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Fears over safety of nuclear plant flare up in Turkey

The safety of a controversial nuclear power plant that Turkey is building in collaboration with Russia has fueled fresh worries amid reports of cracks in the foundation of the facility.
A view of the construction site of Turkey's first nuclear power plant 'Akkuyu', pictured during the opening ceremony in the Mediterranean Mersin region on April 3, 2018. 
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin launched the construction of the $20 billion dollar Akkuyu nuclear power plant though a video link from Ankara where Putin is on an official visit. / AFP PHOTO / DOGAN NEWS AGENCY / IBRAHIM MESE / Turkey OUT        (Photo credit should read IBRAHIM MESE/AFP/Getty

Reports of cracks appearing in the foundations of Turkey’s first nuclear power plant, under construction in a quake-prone area, have rekindled fears over the project, with the opposition and civic groups calling for a parliamentary probe and an independent inspection of the facility.

Construction work on the $20 billion project, awarded to Russia’s state-owned nuclear power company Rosatom, kicked off in April 2018 at Akkuyu in the Mediterranean province of Mersin amid simmering warnings, both at home and abroad, over the risks. The plant will have four units, each with a capacity of 1,200 megawatts.

Not long after the groundbreaking, concrete foundations on which the first unit was to be built cracked, according to a bombshell report in the Haberturk daily last month. The journalist who broke the news, Olcay Aydilek, a well-respected member of the press corps in Ankara, told Al-Monitor he had researched the story with multiple sources and obtained multiple confirmations of the cracks.

According to the report, the first cracks in the foundations for the reactor appeared in July 2018. Upon the intervention of the Turkish Atomic Energy Authority (TAEK), the cracked areas were broken up and relaid. But cracks appeared again, causing the foundations to be relaid again in the problem areas.

The TAEK did not deny last month's report, while Akkuyu Nuclear, the project company the Russians set up in Turkey, said in a statement May 8, “More than 17,000 cubic meters of a special type of concrete, which is able to spread and compact under its own weight, was placed on the plant’s foundation.” The statement seemed to amount to an admission of a problem of sorts. But after a big public outcry over the report, the company made a second statement several days later denying the cracks.

A group of lawmakers led by Alpay Antmen, a Mersin deputy for the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), submitted a motion to parliament requesting the creation of a commission to investigate the issue.

Antmen — a lawyer by profession who has served as chair of the Mersin Bar Association and spokesman for an anti-nuclear platform in the region — warned of further risks down the road, especially in the event of an earthquake.

“They pour concrete for the foundation of the site where the plant will be built and it cracks. They fill it and it cracks again. We believe the ground there is not suitable and bigger risks might emerge,” Antmen told Al-Monitor.

“If the foundation cracks when there is no problem in the ground or no earthquake, even bigger risks could arise when an earthquake happens,” he said. “There is a problem there beyond the placement of concrete. This scares us.”

Gulizar Bicer, the CHP’s deputy chair in charge of environmental issues, said that having the Akkuyu plant overseen via the Nuclear Supervision Board, a body created by a presidential decree, did not comply with international standards. The board, she said, includes government-appointed public servants, whereas inspections should be carried out by independent bodies.

“The site of the plant is not good seismically,” Bicer told Al-Monitor. “Independent inspections must be carried out in every phase of [the construction of] the plant.”

Bulent Damar, the head of the Akkuyu Nuclear Plant Monitoring Commission at the Union of Chambers of Turkish Engineers and Architects, said his group contacted the TAEK over the reported cracks, asking to examine the site and certify that the problems had been fixed, but the request remained unanswered. Similarly, the TAEK did not respond to a request to issue a statement explaining the situation, he said.

Damar said, “According to information we obtained from other sources, they did repairs by placing a special type of concrete into the cracks. The main reason for our suspicions is this: Cracks appear because of two reasons — the first is technical reasons and they can be fixed, while the second is ground movements. If ground movements caused the cracks, this is dangerous. A bigger ground movement could happen tomorrow at a facility as crucial as a nuclear power plant. Independent experts must examine the site and prepare a report. You can’t just say, ‘We fixed it’ and close the matter.”

Many worry that a major nuclear accident could take place. Serdar Erhan, an activist at the anti-nuclear platform in Mersin and former head of the local branch of the engineers and architects group, said the initial radioactive impact could affect an area of 20 to 30 square kilometers (8-11.5 square miles), and then, depending on topography and winds, could reach up to 500 square kilometers (193 square miles) in two or three days.

Erhan said a worst-case scenario in an environmental assessment report for Akkuyu indicates that radioactive fallout could reach the island of Cyprus to the west in 20 minutes, then Tarsus to the east (also in Mersin province) "and Syria and then, spreading beyond Syria, would affect a vast region."

Antmen said a major accident could cause radioactive clouds to travel in an area as great as 100,000 square kilometers (38,610 square miles).

The likelihood of the site being opened to nongovernmental groups appears next to zero. The objections of environmentalists regarding the project have long fallen on deaf ears. Last year, an Ankara court rejected a lawsuit filed jointly by a number of civic groups that sought the cancellation of the plant’s license, arguing the ground at the site was not robust enough.

The work at Akkuyu, meanwhile, goes on. The license for the second unit will be issued soon and the foundation is expected to be laid by the year-end. The target is to have two units operational and start production in 2023.

Civic groups remain apprehensive. Soon after the report about the cracks, the hard-hitting TV miniseries “Chernobyl,” about one of the world’s worst nuclear disasters, which happened in 1986 in Ukraine, then part of the Soviet Union, began airing in Turkey.

Alpmen said the Mersin Anti-Nuclear Platform wanted to have the series shown in movie theaters and at awareness-raising gatherings, but the company holding the rights rejected the request.

Bicer argued that everyone in Turkey should watch the series, which, she said, stoked her concerns about the Akkuyu plant. Several Turkish columnists also brought up the series to make comparisons and issue warnings about Akkuyu, pointing out that the same Russian company was involved in the construction of both plants.

The radioactive rain from the Chernobyl explosion was widely believed to have affected northern Turkey, especially the Black Sea coast, at the time, with an increase in cancer cases and anomalies in newborns blamed on the fallout.

After the reported appearance of cracks, building work at Akkuyu was assigned to IC Ictas, a Turkish company close to the government, which has carried out major projects in Russia. The tender for offshore hydrotechnical structures had been awarded earlier to Cengiz Insaat, another construction company close to the government.

The CHP’s bid for a parliamentary probe will probably fail, as the ruling Justice and Development Party, which dominates parliament, is unlikely to back the proposal. Still, finding the answers to the two questions below might shed some light on the controversy:

  • In its statement on the groundbreaking ceremony last year, Akkuyu Nuclear, the project company, said, “The first concrete-pouring works will be carried out by Trest RosSEM, a company with 27 years' experience in the energy and industrial construction sector, which is part of the ASE Engineering Company, an affiliate of the Rosatom state corporation.” While the statement spoke of only one company, a Russian one, in the foundation-laying stage, why was the building work assigned to a Turkish company later?

  • What was the reason for the changes in the plant’s management that took place in the meantime?

Of note, both changes occurred after the cracks that were reported to have appeared in July 2018.

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