Atomic Turkey: Nuclear Power in the Earthquake Zone

By in Istanbul

Turkey has long been wary of relying too much on Russia and Iran for its energy needs. Now, it wants to build two nuclear power plants. But in a country prone to earthquakes, is it safe?

It was only this January that Turks became aware, once again, of how vulnerable their growing economy is. For an entire week, Iran reduced its contractually agreed-upon gas deliveries to Turkey, eventually cancelling them altogether.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad imposed a ban on exports of natural gas "for as long as we are unable to satisfy our internal demand," a spokesman of the Iranian gas company explained. Energy prices in Istanbul promptly climbed to new record highs. By the end of January, the monthly gas bill for a three-room apartment had jumped to at least €150 ($233), about a third of the average Turkish family's monthly income.

The government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan wants to prevent such a scenario in the future. Turkey is on the brink of entering the world of nuclear power. By the end of the year, the candidate for EU membership plans to build its first two plants, one in Akkuyu on the Mediterranean coast and one in Sinop on the Black Sea. The plants will be operated by private investors. A third nuclear power plant is also in the works, although a construction date has yet to be determined.

By acquiring nuclear energy, the country hopes to make itself independent of its main energy suppliers, Russia and Iran. Generals in Ankara have always considered Turkey's acute dependency on foreign oil and natural gas as a "high security risk."

The long-awaited bidding process for construction of the first nuclear power plant in Akkuyu began on March 24. The government plans to announce the winner of the contract in late September. Companies from Canada, Japan, France, Belgium Russia and South Korea have submitted bids.

Nuclear plans highly risky

A lot of money can be made with energy in Turkey, which plans to invest $130 billion (€84 billion) in the energy sector by 2020, or about $9.8 billion (€6.3 billion) a year. Although Turkey's 70 million citizens consume only about one-fourth as much electricity as the Germans per capita, economic growth continues unabated, leading to rising prosperity -- and growing demand for household devices and entertainment electronics. Electricity consumption is expected to increase to 400,000 gigawatt hours, or more than double the current amount, by 2020.

According to Energy Minister Hilmi Güler, Turkey's currently derives 50 percent of its power from natural gas, 25 percent from coal and 25 percent from hydropower. But in the future, the country plans to meet its energy needs with an "energy cocktail" made up of nuclear, hydro, coal and renewable energies, not unlike the German model.

But Turkey's nuclear plans are highly risky. Turkish environmentalists have long warned of the specific dangers lurking in an earthquake-prone region like Turkey. The 1999 earthquake, in particular, revealed just how poorly prepared Istanbul is for natural disasters. Almost 20,000 people died in that temblor.

Akkuyu, the picturesque town on the Aegean Sea where Turkey plans to build its first nuclear plant, is only a few kilometers from a seismic zone, says Kamer Gülbeyaz, a well-known environmentalist from Mersin, a city on Turkey's Mediterranean coast. "Akkuyu, in the far south of Turkey, was selected as a site in 1970, when we were afraid of the Soviet Union to the north. Today we are afraid of earthquakes," says Gülbeyaz.

But environmentalists face an uphill battle in Turkey, where the government normally ignores the concerns of popular movements, using police force if necessary. Environmental concerns are even less of an issue in Turkey today, as it faces the challenges of energy prices rising worldwide, unreliable energy suppliers and a threatening neighbor, Iran, which has nuclear plans of its own.

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