Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias marked the 35th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster on Monday by calling on Turkey to discuss its plans for constructing a nuclear power plant with its neighbors. The Turkish nuclear plans have come to light recently as Russia stepped in to finance the project.
In a Tweet, the Greek FM stated “The Chernobyl disaster, the largest nuclear disaster in history, is a constant reminder of the lurking dangers. As I have already stated, Turkey must reach an understanding with its neighboring countries on the Akkuyu nuclear power plant project.”
Dendias has already discussed the proposed power plant, to be sited in Akkuyu, with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken back in February. Greece’s neighbor has slated the plant to come online in 2023, marking the centennial of the modern Turkish state.
In his remarks at that time, Dendias pointed out the risk the nuclear power plant would pose to the countries in its immediate vicinity, as well as Ankara’s seeming unwillingness to share any information about its plans.
The fact that the proposed plot constitutes Russia’s largest foreign investment is also a cause of concern to Dendias and other Western leaders.
Turkish nuclear plans bring back memories of Chernobyl meltdown
At the time, Dendias even raised the specter of the largest nuclear disaster in the world, Chernobyl, speculating about what kind of ramifications such an event would have for the entire Eastern Mediterranean.
However, it isn’t just the deep-seated fear of radiation accidents that Dendias appears to be focusing on in his stance on the reactor; it is his realization that in creating the reactors necessary to power the plant, Turkey will be developing the technological prowess required for developing its own nuclear arms.
Greek media reports state that anonymous Greek officials have said that Turkey has not just one nuclear power plant in the works but four.
In addition, the country is already training its engineers and attempting to access resources, including fissile material, that can be used for military purposes as well.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin remotely inaugurated the construction of a third nuclear reactor at the Akkuyu power plant in southern Turkey on March 10.
Erdogan said the plant would launch Turkey into the ”league of nuclear energy countries” and called it a “symbol of Turkish-Russian cooperation.”
Russia is building Turkey’s first nuclear power plant on the Mediterranean coast in Mersin province. The two countries signed a cooperation agreement in 2010 and began construction in 2018.
Nuclear power is “strategic step” for energy security — Erdogan
Turkish Energy Minister Fatih Donmez said the Akkuyu plant would fulfill about 10% of domestic electricity needs.
Erdogan said the first reactor would become operational in 2023, and a total of four reactors are planned.
Russia’s Rosatom State Corporation holds a 99.2% stake in the project, whose total cost is estimated at 20 billion U.S. dollars, according to the plant’s website.
Putin said that the plant will help Turkey’s economy and independence.
“We are convinced that [the plant’s] implementation will make a serious contribution to strengthening the energy security of the Republic of Turkey and help stimulate further growth of its economy.
It will provide Turkish consumers with affordable and environmentally-friendly electricity,” Putin added.
The Turkish president said cooperation between Ankara and Moscow played a “key role” in regional stability.
“We have had the opportunity to see the results of Turkish-Russian dialogue in many fields, including in Libya, in Nagorno-Karabakh, in Syria,” Erdogan said.
Nuclear weapons suspicions
Despite Turkey’s claims that the plant will only be used to diversify energy resources, some have suggested Ankara may have plans to enrich uranium.
Al Jazeera reports that Turkey and nuclear-armed Pakistan have long had military cooperation agreements that were recently intensified, with some news reports suggesting Islamabad may be covertly supporting a nuclear weapons program.
Military cooperation deals have been signed earlier this year with Kazakhstan, a country which provides at least 35 percent of the world’s uranium.
Asked by Al Jazeera about possible nuclear cooperation with Pakistan, the senior energy official in Ankara said during meetings in Vienna there have been talks about possible cooperation on peaceful use, under IAEA control, especially in radiation technologies and cancer treatment.
Apart from the Akkuyu reactor, another is slated for Sinop, on the Black Sea, as well as Igneada, in eastern Thrace, near the border with Bulgaria.
Sinop is the site of where Turkey launched a missile, believed to be an S-400 missile, which is had purchased from Russia.
True to form, Erdogan has not been shy about voicing his nuclear ambitions, stating in an address to members of his Justice and Development Party (AKP) “Some states possess missiles armed with nuclear warheads and they tell us that we cannot also acquire such weapons. This is something I cannot accept,” in September of 2019.
The deal struck by Rosatom and Turkey calls for the construction of four, 1,200 megawatt nuclear reactors.
Although Turkey has stated that the Akkuyu plant will be online in 2023, it is not expected to produce energy until 2025. According to experts, it will have a lifespan of at least 60 years.
Although funding of the project is technically through an entity called Akkuyu Nuclear JSC, Rosatom has held 99.2 % of its shares since 2010, comprising the largest private investment in nuclear energy anywhere in the world for the past 17 years.
