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The Fukushima disaster and Turkish media’s trial by fire

Anti-nuclear/anti-dam protest in Istanbul, source: Flickr, photo: anirvan, licence: CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

May 11, 2011
İbrahim Günel

The fifth largest earthquake recorded in history that hit northeast Japan with a magnitude of 9 on the Richter scale on 11 March 2011 and the resulting tsunami with waves sporadically as tall as 10 meters caught the Japanese people, no strangers to tremors, off guard.

Not only did the earthquake and the tsunami catch the Japanese off-guard, they crippled several nuclear reactors that met 30 percent of Japan’s power demand in what was the greatest nuclear accident that went down in the country’s 60-year past. Meltdown began in four of the reactors of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in northeast Japan when the fuel rods could not be cooled down. The presence of the plutonium/uranium fuel mixture briefly named “MOX” in the third of the power plant’s six reactors showed the gravity of the impending nuclear disaster – the greatest ever.  

Ardent defenders of nuclear power abounded in Turkish media and among Turkish administrators despite an earlier occurrence of the same disaster in the Oganawa Nuclear Power Plant in northeast Japan in a 7.4-magnitude earthquake on 9 April 2001. All of them including the Minister of Energy and Natural Resources Taner Yıldız claimed the third reactor of the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant was a first-generation one when, in fact, it was second-generation.

While Taner Yıldız and Turkish authorities saw no likelihood, contrary to the warning of the nuclear opponents, that the Ecemiş Fault Line could cause a catastrophe similar to the one in Japan for the Akkuyu Nuclear Power Plant and alleged that a similar tsunami would not happen in the Mediterranean, Istanbul Technical University’s Geological Engineering Department faculty member Cenk Yaltırak, in a scientific article published on 8 April 2004 in the Science and Technology supplement of the daily Cumhuriyet, called attention to the necessity for thoroughly examining the submarine structure of the Kozan and Ecemiş Fault Lines that went undersea near Akkuyu. Yaltırak wrote,

The geology of the Ecemiş and Kozan Fault Lines and the sea area south of the Central Taurus Mountains:

            Site selection work for the Akkuyu Nuclear Power Plant began with the surveys conducted by the government in 1983. In 1985 the Canadian firm Terratech examined the resulting report and declared the survey inadequate. In 1988 and 1989, the 9 September University’s surveying ship DEÜ Koca Piri Reis worked in the area, mapping the fault lines extending into the sea. Gökçen et al. concluded that the Ecemiş Fault Line with a left lateral strike slip, the existence of which had been established by Yetişi, was active and extended into the Mediterranean.

            The left lateral strike slip Ecemiş Fault to the southeast of Central Anatolia intrigued numerous researchers and many opinions were put forth regarding its activity. The assumption that the Ecemiş Fault extended into the Mediterranean triggered both national and international reaction as an issue bearing on the construction of the Akkuyu Nuclear Power Plant.

            The debate on whether the Ecemiş Fault extends to the sea and runs as far as Akkuyu can only be resolved by means of a detailed survey on dry land. To the extent it can be observed on a digital terrain model with 30-meter resolution, satellite images with 1-meter resolution, and geological maps to 1/25,000 scale, the seismic activity on the Ecemiş Fault does not extend to the Akkuyu area, which casts doubt on the idea that the fault joins the Mediterranean (Figure 2). According to the digital terrain model, the southward extension of the Ecemiş Fault branches out and dampens from Çamlıyayla (37°11’0.35”N- 34°36’26.98”E) onwards and does not reach the Mediterranean or it has a strike slip smaller than 30-meter resolution. The fault observed undersea by Gökçen et al. and described as the Ecemiş Fault was identified as the extension of the Kozan Fault in seaborne surveys conducted in the 2000’s (Figure 3).

The Kozan Fault

            In the Akkuyu area, the Kozan Fault zone starts in Kozan in the province of Adana, stretching to Mersin and on to the Mediterranean. It consists of faults with left lateral strike slip similar in age to the Ecemiş Fault. Seaborne surveys show the Kozan Fault to extend as far as the vicinity of Akkuyu.

