There has been much debate over whether nuclear energy is renewable or not. But for Turkey, the nuclear issue has been more of an emotional one mired in controversy. Before 2006, the only people that had an opinion on the matter were environmental activists, forever warning of the ecological risks and the energy politics. Yet in 2006, when the government announced plans for the Mersin Akkuyu Nuclear Plant in the south of Turkey, everyone became a critic and a whirlwind of opposing views came to the limelight. The Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) might have begun last month, but the issues surrounding the plant are far deeper than just environmental impact.
Let us consider some of the more controversial points regarding the Mersin Akkuyu power plant. First off, Turkey lacks nuclear know-how, and even if the project is certified “EIA Positive” and there are no conflicts between parties, it will still be Turkey’s first nuclear plant. Lacking know-how on its own, Turkey is forced to import some from Russia; with Russian company Rosatom acting as the contractor for the project. In turn, Turkey will be sending 300 of its best students to Moscow with full scholarships to earn Nuclear Engineering degrees at MEPhl University. Yet this raises another issue: one provision of the scholarship requires the recipient work at the Mersin Akkuyu Nuclear Plant for a minimum of 13 years. It is unfair to ask such long-term commitment from university students with so little real work experience.
One argument in favor of nuclear power has always been freedom from dependence on Russian oil, yet replacing the need for Russian oil with the need for Russian know-how is a puzzling trade-off. With Russian oil imports affected by negotiations, discussions and political issues, Turkey needs to find a way to stabilize its energy demands. A 39 percent price increase in Russian gas imports announced in September 2011 resulted in BOTAS (the Turkish Petroleum Pipeline Cooperation) announcing that it would terminate the Gas Supply contract with Russia. The contract, signed in 1986, established a western gas route to feed Turkey’s largest city, Istanbul. After long negotiations between Gazprom CEO Alexey Miller and BOTAS President Fazil Senel, the western route gas contract was renewed under more favorable conditions for Turkey. Under this new contract, Russia was committed to supplying 28 billion cubic meters of gas per year with a discount of 10 billion USD every year until the end of 2025. Yet even with Turkey and Russia reaching an agreement, the negotiations made Turkey reevaluate its dependence on foreign energy sources, triggering its new energy politics, which in turn includes the new push towards nuclear power.
Turkey was not as lucky in its economic dealings with Iran as it was with Russia. Turkey used to import 28 million cubic meters of gas from Iran per day, but the amount has dropped to around 7 million in recent months. Iran announced the drop was due to technical problems: a loss of pressure in the pipeline resulting from seasonal changes impeding the transfer of the proper amount of gas to Turkey. But many speculate that the “loss of pressure” is actually politically motivated: Iran reduces gas to Turkey just a year and a half after Turkey begins making a name for itself in the Middle East. Most notably in May 2010, when a flotilla of Turkish civilian ships attempted to break Israel’s blockade on Gaza, resulting in a clash with Israeli armed forces that lead to nine Turkish deaths. The ensuing bitter dispute between Turkey and Israel resulted in high regard among Arab nations, and Turkey’s new role as a contender to Iran for the position of regional leader did not go over well in Tehran. It is the flotilla affair, and the consequent rise in Turkish prominence, that is singled out as the main reason for the gas crisis with Iran, proving once more the disadvantages of dependency on foreign oil and the decision to proceed with the Mersin Akkuyu Nuclear Power Plant.
The Mersin Akkuyu Nuclear Power Plant Project
The planned nuclear power plant will be located in the south of Turkey, in Mersin’s Akkuyu district. The Mersin Akkuyu plant will feature an installed capacity of 4800 MW, comprised of 4 units of 1200 MW each. With its efficient power generation units, annual electricity generation will be 35 billion kWh. In 2010 alone, Turkey’s power consumption was 209 billion kWh and annual electricity consumption per capita was 2782 kWh (compared to the OECD average of 8486 kWh/capita). The power plant will have enough capacity to supply electricity to 13 million people all by itself. Considering Turkey’s most populous city, Istanbul, is home to nearly 15 million residents, one cannot underestimate the public interest in this project. Not to mention Turkey supplies 74 percent of its energy needs with petroleum and natural gas, of which 90 percent are imported. This planned nuclear plant will meet 17 percent of Turkey’s energy demands by itself, helping reduce the dependence on foreign gas and oil. But even though nuclear technology is “emission-friendly,” public opposition to the nuclear plant grows stronger each day, what with nuclear waste requiring exclusive and expensive technology not to mention the risk of dangerous “Acts of God,” such as witnessed at the Fukushima Power Plant in Japan last year.
Before any such large-scale investment we need to remain mindful of the lessons of Fukushima, Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, South Korea, et al. We should be aware that nature has its own butterfly effect. Remember the Latin idiom, “Nam tua res agitur, paries cum proximus ardet,” (“It is your concern as well when your neighbor’s wall is on fire”); this is a matter of concern not only for the local community, but for the entire global community as well.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author Sinem Demir, is an environmental consultant working for a private energy consulting company. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org