Pulling the Nuclear Plug

You wouldn’t think they’d want to build a nuclear power plant near an active earthquake fault. They almost did until the Turkish government pulled the plug.

Briarpatch, September 2000
by Mike Buckthought

The year is 2020. At the turn of the century, a now-defunct corporation called Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL) urged Turkey to buy nuclear reactors, at a time when other countries were shutting them down.

Chernobyl can’t happen again, they said. But it has. On a warm summer day, an earthquake struck a nuclear power plant on the Mediterranean seashore.

During the first week, radioactive fallout headed southeast, silently sowing destruction in Turkey, Cyprus, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Israel.

Over the next month, it spread to other countries around the Mediterranean. Over the decades, tens of thousands of people could develop cancer — and thousands of babies could suffer from birth defects caused by radiation.

This scenario is based on atmospheric modelling conducted by scientists at the University of Athens. Researchers looked at what could happen if an earthquake damaged a nuclear power plant at Akkuyu Bay in southern Turkey, if one were built there.

Devastating earthquakes are common in Turkey. Over 18,000 died after last year’s quakes, and this year there have been more quakes north of Ankara, the country’s capital. This hasn’t stopped the Turkish government — along with three international consortia — from trying to build a nuclear plant at Akkuyu Bay.

AECL has offered to sell Turkey two CANDU reactors in its bid, along with a $1.5 billion loan from Canadian taxpayers, courtesy of the government-owned Export Development Corporation.

Competing bids came from two international consortia: Nuclear Power International, which includes Siemens (Germany) and Framatome (France) — and another consortium, consisting of Westinghouse (USA) and Mitsubishi (Japan).

Fortunately, there is now some doubt that the plant will ever be built. As a result of mounting opposition to nuclear power, the Turkish government repeatedly delayed announcing a decision about a bidder. Finally, on July 25, Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit shelved the project, citing its enormous costs.

“It would be better if we consider building nuclear power stations after we have solved our economic problems,” says Ecevit in a newswire from the Anadolu Agency. He says Turkey will now concentrate on alternatives, and reconsider building nuclear plants ten to 20 years from now.

Anti-nuclear activists have played a crucial role in exposing the dangers of reactor exports — and have helped raise awareness through demonstrations, press conferences, and postcard campaigns.

“A nuclear plant at Akkuyu will be a ticking time bomb,” says Dave Martin, research director for Nuclear Awareness Project. “A large earthquake near the site could spread radioactive contamination through the eastern Mediterranean, affecting 130 million people.”

Critics like Martin warn of the environmental dangers, and point to alternative sources of energy such as wind and solar power, and natural gas — as well as the possibility of increased efficiencies in the transmission and use of electrical energy.

“Nuclear power really isn’t a sustainable energy option, and is really not a viable one for Turkey,” says Martin. “It’s risky, it has serious safety and environmental problems — not just the risk of a catastrophic accident, but there’s still the unsolved problem of radioactive waste management.”

Officials from AECL dismiss the risks, saying CANDU reactors have safety systems to deal with earthquakes. We are told that there are independent monitoring systems that would shut down a reactor affected by an earthquake — and nuclear plants are said to be carefully sited away from seismically active areas.

“AECL does not build nuclear reactors on active faults. If we were to build a reactor that was broken open by an earthquake, that would be the end of our business,” says AECL spokesperson Larry Shewchuk.

AECL says the Akkuyu area is safe, but it refuses to release its study of the area. Another report has shown that the proposed site is indeed near an active fault. In 1991, scientists from Turkey’s Dokuz Eylul University published the results of a geophysical survey, identifying the nearby Ecemis fault as an active one.

“To go ahead and build a reactor at Akkuyu Bay without further study would be a totally irresponsible, if not a criminal, decision,” states Dr. Attila Ulug, one of the report’s authors.

Back in Canada, there are more concerns about the faulty siting of nuclear plants. Ontario’s Pickering and Darlington nuclear plants are near active faults. In May, people living near Pickering’s eight reactors experienced some trepidation as a small earthquake rattled the area.

“There are faults underneath and in the immediate vicinity of the nuclear plants,” says Joe Wallach, a geologist who worked for the Atomic Energy Control Board. “There is evidence of geological movement which increases the risk of an earthquake.”

Critics of the nuclear project also express concerns about human rights abuses and the suppression of democratic freedoms in Turkey. Anti-nuclear protests are often interrupted by the police or military — with people thrown in jail for handing out pamphlets or holding a press conference. There are also concerns about Turkey’s treatment of its Kurdish minority, and the occupation of neighbouring Cyprus by Turkish soldiers.

“AECL claims that nuclear power is the power of choice. However, the people in the countries targeted for CANDU reactor exports do not have the power to choose. Countries like China, Turkey, Indonesia and South Korea — AECL’s top marketing priorities — are also top violators of democracy and human rights,” says Kristen Ostling, national coordinator for the Campaign for Nuclear Phaseout.

Another concern for critics of the Akkuyu project is the danger of nuclear weapons proliferation. Canadians often think of themselves as a peace-loving people, but Canada has helped weapons programs in other countries by sharing its nuclear technology.

The United States, Britain, India and Pakistan all developed nuclear weapons with the help of Canadian nuclear exports. Could Turkey be the next country to build the bomb with help from Canada?

It seems there is at least one member of the Turkish government who supports building the bomb. In a March 9 article in the Turkish newspaper Sabah, Turkey’s Transport Minister Enis Oksuz openly expressed support for nuclear weapons.

“When you mention the atomic bomb, they are scared that it kills people. It has not been used since the Second World War. Having such a bomb in Turkey’s hand is security. It provides deterrence,” states Oksuz, a member of the right-wing National Movement Party.

“So-called peaceful nuclear power plants have the potential to contribute to nuclear weapons production, either directly through the production of plutonium, or indirectly through transfer of sensitive information,” Martin warns.

“Canada has contributed to proliferation in both India and Pakistan through the transfer of nuclear technology.”

AECL responds by saying that the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) provides safeguards such as inspections of nuclear plants, and monitoring by video cameras. “Canada will export its nuclear reactors only to countries that have signed the NPT,” says Shewchuk.

Martin, however, questions the treaty’s adequacy.

“I would argue that the NPT is a very flawed piece of legislation,” Martin says. “Iraq signed the NPT but simply broke its commitments. And any signatory can opt out of the NPT with only three months notice, and do so legally.”

“A nuclear program in Turkey will inevitably reignite a nuclear arms race in the Middle East,” Martin claims. “We cannot put the nuclear genie back in the bottle, but we can help prevent the spread of nuclear weapons by stopping the sale of nuclear power plants.”

Fortunately for the people of the Mediterranean region, the Turkish government has pulled the plug on nuclear power — at least for the next few years. Around the world, there are other hopeful signs of change.

More and more people are embracing environmentally sound, peaceful alternatives to nuclear energy — some recent examples being the decision to phase out nuclear power in Germany, and the cooperation of Greek and Turkish companies to promote wind power. It is hoped that the shelving of the Akkuyu project is another step on the way to a nuclear-free future.

“Turkey has made a wise decision to forgo nuclear power and focus its electricity program on conservation, renewable energy, and high efficiency natural gas. There will be huge environmental, economic and security benefits from this decision,” Martin concludes.

Mike Buckthought is a member of the Radioactivists, an anti-nuclear collective at the Ontario Public Interest Research Group, Carleton University, Ottawa.