            Although an undersea extension of the Kozan Fault has been determined by seismic research, the data produced cannot be said to be adequate for the selection of a location for the power plant. The data available suggests that, rather than the Ecemiş Fault, research should be focused on the faults discovered by means of seismic work in the Mediterranean that impact the deposits and the seabed. Some essential requirements in this respect are multiradial bathymetric data, surveys employing shallow seismic research methods in the Göksu Delta to the south and east of Akkuyu, core sampling, and the identification of repetitive intervals in the deposits impacted by the fault zone. The construction of the Akkuyu Nuclear Power Plant will have commenced without adequate research unless these requirements are met.

Akkuyu, Landslide in the Mediterranean and Tsunami

            Another point worthy of note in the seismic cross sections between Cyprus and the Mediterranean is the presence of undersea landslides. It is known that tsunamis are not caused only by the movement of the fault but that landslides on the seabed also cause large tsunamis. The location of the island of Cyprus is in a tectonically active area. Because of the dipping and sinking south of Cyprus, an earthquake to occur here could trigger landslides on the seabed north of Cyprus.

            Therefore, the sea area between Cyprus and Turkey has to be meticulously examined and high-resolution bathymetry performed – at least initially – just as it was done on the Marmara seabed, in the Saros Bay, and in the Black Sea north of Istanbul. We can discuss the risks only after the landslides have been identified and modeled.

            Political will is but short-lived. Our laws unfortunately do not specify culpability in the event of a possible disaster of this nature. The only defensive argument fielded by those who encouraged the construction of industrial plants in the area before the earthquakes in 1999 was, “No one warned us!” The duty of scientists in the 21st century is to establish the situation and clearly point to the dangers if they exist.

            Not a single geologist can claim that everything has been done as far as site selection for the Akkuyu Nuclear Power Plant is concerned. On the other hand, proclaiming the area strictly dangerous would be mere speculation in the absence of the aforementioned research. The real danger lies in the self-satisfied disregard for science and the stubborn refusal to give consideration to others’ opinions.”

As the developed countries in the world questioned the safety of their nuclear power plants in the course of the disaster in Japan and the administrators of the Western nations, chiefly Germany, went so far as to mention closing down their nuclear power plants, debate on nuclear power plants also made the agenda of Turkish media particularly in connection with the one in Akkuyu, Mersin the building and operation of which had been tendered to the Russians under an international contract and another in Sinop on which negotiations were in progress with the Japanese. The statements made by the Turkish authorities exhibited an even more profound heedlessness. In a press conference preceding his trip to Russia, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan commented, “We have gas bottles in our homes. Are we not supposed to build just because there’s danger?” while the Minister of Energy and Natural Resources Taner Yıldız observed that “Celibacy is riskier than nuclear” as detailed in the following news report:

“Minister of Energy and Natural Resources Taner Yıldız claimed that the nuclear power plants to be built in Turkey did not pose as great a risk as their critics would have it, supporting his claim with the finding that the life expectancy of bachelors was six years shorter than married people in the USA.

Yıldız answered questions on nuclear power plants on the show entitled Eğrisi Doğrusu (Pros and Cons) prepared and presented by Taha Akyol on CNN Türk.

Claiming that the nuclear power plants to be built in Turkey did not pose as great a risk as their critics would have it, Yıldız explained this by offering findings from a sociological survey conducted in the USA.

Yıldız noted the survey had determined that the life expectancy of bachelors was six years shorter than married people in the USA, saying, ‘Smoking shortens people’s lifetime by 2.3 years, poverty by 700 days, heart conditions by 2,100 days. Airplane crashes shorten average life expectancy in the USA by one day. The shortening effect of nuclear power plants on life expectancy has been determined as only 0.03 days.’”

As the Turkish public mulled over this weighty comment, an official of the Energy Ministry announced to the Reuters news agency that Turkey’s third nuclear power plant would be built in İğneada near the Bulgarian border.

