Turkish nuclear plant a threat to environment, experts say

Turkish environmentalists are concerned about the potentially destructive ecological consequences of the Akkuyu nuclear power plant, the construction of which began on April 3.

“The Akkuyu nuclear complex, from the onset of construction and during operation and possible unforeseen accidents, will have an adverse impact on the ecology, biogeography, economy and livelihood of the people who thrive on the marine-ecosystem and tourism industry around the Mediterranean,” nuclear physicist and environmentalist Hayrettin Kılıç told Ahval.

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Kılıç said the plant’s discharge water would increase the temperature and change the chemical composition of the adjacent sea, which could lead to the deaths of billions of larvae, plankton and juvenile fish.

Ful Uğurhan, a physician and anti-nuclear activist in the Mediterranean province of Mersin, where the plant is being built, said the location was not suited to a nuclear power station.

“First of all, the seawater temperatures are very high, which means spending more energy to cool down the reactor. Also, the seawater will end up being even warmer (from the plant’s discharge into the sea) and disturb the ecology within the sea,” she said.

There is also an active geological fault line next to Akkuyu that carries with it an earthquake risk, she said.

The Akkuyu site was chosen for its relatively low risk of earthquakes, and the Ecemiş fault line was believed to be inactive at the time of licensing. But on July 30, 2015 an earthquake of magnitude 5.2 shook Mersin. Akkuyu will be built to withstand an earthquake of up to 6.5.

The European Parliament has recommended Akkuyu construction be terminated because of its location in an earthquake prone region, and Cyprus, not far from the site, has also protested.

Kılıç said Akkuyu would in fact be the world’s first nuclear plant using water from and discharging into a sea with salinity as high as 39 percent and temperatures up to and exceeding 30 degrees Celsius.

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“Every day billions of gallons of very corrosive sea water will hamper the cooling system’s efficiency and ultimately shorten the operational life of the plant,” he said.

Yuriy Galanchuk, director general of Akkuyu Nuclear JSC, the Russian-owned company responsible for the project, told Ahval the VVER-1200 reactor “uses state-of-the-art safety systems, combining active and passive systems, which ensure the station's safety even in the most extreme conditions.

“Modern (nuclear power power plants) do not harm the environment, and, moreover, play a crucial part in decreasing the CO2 release into the atmosphere,” Galanchuk said.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has said nuclear power will reduce harmful emissions and reduce Turkey’s dependency on coal, oil and gas.

Experts agree that nuclear power plants are less harmful to the environment than the coal or gas-powered plants that comprise most of Turkey’s energy production, because they do not emit harmful emissions into the atmosphere. However, they also agree that there is no 100 percent safe method of disposing of nuclear waste, which is extremely harmful to all living organisms.

Pınar Demircan, an activist and researcher, is concerned about Turkey’s poor safety record and thinks the country should focus on its enormous renewable energy potential.

“If Turkey makes investments in solar and wind, and gives incentives for these two sectors instead of nuclear energy, it will have much more opportunity to meet its energy needs from local and national energy sources,” she said.

At least one survey has shown that 86 percent of people in Mersin are opposed to the building of Akkuyu, and in 2011 a 100-mile-long human chain was formed as an act of protest.

Uğurhan said the only thing stopping masses of locals from protesting now is the fear of being arrested under the tight restrictions in force in the ongoing state of emergency (OHAL).

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“The public is against the nuclear station and has protested against it. There have been many legal cases against the station, some still in court. Due to OHAL there is tremendous, extraordinary pressure on the public. All protests are banned; the security forces don't let them happen. If OHAL ended and a democratic environment were established, tens of thousands of people would be protesting in the streets,” she said.

There is also concern over the Turkish Atomic Energy Agency’s (TAEK) independence and commitment to safety. TAEK reports to, and is heavily influenced by, the prime minister. It is not only responsible for nuclear regulations and safety measures, but also for developing Turkey’s atomic industry, and therefore there is a potential conflict of interest between the commercial and safety roles.

“The Turkish government still needs to pass a comprehensive nuclear law, which should include a mechanism to make TAEK truly independent,” said Aaron Stein, resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council think-tank.

“The regulator does not yet meet the criteria to be called independent, and therefore could be susceptible to external interference that undermines its role as a regulator.”

Kılıç does not believe Turkey is ready for nuclear power.

“The Turkish government, with its inadequate legal and technological infrastructure, is far from capable of or prepared to implement a safe and properly managed nuclear power programme,” he said.

In January 2015, Turkish media reported a government-sanctioned environmental impact report had two forged signatures of nuclear engineers who had resigned six months before the report was submitted.

Aside from the ecological and safety concerns, some experts do not see any benefit for Turkey from Akkuyu, saying Ankara will be overcharged for the electricity and subject to even more political influence from Russia, which will own, operate and supply the plant.

“What kind of profit Turkey can get from the project is still a question mark for me, both economically and politically,” said Kerim Has, an expert on Turkish-Russian energy relations at Moscow State University. “Frankly, I can’t see any gain for the Turkish side.”

Has said Akkuyu would increase Ankara’s dependence on Moscow, which already supplies Turkey with 56 percent of its natural gas and 11 percent of its oil.

“Energy dependency will be transformed into a much more political dependency,” Has told Ahval

He said Akkuyu would not just be more politically beneficial for Russia, but economically as well. The Turkish Electricity Trade & Contract Corporation (TETAS) has agreed to purchase 70 percent of the electricity from Akkuyu’s first two reactors and 30 percent from the third and fourth for 12.35 cents per kilowatt over 15 years. 

“That’s already two to three (times the cost), or even more, of world standards,” Has said, adding that Turkish customers would bear the cost.

“I think it’s clear that Turkish consumers will pay much more.”

Tolga Yarman, a nuclear scientist at Okan University in Istanbul, was one of the signatories of the original Akkuyu site license in 1976, but changed his mind after several nuclear accidents.

He said that since the Fukushima nuclear meltdown in Japan, caused by an earthquake and tsunami in 2011, the global trend has been to phase out nuclear power. Yarman also predicted a negative international perception caused by Akkuyu would hurt Mersin’s tourism and food exports.

“Under the current circumstances the project will be a burden for Turkey,” he said.