Many fear Turkish nuclear plans have not undergone enough study
Reports say that the Akkuyu site has not undergone the necessary stress tests or an evaluation of the dangers posed by the seismic activity that plagues the entire Mediterranean area. A mere decade ago, a major earthquake occurred in the nearby city of Adana.
The Sinop plant was originally part of plans that grew out of a partnership with Mitsubishi Heavy Industry and the French firm Areva.
When those plans fell through, Turkey turned to China for assistance in constructing a nuclear power plant near Igneada, just 5 km from from the border with Bulgaria, in an area that was designated as a military area by Turkey last May. The move is seen as a way for the country to facilitate the purchase of the land for the power plant.
Many experts believe that Turkey’s diplomatic overtures in countries including Pakistan, Nine and Chad – with the latter two having large uranium despostis– are linked to Turkey’s nuclear ambitions.
Turkey itself has only two areas containing uranium, with tone of them, Sefaatli, explored in a cooperative deal with a US company, but the American firm pulled out of the effort after the relationship with Turkey deteriorated after 2015.
Pakistan is one of only nine countries in the world to possess a nuclear arsenal.
International media reports say that a meeting between Pakistani and Turkish military officials in December was part of an effort to agree on a treaty involving Pakistan helping Turkey with technological know-how regarding the creation of nuclear arms — perhaps even including long-range missiles.
Turkish nuclear engineers have been receiving instruction from individuals from Russia’s Institute of Nuclear Physics since 2018, with some sources saying that a total of 140 engineers have already graduated from the program and more than one hundred currently studying in it.
Both Turkish newspaper Hurriyet and the Russian news agency Sputnik disclosed that the engineers are reaching instruction at the National Research Nuclear University MEPhI in Moscow and Obninsk.
A strange bedfellow in this mix is Ukraine — the site of the Chernobyl disaster –which experts note is also the object of Turkish attention since it has nuclear engineers which may come to Turkey’s aid if the Russian cooperation falls through.
A US State Department official is quoted in an article published by the Center for the National Interest as saying that it is vital that Turkey continue to abide by the commitments it agreed to in the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons in 1980 and the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty in 1996.
The fact that Turkey is part of NATO complicates her nuclear ambitions as well, of course, since the non-proliferation of nuclear arms is one of the organization’s fundamental principles.
Crucially, however, Erdogan did not sign on to the International Atomic Energy Agency’s Joint Convention on the Safety of Spent Fuel Management and Safety of Radioactive Waste Management.
Even inside Turkey itself, many are voicing fears of what might happen if the country’s nuclear power plans become a reality, remembering the devastation wrought by the Chernobyl disaster in 1986.
Turkey received radioactive fallout after Chernobyl
Due to the way the winds blew during those harrowing days after the core of the reactor blew up, spewing radiation far and wide, almost all of Europe received radioctive fallout, from Lapland in the north to the Mediterranean in the south.
The Black Sea coast of Turkey was no exception, but the country’s authorities took the danger so cavalierly that its officials assured the public there was nothing to be afraid of.
Sukru Dogan, a trader in Istanbul, said “The government told us we could eat and drink everything without worrying about it.”
At the time, a Turkish government minister even drank a cup of tea on television, telling the public that “a little radiation never hurt anyone” in order not to jeopardize the income from the tea harvest that year.
Incredibly, Turkish President Turgut Ozal even declared publicly that radioactive tea tasted better in an effort to tamp down the hysteria that spread in the aftermath of Chernobyl.
Turkish farmers had no alternative other than to sell — and eat — their radioactive crops that year. Hazelnut farmer Gonul Erdern asked “What were we supposed to do, we had to eat something — and everything was contaminated.”
Thirty-five years later, hospitals in cities all along the Black Sea are full of cancer patients — including many of Erdern’s relatives.
Deutsche Welle reports that Melda Keskin, who authored the groundbreaking report on the effects of Chernobyl inside Turkey, said that the government itself was to blame for the people’s cautionary attitude toward nuclear energy now.
“If we had followed even the simplest precautionary measures, if we had just washed the tea, then people would have come into much less contact with radiation,” she explained in an interview.
Turkish energy expert Ozgur Gurbuz concurs, saying that the Turkish people have good reason to be skeptical of the oversight of the Turkish nuclear energy authority, saying “no other agency on earth should be kept further away from” a nuclear power plant than that body.
Just the amount of radioactive material used for cancer treatments has posed a problem for Turkey in the past, when a small quantity of cobalt that was meant for medical purposes inexplicably ended up in a junkyard.
The embarrassing and unsettling incident actually led to a fatality as well, involving an investigation on the part of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
The recollection of that fiasco led Gurbuz to ask “A government that can’t keep 20 grams of atomic material under control now wants to build three nuclear power plants?”
Any nuclear power plant in Turkey will not only endanger his own country, he says, but the entire world as well.