Minister of the Environment and Forests Veysel Eroğlu, a professor of ecology in his own right, chipped in with the joyful tidings that the radioactive clouds spreading across the whole world from Fukushima and approaching Turkey, too, with atmospheric currents would pass Turkey by thanks to the presence of high mountains in the country.

Looking at Turkish media over the approximately one-month period since the accident, we see that some actors fervently support nuclear energy much as one would back a favorite football team while others strongly oppose it. Others seem at a loss on whom to side with. The situation is inevitably reminiscent of Penny Marshall’s 1990 film The Awakenings as it is of many others about nuclear energy.

Now let’s browse through the articles published in Turkish media in the aftermath of the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. The first reference to the Fukushima accident and the nuclear power plants to be built in Turkey appeared in Hasan Cemal’s column in the daily Milliyet on 15 March 2011, three days after the accident. Hasan Cemal voiced the following opinion in his essay entitled “A thousand nays to both nuclear energy and a nuclear power plant in Akkuyu”:

“I had long been confused over nuclear power plants. Should we have them or not?
I had no clear answer to that question.
It went on this way for many years. (...)
The agreement the Justice and Development Party government had reached with the Russians to have a nuclear power plant built in Akkuyu, Mersin without even holding a tender for more bids had given me some concern.

But I had not been able at the time to show the reaction the situation called for.

So I’m showing it now:

(1) I’m against nuclear power plants.

(2) I’m calling out to Prime Minister Erdoğan to have the government give up its stubborn stance to build a nuclear power plant in Akkuyu.

(3) Because I think that insisting doggedly on a nuclear power plant after the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan would be no less than a’ crime against humanity.’

(4) It’s sheer heedlessness to refuse to see in the aftermath of the Japanese nightmare how great and how terrible a safety risk nuclear power plants pose.

To put it differently,
Nuclear energy is not indispensable.

Nuclear energy is not cheap.

Nuclear energy is not safe.

For years, we have been made to believe the exact opposite.

In fact, we have been downright deceived.

As I watched in awe what transpired in Japan, I realized it was time we woke up from this oblivious slumber.


We need to wake up from this slumber of oblivion.

I did.

If there is anyone out there that hasn’t woken up yet, wake them up. Let’s stand as one against the nuclear peril.

We can no longer remain indifferent to the horrible catastrophe in Japan.

And the best way not to remain indifferent is to cross out nuclear energy from humanity’s agenda. 

I repeat my call:

Nay to nuclear energy, nay to nuclear power plants!

Nay to a nuclear power plant in Akkuyu, Mersin!”[1]

A riposte to this essay of Hasan Cemal’s came from the daily Haber Türk columnist Güntay Şimşek on 17 March 2011. In his essay entitled “A thousand yeas to nuclear,” Şimşek dismissed Hasan Cemal’s words as devoid of content, saying,

“In yesterday’s Milliyet, Hasan Cemal put the title ‘A thousand nays to nuclear’ on top of his article that was totally devoid of content and served no other purpose than to signal which side he was on. Inspired by his style, I’d like to say, ‘A thousand yeas to nuclear.’ Since nuclear energy is the entry level to nuclear technology, I’ll refer to it simply as ‘nuclear’ to do justice to its broader scope.

Secondly, why isn’t anyone in the media doing anything in the light of the opinions of our professors that have published works of research on nuclear? It’s a grave mistake to have forgotten our important scientists

when the obvious fact is that the ideological obsessions and narrow-minded views of the chambers of architects and engineers won’t get us anywhere. I know that not only we but also the concerned authorities of the government occasionally fail to ask for the comments of our scientists – particularly about nuclear.

