As construction continues on Turkey’s first nuclear power plant – a cornerstone of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s plans for the republic’s centennial – environmental activists warn that the government’s safety precautions are seriously lacking.

Construction began on the Akkuyu plant in the Mediterranean province of Mersin in 2018, ten years after Russia’s nuclear regulator Rosatom signed on to operate the plant. But demands for more transparency in the process have grown as popular opinion swings against nuclear power.

The plant in Akkuyu is comprised of four reactors, the first of which is expected to come online in 2023, the anniversary of the founding of the Turkish republic – part of a broad array of major projects with which President Erdogan hopes to cement his legacy as the country’s paramount leader.

Interest in the project grew after the recent airing of the HBO series Chernobyl, which covered the fallout from the nuclear disaster in harrowing detail. Google searches in Turkey for “nuclear plant” and “Akkuyu” rose as the first episodes of the series were broadcast.

At the time of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster itself, the then-Turkish government sought to reassure residents of the Black Sea region, a hub of tea and hazelnut production and the closest area to disaster site, that they would not be affected.

“You may safely drink your tea now,” then-Turkish minister of industry and trade Cevdet Aral told reporters following the catastrophe. “Radiation flies away through boiling in any case. Twenty glasses of tea a day is safe.”

While there have been few reliable studies examining the impact of radiation on residents in the area, anecdotal reports from local doctors indicate higher than usual rates of certain types of cancer. In 2018, Metin Ertem, the president of the Turkish Foundation for the Fight against Cancer and a professor at the prestigious Cerrahpaşa Medical Faculty, blamed an apparent rise in thyroid-related cancer cases in the Black Sea region on fallout from Chernobyl.

Turkey’s government explored nuclear power as early as the 1950s, but any schemes that were in development were scrapped after Chernobyl and the country’s nuclear regulator shut down. But the plans were revived in the mid-1990s, and took on new momentum with the country’s rapid economic growth under the Justice and Development party (AKP). 

Environmental activists are now expressing concerns over the lack of transparency in the project, and question whether the government has taken adequate safety measures to prevent accidents in the plant.

The European Commission has said that Ankara had yet to respond to an invitation to join the European Nuclear Safety Regulators Group (ENSREG), a body of experts established by the commission that offers advice and best practice on radioactive waste management.

Deniz Bayram, the Mediterranean project coordinator for Greenpeace, claims that an environmental impact assessment report prepared by the authorities did not describe adequate contingency plans in the case of an accident. (Credit: Greenpeace)

An environmental impact assessment report prepared by the authorities before construction began did not describe adequate contingency plans in the case of an accident. Reports have emerged of cracks in the base of the plant during construction which were subsequently fixed, but officials have not allowed independent experts to examine the site. 

“Any kind of large or small-scale nuclear accident scenarios that could occur due to the reactor’s design or personnel were not covered in the report,” said Deniz Bayram, the Mediterranean project coordinator for Greenpeace. “In any kind of accident scenarios included in the report, the evaluations are incomplete. Fatalities, illnesses, the impact on economic activity, radioactive contamination at sea and on land as well as the social impact from radiation fallout should all be assessed.” 

Experts have also warned that Turkey did not appear to have a plausible plan for transferring or storing nuclear waste, a formidable challenge for many countries. The environmental assessment report suggested that waste could be transported in containers to Russian ports, a route that would take it near major population centres as well as the country’s commercial capital.

“The single possible route to carry the waste passes through the Mediterranean and the Bosporus, and this would put Istanbul at risk,” said Bayram.

A 2018 poll by research and consultancy firm KONDA found that two-thirds of Turks opposed the nuclear plant, a sentiment that the government has continued to ignore.

The 6th Anti-Nuclear Festival in Akkuyu, Turkey, in 1999 (Credit: Greenpeace)

Filiz Yavuz, a journalist who has spent years covering Turkey’s nuclear industry, said the process of building the plant, its potential dangers and benefits as well as any setbacks to the project were often kept from the public, limiting transparency. This undermined the public’s trust in the ability of politicians to handle an issue as critical as a nuclear disaster, she said. 

“Politicians of non-democratic countries don’t ask people when they decide to build nuclear plants,” Yavuz continued. “They don’t recognize the will of people while they are shaping their policies in the field of nuclear energy.”