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A uniquely Turkish nuclear energy tale via Bulletin of Atomic Scientists

By Şebnem Udum | November 24, 2021

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International proponents of nuclear energy tout its affordability, environmental friendliness, and ability to provide abundant, uninterrupted electricity. Meanwhile, international nuclear energy opponents born from the 1960s and ‘70s antinuclear movement were first concerned with nuclear testing and later with nuclear waste disposal. Since Turkey maintained a closed economy until the 1980s, its nuclear energy debate remained independent as well. Unlike the international debate, Turkey’s nuclear energy debate has been shaped by its struggle with development, progress, and identity.

Turkish citizens began to grow concerned about nuclear safety in the mid 1970s, but anti-nuclear opposition started in earnest after 1986, when the Chernobyl nuclear accident affected the northern coast of Turkey. Though official government statements underplayed Chernobyl’s impact on the region, Turkish public perception of nuclear hazards remained—and remains—high. This is due, in part, to an increase in cancer deaths in the Black Sea region, including a famous rock singer, Kazim Koyuncu, who died of cancer in 2005, at the age of 32. Turkish citizens engaged in anti-nuclear protests, demonstrations, and rock concerts highlighting Chernobyl’s impacts. When Greenpeace later arrived in Turkey, the organization added environmental concerns to the discussion.

Before and around the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, Turkey entered what many have dubbed a “nuclear renaissance.” Demand for oil and natural gas had increased at the same time global availability of these resources decreased, due in part to Chinese and Indian economic policies. The Fukushima disaster reminded Turkish citizens of Chernobyl, while also highlighting the potential for natural disasters. On the one hand, anti-nuclear advocates both in Turkey and abroad felt emboldened. On the other hand, proponents trumpeted Japan’s continued reliance on nuclear energy while strengthening safety measures.

Both sides of the nuclear energy debate in Turkey offer convincing arguments for uninformed audiences. They use words like “development,” “energy security,” and “environmental protection,” though with different expected policy outcomes. I attended a nuclear energy panel in 2008 in Ankara; one presenter highlighted the benefits of nuclear power on the basis of energy security criteria (reliability, affordability, and environment-friendliness), while anti-nuclear audience members argued against nuclear power because it was dangerous, expensive, and harmful to the environment. After both sides had accused each other of “treason,” the debate intensified—and I worried a physical fight would break out.

In Turkey’s nuclear energy debate, both proponents and detractors emphasize a need for reducing dependence on foreign energy sources and for promoting economic development. While the antinuclear coalition ranks environmental preservation higher, even it supports the state’s drive to maintain political and economic power.

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Citizens near the Akkuyu nuclear power plant construction site appear to have accepted the plant in their midst, at least based on my observations during a trip to Taşucu—the closest town to Akkuyu—in the summer of 2021. The construction site’s large security perimeter has quieted anti-nuclear and environmental activist activity. Social unrest is focused on the significant influx of Syrian refugees in Mersin, the central town of the formerly İçel province, where Akkuyu is located. Yet Taşucu’s long coastline has recently become a point of attraction, in a way similar to the French Riviera or Miami Beach. White- and blue-collar Russian employees of the nuclear power plant and their families have turned the environs into an collection of natural and historical sites for tourism. Residents are thriving economically, because of increasing demand for agricultural products, fish, hotels, rental houses, and restaurants. The Taşucu harbor’s importance has risen as ships transport construction materials. Infrastructure renovations have improved land transportation as well.  New social facilities and construction have revitalized the local economy—none of which likely would have happened without the construction of a nuclear power plant.

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