Take Prof. Altuğ Şişman, the Director of Istanbul Technical University’s Energy Institute. Has anyone asked this key figure about the nuclear issue in the light of what happened in Japan? Again, has anyone asked Prof. Şişman’s teacher, Prof. Ahmet Bayülken, ‘What do you think?’ It would be more appropriate for writers like Hasan Cemal to address the issue in the light of the comments of such scientists but they won’t do it.”[2]

Reha Muhtar, whose name is indelibly etched in our collective memory from the by-line he used reporting from Athens in days of old, devoted part of his column in the daily Vatan on 18 March 2011 to voicing the concerns he felt over the misfortune that befell the Japanese people, resulting in approximately 10,000 dead and twice as many lost,  in an essay entitled “I wonder what the Japanese sweetheart is doing now” in which he reminisced about a Japanese lover with whom he had spent passionate nights after their meeting at a gala dinner at the Turkish Embassy in Tokyo where he had been invited during his stay in Japan for a seminar in journalism when he was 25.[3]

Hıncal Uluç, who spewed fire and brimstone at environmentalists at every opportunity, proclaimed them “obstructionists,” and regularly defended gold-mining companies and the construction of a third bridge across the Istanbul Strait, sounded somewhat repentant in his 19 March 2011 essay entitled “This thing they call nuclear energy” in which he passed on the views of an American scientist:

“Then came the disaster in Japan. Yesterday, I read Jonathan Schell's article entitled "From Hiroshima to Fukushima" in the New York Times. Who is Schell? He’s a scientist who teaches a course in the Nuclear Impasse at Yale University. His article was awesome.

He mentions the three disasters that hit Japan one after another: first, the earthquake; next, the tsunami; and then the explosions in the nuclear reactors.

He opens the discussion by observing, ‘The first two were the doings of Mother Nature but in the third, we humans played the lead role because it was we that built those reactors.’ I’ll outline what he says:


‘There was no atomic energy, no fusion and no fission on earth until the human beings began poking their noses into these things.

66 years ago, the United States dropped a couple of bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, also in Japan. The then US president Truman said, “This is the atomic bomb. We used the basic force in space. We used the energy that makes the might of the sun against those that dragged the Far East into war.”

It has been discovered since that the man-made atomic bomb was just as destructive as an earthquake – even worse because of the radioactivity it left behind.

Research began into the bright side of atomic energy in 1950. Factories were built that generated nuclear energy. President Eisenhower launched the “Atoms for Peace” campaign in which America was to provide nuclear technology know-how to other countries in exchange for nuclear disarmament. The campaign grew rapidly. Paradoxically, the nuclear weapons arsenal of the United States expanded from 1,436 pieces to 20,464 in the meantime.

Problems emerged as nuclear power plants spread across the world.

Firstly, if a country produced nuclear energy, it could manufacture atomic bombs, too.

Secondly where and how was nuclear waste going to be disposed of, knowing that its radioactivity would persist for thousands of years?

Thirdly, nuclear power plants could pose a threat on their own as they did in Chernobyl and Japan. Nuclear energy is a high and complicated technology but it’s very prone to accident.

The idea behind the technology is to convert water to steam using the heat generated through the nuclear chain reaction and to use the steam to turn the turbines that will power the generators that will produce electricity. The problem here lies in getting rid of the very high degree of released heat continuously without a hitch. Cooling requires pumps and pumps require conventional sources of energy which are also very prone to accident. In Japan, the pumps stopped when the generator supplying power to them failed because of the earthquake. Then, cooling stopped and the reactor began overheating rapidly, leading first to a meltdown and next to explosions – followed by a radiation leak.

Cooling a hot object by pouring cold water over it is a simple technology but things can always go wrong. Sometimes it takes a tsunami for things to go awry and sometimes a technician nodding off next to a control knob.

If these things can happen in a country like Japan that has the world’s most advanced technology, imagine what would happen elsewhere.

The problem is not the inability to build safer cooling generators with redundancy or the failure to improve the safety rules and precautions or the misplacement of nuclear waste.

The problem is that these tasks are managed and controlled by a creature like man that’s not perfect at all.

Nature is a threat and an agent of destruction for the world as it is. There’s no need to help it by man-made means.

After what happened in Japan, some suggest that nuclear energy be abolished. I have a totally different idea. Let’s not decide in haste. Let’s pause to think. Until when?

Plutonium, the leader of the nuclear waste league, has a half-life of 24,000 years, meaning that in 24,000 years, half of the plutonium produced in reactors and requiring disposal will be converted to other materials and no longer be radioactive. So, it wouldn’t be rash to think half that half-life – 12,000 years.

