Lying between holiday resorts and fishing villages on Turkey’s Mediterranean coast are large expanses of newly laid concrete that will eventually form the country’s first nuclear power station – a $20 billion project that is facing new safety and environmental concerns.
Turkey has dreamed of building a nuclear plant for decades to reduce its reliance on imported gas and oil.
Construction began last year on the Akkuyu power station in Mersin province but recent claims have cast a shadow over the project.
Engineers and workers at the site alleged that large cracks had repeatedly appeared in the concrete foundations due to the area’s loose and unstable ground, leading to fears of a potential nuclear disaster once the plant is operational.
They also claimed that not enough qualified technicians were working at the site and that the foundations were prone to flooding.
Worries about safety have added to concerns about the impact on marine life as water used as coolant is returned to the Mediterranean.
In addition, the construction has led to complaints of a lack of consultation from Greece and Cyprus, which lies about 70 kilometres to the south.
“The ground is not appropriate for this kind of construction,” said Emre Uresin, a spokesman for the Anti-Nuclear Platform and a member of the Union of Chambers of Turkish Engineers and Architects.
“How can this area, which can’t even sustain the base, carry the weight of a nuclear reactor? Akkuyu was chosen as the location in the 1970s – a decision made due to 1970s technology. Since that time technology has improved dramatically so the site should have been reassessed with this new knowledge.”
Alpay Antmen, a member of parliament in Mersin for the opposition Republican People's Party, has also voiced safety concerns. "In this region there are a lot of caves and it's likely that there are caves under the Akkuyu site," he told The National.
“The company say the cracks in the cement had nothing to do with the ground. If they are sincere, they should allow independent assessors on to the site to verify what’s going on.”
The project is led by Rosatom, the Russian nuclear agency, which has a 51 per cent stake in Akkuyu Nuclear, with the search for local partners ongoing after three Turkish firms withdrew last year.
Rosatom has said that it conducted exhaustive surveys, abided by Turkish and European regulations and hired independent French engineers to monitor the site. Responding to concerns about the plant’s proximity to a seismic fault line, the company said it will be built to withstand a magnitude-9 earthquake.
“All aspects of the project are being conducted under the supervision of Turkey’s Ministry of Energy and Natural Resources, the Turkish Atomic Energy Authority and other relevant institutions,” the company said.
Meanwhile, others fear poor work safety standards in Turkey add another risk at Akkuyu, where the first reactor is due to start working in 2023.
Ful Ugurhan, a retired doctor and anti-nuclear activist from Mersin, said: “I know from my own experience that work safety is very, very low in Turkey. Safety measures in the workplace are not taken seriously.”
She pointed to a 1998 incident in Istanbul in which two containers of medical radioactive waste were sold for scrap, leaving dozens ill. “Turkey is not even a nuclear country yet but it is already on the International Atomic Energy Agency’s accident list,” she said.
Dr Ugurhan has followed developments at Akkuyu, which was licensed in 1976, for more than two decades. She said a lack of transparency fuelled concerns.
Engineer Mr Uresin also accused Akkuyu Nuclear of “working behind a curtain” and called for greater access for independent experts.
Mehmet Uysal lives in the nearby village of Buyukeceli and is one of its most active opponents. Both he and Dr Ugurhan have been arrested several times due to their activism. “There are many people who are strongly against the power station but they don’t want to lose their jobs or go to jail over it,” the water technician, 40, said.
The effect on the Mediterranean’s ecosystem is top among environmental worries about Akkuyu, which will use seawater to cool its four 1,200-megawatt reactors. Environmentalists speculate that pumping used coolant back into the sea could result in the water temperature around Mersin rising by 80 per cent.
Tunc Cataloglu, 62, an amateur fisherman who holidays at the nearby village of Yesilovacik said that he fears the possible increase in sea temperature will affect the area’s marine diversity.
“Fish won’t lay their eggs and the sea around here will turn into a desert filled with water,” he said. “It will have a long-term effect on the sea. Already there is a cement factory that was built to provide Akkuyu and this has greatly affected the environment. There are a lot less fish than there used to be just a couple of years ago.”
Others said the plant would change the region’s character. “This is a farming area that’s being turned into an industrial zone,” said Hasan Yurt, head of the Yesilovacik residents’ co-operative. “Farmers are now working at the cement factory and nothing is being planted.”
Turkey has taken up a 15-year obligation to buy a certain amount of electricity at a set price regardless of demand. It is anticipated that the plant will supply a tenth of Turkey’s electricity needs.
“This will not contribute to the Turkish economy in any way because the cost of producing electricity is very high,” said Mr Uresin, from the engineers’ union.
Others point out that with abundant solar and wind resources, Turkey has no need for nuclear power.
The plant threatens to add to Ankara’s ongoing dispute with Cyprus over Northern Cyprus, which is recognised only by Turkey, and gas exploration in the region.
“Our main concerns … refer to the geographical and physical characteristics of the location,” said George Perdikes, leader of the Cyprus Green Party. He added that the environmental impact assessment had been carried out “in a problematic way … without any consultation with neighbouring countries.”
Meanwhile, the European Union noted that Turkey was not party to international conventions that call for countries to consult neighbouring states over the environmental impact of major projects.
“Turkey is expected to align its legislation with all EU acquis on nuclear safety, which requires nuclear installations to be designed, sited, constructed, commissioned and operated in a way to prevent any accidents from occurring,” a European Commission representative said.