I first noticed the advertisements on a tram I boarded in İstanbul last week. Later I saw huge billboards along major roads and a TV commercial trying to promote the same product: nuclear energy. For one moment I hesitated: Did I miss something and was Turkey already able to provide electricity from nuclear reactors? A quick check taught me it wasn’t at all far: Turkey’s first nuclear power plant, at Akkuyu, near Mersin, is still in the first phase of construction and will most probably only start producing electricity in 2023. So why then spend so much money on marketing a product that is not for sale in the foreseeable future?
For decades Turkey has tried to acquire its own nuclear power plants. For all kind of political and financial reasons, Ankara never managed to strike a deal with a foreign company to build one until in 2010 the Russian state-owned nuclear energy company Rosatom came up with an offer that Turkey could not refuse. The Russians will build, own and operate the $20-billion Akkuyu nuclear power plant while the Turkish state will guarantee the purchase of most of the electricity produced there against a fixed price. Three years later, in 2013, Turkey signed a second deal with a Japanese/French consortium that will build and operate another nuclear plant in Sinop but that will only start delivering after 2023. For the moment, all attention is focused on Akkuyu.
You can be sure last week’s publicity offensive is only the first phase of a long campaign to convince the Turkish population of the benefits of nuclear energy. The Turkish government knows very well that for now, most Turks are either opposed to nuclear energy or at the very least very skeptical about the presumptive advantages. Nuclear energy is an unpopular product that will need massive marketing to get it accepted by the time it becomes available.
In the months and years to come we will witness a very professional public relations campaign with only one aim: To try to take away the doubts about nuclear energy and highlight the positives. The arguments in favor will be a combination of the general ones always promoted by the nuclear industry and some specific Turkish ones. Belonging to the first category are the following catchwords: Improved safety, low costs, cleaner than coal, major contribution to fighting climate change. On top of that will come several presumed national bonuses: It will decrease Turkey’s energy dependency and current account deficit and will increase the country’s status and prestige.
All these justifications will be challenged by a motley collection of environmentalists, academics and local activists from Akkuyu and Sinop who don’t want their towns to be the places where this controversial experiment is located.
The arguments against nuclear power are well-known as well: The unresolved waste issue, the lethal impact of possible accidents, the brighter future of renewable alternatives such as sun and wind power, and, in the case of Turkey, the danger of earthquakes and the growing dependency on Russia.
In a timely, recently published book on Turkey’s nuclear future, edited by George Perkovich and Sinan Ülgen, another potential risk is stressed and that is the need for an independent regulatory nuclear agency that will give Turks and the international community confidence that safety will be an overriding imperative. Whether or not such an agency can be effective and, if need be, go against the government, depends according to the authors on the evolution of the Turkish state. Will independent institutions still be allowed to operate freely in a country where power is increasingly concentrated in a de facto presidential system with few checks and balances left intact?
These and all the classical questions on nuclear energy will hopefully be part of the debate we should have in Turkey in the upcoming years. My advice: Be critical of the slick and polished pro-nuclear advertising campaigns that will be launched to prepare the ground. Take your time to listen to the arguments of the opponents who, I admit, convinced me some time ago that going nuclear is an old-fashioned, 20th-century solution at a time when better, safer and cheaper alternatives are available.