In the meantime, we’ll keep looking for new forms of energy. Only then will we have done something good by splitting the atom.’


Shocking, isn’t it?”[4]

Yiğit Bulut, the rising star in Turkish media in the recent years, the ex-son-in-law of Namık Kemal Zeybek who was a former member of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) but is now the chairman of the Democratic Party (DP), joined the debate with an essay in the 14 March 2011 issue of the daily Haber Türk entitled “Is the world moving towards destruction? Is there any credibility to the prophesies that the end of the world is getting near?” Bulut gave his backing, in a way, to nuclear energy while signaling his allegiance to his pro-nuclear boss Turgay Ciner by theorizing, “Dear friends, every system will undergo a downturn after passing through its peak. After passing through the zenith of its lifetime, Planet Earth, too, will perhaps move toward destruction either alone or together with the system it’s a part of. An important detail here is that such a dying out – destruction – would not be observable to human beings in the limited lifetime of their race by any means. It would not happen in a short time frame such as 2000, 3000, or 5000 years.”

In his column entitled “There is your nuclear!” in the 27 March 2011 issue of the daily Hürriyet, Yılmaz Özdil recounted the experiences of Star TV correspondent Turgut Erat and cameraman Mustafa Şap during the earthquake in Japan and the accident in Fukushima, saying the real news was right in the middle of Istanbul. In reference to Prime Minister Erdoğan’s comment on gas bottles not being immune to explosion, either, Özdil describes the video footage his colleagues returning from Japan recorded in the Center for Nuclear Medicine of the Taksim Education and Research Hospital: the reporters that braved lethal radioactivity in their quest for a story right inside the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant were flabbergasted at the sight of an electric samovar inside the entrance to the hospital with a sign attached, on which was scribbled the warning “Do not touch! Danger of electric shock!” Özdil concluded his article by saying, “Build a nuclear power plant in this country or put a gas bottle in your kitchen. They are pretty much the same.”

Interviews on Fukushima / Akkuyu also appeared in the Turkish press. A couple of examples that exposed all aspects of the truth about nuclear energy were Leyla Tavşanoğlu’s interview with Erhan Karaçay, the chairman of the Istanbul Branch of the Chamber of Electrical Engineers, in the daily Cumhuriyet and Mine Şenocaklı’s interviews with Prof. Tolga Yarman and Prof. Ahmet Ercan entitled “Scientists warn” and “Fukushima is worse than Chernobyl” in the daily Vatan on 21-22 March.[5]

As world public opinion and the Turkish public showed their opposition to and skepticism of nuclear energy, the Turkish government’s infatuation with it persisted. Prime Minister Erdoğan came up with more examples in the wake of the analogy he drew between nuclear reactors and gas bottles. In a statement in Kahramanmaraş on 27 March 2011, Prime Minister Erdoğan declared that Turkey remained determined to adopt nuclear energy, asking, “Are we not supposed to ride cars because there is a risk involved? These opponents – don’t they use computers? Don’t they watch television?” which added more question marks to the nuclear debate.

Speaking at the inauguration ceremony of the EnerjiSA Company’s Hacınınoğlu Regulator and Hydroelectric Power Plant with 142 Megawatts of installed power in Kahramanmaraş, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said totally misinformed comments were made about nuclear energy by seizing the opportunity of the violent earthquake in Japan:

“Noting that there were 442 nuclear power plants in the world at present which safely produced energy with all precautions taken, Erdoğan said the following:

‘Is there a risk? Of course there is. They can blow up. Now, I said before that they could blow up and I got criticized by a certain person and persons. Are we not supposed to use bottled gas because there’s a risk, because it can blow up? Are we not supposed to ride cars because there’s a risk? Are we not supposed to cross the Bosphorus Bridge in Istanbul because there’s a risk? The steel ropes may break unexpectedly... So, we’re not supposed to cross the bridge? They can snap in an earthquake... So, we’re not supposed to cross the bridge? If you ask the people with this particular mindset, we’re not supposed to do it. We’re building a tunnel crossing under the Bosphorus now. We’re building a rail transport system. Are we not supposed to use it, either? There’s a risk: you can suffocate.

