power with becoming a powerful country. Akkuyu NPP is both a power factor for Russia and an election propaganda tool for the Turkish government.
But the voice of civil society organizations and the scientific review by independent experts have been ignored due to undemocratic circumstances. When there is a lack of democracy and civil society is suppressed, there is no auditing function whereby civil society can control the government. Thus nuclear power plant projects in Turkey show how nuclear risks can be doubled or tripled when compared to a project run in a more democratic political environment. During the last decade civil society in Turkey has been kept out of the decision-making process. The Akkuyu Nuclear Power Plant Project is but one more example.
But the governments of Turkey have always wanted nuclear power, so as to be included among the nuclear nations. The desire for nuclear power started with the Atoms for Peace Agreement, which was announced to the world in 1954. Turkey was the first country to sign this agreement. To realize this dream, four different bidding processes were held between 1965-2000, though none of the applications succeeded, due to economic, political, and social circumstances. Nevertheless, the land license was given in 1976 for a potential nuclear project at Akkuyu.
The anti-nuclear opposition responded with protests in Europe.(4) However, the anti-nuclear struggle in Turkey gained great momentum after the Chernobyl accident in 1986, due to increase in cancer incidents in Turkey. In fact, the Black Sea coast was heavily affected by the radioactive rain in May of that year, though the government acted as if there were no radiation in the environment. Anti-nuclear rallies were held in 1993 and numerous conferences and panels have been held every year. Through these actions the public was educated to oppose nuclear power.(5) So we see that the roots of the antinuclear movement in Turkey are deep. When the project was introduced in 2010 the anti-nuclear groups reacted sharply. Despite their quick reaction, the type of the agreement did not let citizens oppose it legally, since intergovernmental agreements are above the constitution. In fact the citizens were only allowed to open court cases legally in opposing the Environmental Impact Assessment. Then protests took place and many activists were arrested.
But the opposition increased further when the Fukushima nuclear disaster happened. For instance, a human chain of 159 kilometers formed, linking Mersin city center and the Akkuyu NPP site, to show the opposition of the public to the nuclear project.(6) In the same year, Greenpeace conducted a survey and found about 65 percent opposed to the project.
But while the government was gaining power, civil society was ignored and no public hearings were performed properly during the EIA processes. Soon after construction started, problems began on the site. Until today there have been such incidents as cracks (twice); water leakage; explosion; fire; and three lethal accidents on service buses that carry employees. Surely, even supporters of nuclear energy should oppose the Akkuyu NPP.7 In 2022, the economic conditions became even worse and the number of employees reached 20,000, with these people living on-site.
In time, strikes took place, as workers were dismissed without being paid. The workers became even more angry because of their low wages and the unhealthy living conditions in their barracks. Apparently, the Akkuyu NPP management was ignoring workers’ health, occupational safety, and environmental issues even before the start of the operation. Such disregard for nature, human life, risks, and quality will inevitably end in a nuclear disaster.
Moreover, with the establishment of the Akkuyu Nuclear Power Plant, Russia will gain a base within tens of kilometers from a port belonging to NATO. There is also Incirlik Military base belonging to the US at a distance of 90 kilometers. Turkey has been a member of NATO since 1952. A conflict may turn into a war in the future, as it has done in Ukraine. At that point, Turkey will be economically, politically, and socially under siege.
Already the worldwide cost of solar energy has decreased by 89 percent and the cost of wind energy by 70 percent. But the cost of nuclear energy has increased by 26 percent. Turkey insists on investing in nuclear, despite having three times more renewable energy capacity than Germany, the leading producer of solar and wind. Indeed, the total electricity consumption of Turkey is 20 percent from wind and 7.5 percent from solar energy. Turkey not only risks its future but also misses renewable energy investment opportunities due to mandatory paybacks on the nuclear investment. Apparently, Turkey will ruin its future materially with heavy costs and a wrecked environment. But in case of an accident, it will be even worse—not only for Turkey but for the whole Mediterranean region.
P?nar Demircan is an antinuclear scholar-activist. email@example.com