Turkey has good reason to seek out new sources of energy. With a growing and energy-hungry population -- electricity demand has grown an average of 8 percent per year over the past decade -- Turkey finds itself importing more than 70 percent of its energy, primarily fossil fuels. As part of a larger plan to privatize and liberalize its energy market, the Turkish government wants to reduce gas imports and increase the share of renewable energy to 30 percent and nuclear to 10 percent of Turkish power by 2023, the 100th anniversary of the Turkish Republic. If they succeed, it could turn Turkey into "one of the most potentially lucrative and active nuclear markets in the world," according to a comprehensive report on the country's transition to nuclear power by the Istanbul-based Centre for Economic and Foreign Policy Studies (EDAM).
Turkey is also worried about its reliance on fossil fuels from neighbors like Iran and -- ironically -- Russia, which in 2009 famously shut off gas shipments through Ukraine over a pricing dispute, leaving Turkey and much of Europe shivering for several weeks in the dead of winter.
Yet many Turks are deeply uneasy with the nuclear ambitions of their government. There have been multiple protests, especially in the weeks and months following the Fukushima disaster. Residents around the planned facility are particularly upset. The Akkuyu site is in Turkey's Mersin province, a tourist region along the Mediterranean coast that locals fear could lose its allure and prompt residents to move out. "This is a touristic place and a plant there could make the region lose significant tourism revenue," says Necdet Pamir, chairman of the Energy Commission of the opposition Republican People's Party, which opposes the project over safety concerns and has tried and failed to block it in Turkey's Constitutional Court. The concerns are international as well. Worried about a potential catastrophe near their borders, Greece and Cyprus have called on the EU to scrutinize the project.
Earthquake risk is also a serious concern. In 1998 a 6.2 magnitude quake hit Adana, 110 miles away from Akkuyu Bay, killing 150 and causing an estimated $1 billion in damage. "Akkuyu is a dangerous location 20-25 kilometers away from an active fault plane and the license to build was granted before this was known," says Pamir. "Also, Turkey has other, safer indigenous energy resources," he says, that could be developed instead of nuclear, such as "clean-coal," hydroelectricity, solar, or wind. None of those sources would be as risky as nuclear in a seismically active country, says Pamir. (Turkish officials insist that the sites being explored for reactors have a low seismic risk and that the Akkuyu site has been designed to withstand a magnitude 9.0 quake.)
The lack of a nuclear track record also raises questions. "It's not clear that the Turkish regulator has the capacity to oversee the Russians building a Russian plant and operating this plant in its country," says Kevin Massy, associate director of the Energy Security Initiative at the Brookings Institution. He visited Turkey earlier this year to study its energy plans for a report published this week. With regulators answering to the Energy Ministry, the same entity that is promoting the project, Sinan Ulgen, a former Turkish diplomat and chairman of the EDAM think tank, is also concerned. "The full independence of the nuclear regulatory authority is a crucial element in ensuring a safe and secure transition to nuclear power," he says. "Many accidents, including at Fukushima, show that this is a core component of safe nuclear power."