This mentality is consistently negative at first towards the works created by reason, knowledge, and experience. People with this mental attitude always click “No” but when the job is done, they click “Yes” and enjoy its benefits. That’s the way they are. These opponents of nuclear energy – don’t they use computers, don’t they watch television because there’s a risk of radiation? Talk about Turkey’s growth, act like a dream merchant, a hope merchant, and then stand up against energy investments with no explanation of where you’re going to get your energy from. This is incomprehensible.’

Announcing that the government aimed to raise Turkey’s installed power to 100,000MW by 2023, Erdoğan said $5 billion’s worth of investment in energy was needed every year to achieve this goal.

Prime Minister Erdoğan also said the following:

‘This is a matter of doing the right calculations. This is not about a particular address or a certain name. We’ll carry on investing in such a way as to increase the share of the private sector in energy to 75 percent by means of privatizations and boost hydroelectric energy to 20,000MW of installed power. We target 20,000MW of installed power in wind energy by 2023. We’re anticipating good results from our exploration work for oil and natural gas.

A drilling platform to take part in these exploration efforts sailed into the Black Sea yesterday. Our goal is to have a Turkey that does not import either of these two sources but uses them for its own production by 2023. The nuclear power plants we’ll build in Sinop and Mersin will also contribute 10,000MW to Turkey’s installed power. But we’re not going to stop there. We aim to have four more nuclear power plants...

We’re working on maps. We’re going to take the necessary steps for these. In building Turkey’s future, we cannot overlook energy which is one of the most fundamental elements of its infrastructure. We’re endeavoring to bring everything to life with thorough planning and the full range of safety measures.’”

The daily Milliyet’s Ankara representative Fikret Bila’s column entitled “Kılıçdaroğlu wants nuclear energy” on 3 April 2011 showed us that Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, main opposition leader as the chairman of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), who criticized practically everything the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government did, was not against nuclear energy. Stressing that Kılıçdaroğlu was not against everything like the downtown faction of supporters of the Beşiktaş football club, Bila reported,

“When our colleagues asked [Kılıçdaroğlu] ‘What do you have to say about the nuclear power plant,’ I thought he would decisively declare, ‘We’re against it.’

But he didn’t do it. ‘We,’ he said, ‘are not against nuclear energy. We’re against untendered and uncontrolled nuclear power plants.’

Then he amplified his statement:

‘A contract was signed with Russia without a tender. The Russians are going to run the power plant. Our people won’t be there. The Russians will have 100-percent control. That means we won’t be able to learn the technology. Turkey won’t get to meet nuclear technology. We’ll only benefit from the electricity produced. We’re not against nuclear energy across the board but we have a condition: give us the technology.’

We must be a partner

The CHP leader does want nuclear technology. He says Turkey must get to know this technology. For this purpose, he emphasizes that a tender must be held in order to determine how and by whom the nuclear power plants will be built and that Turkey must definitely be a partner. He offers an example:

‘Every country in the world embarked upon this enterprise by means of government partnership. This means something. You both learn something and deny the foreigners complete control. In the model the government accepted, though, everything is left up to the Russians 100 percent. If the point is to remedy the power deficit, there’s a cheaper way to do that: Buy electricity from a nuclear power plant in Russia. It’ll cost less.’

Kılıçdaroğlu believes that if we won’t be able to control the power plant and acquire the technology, it’ll be better and safer to buy power from a power plant in Russia...”[6]

While some columnists in Turkish media have slowly begun seeing the light like the Leonard Lowe character played by Robert de Niro in The Awakenings in the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster which a Russian nuclear expert described as being “four times more dangerous than Chernobyl,” others keep blindly defending nuclear energy. Apart from these two groups, there are also those that remain non-committal. Again, there are some that are talking about something completely different. Here’s a day-by-day account of the views aired in the Turkish press following 11 March 2011, the date on which possibly the greatest nuclear calamity in history came to pass:


Article first published on Böll-Stiftung-Türkei »

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