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Geniet van Istanbul met Marc Guillet

Turkey joins nuclear revival with three power plants

10 dec
2007
Door: Marc Guillet
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Turkey is a vibrant emerging market with a young population and towering ambitions. Currently Turkey’s fast growing economy is the 17th largest in the world, but the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) wants the economy to take a place in the top 10 as soon as possible.

The country’s thirst for electricity is growing by 8 to 10 percent a year due to the high growth rates of production and population. To cope with this growing demand the State Planning Organization has drafted a plan for the next five years. It tries to limit energy consumption without harming the expansion of the economy. Suggestions in the plan stress the need of increasing energy efficiency, reducing illegal use of electricity, promoting renewable energy sources, improving electricity trade with neighboring countries (Iran) and decreasing dependence on imported crude oil and natural gas.

Nuclear energy is seen as a vital element for improving the energy security of Turkey. Last November the Turkish parliament passed a bill for the country’s first nuclear energy plants. ‘Nuclear energy is Turkey’s top priority,’ said Turkey’s minister of Energy and Natural Resources Hilmi Güler. Turkey needs $100 billion of investment in the electricity generation industry, Güler said.

The debate in the Turkish National Assembly on the controversial initiative was emotional and tumultuous. It lasted all night and didn’t finish until the early hours of the morning. The opposition had a lot of objections and amendments but couldn’t block the legal framework for the first three nuclear plants as the ruling AK party has an overwhelming majority in the Turkish National Assembly.

Turkey has limited indigenous energy sources and has to import 62 percent of its primary energy to meet its needs. Annual energy imports exceeded $30 billion in 2007. Because of the soaring oil and gas prices the energy imports eat away more and more of the country’s budget. Unless immediate measures are taken, the amount paid to oil and gas-producing countries will become a serious problem, said Süreyya Yücel Özden, National Committee President of the World Energy Council during a press briefing on national energy policies in Istanbul. Extra investments in alternative, cheaper and renewable sources of energy are required.

That’s why Turkey is joining a growing number of developing countries which are choosing nuclear power as an additional, stable and relatively cheap component of their energy security. Not only awakening giants as China – with 63 nuclear plants scheduled – and India – 19 planned – but also smaller emerging markets as Egypt (1), Indonesia (4) and South Africa (1) are going nuclear.

Turkey jumps on the bandwagon of a slowly emerging nuclear energy revival. The new enthusiasm for nuclear-power plants is spurred by a more favorable political climate due to the growing concern of the negative effects of global warming by CO2 emissions. Coal and oil are the big polluters. Gas is the least CO2-intensive of all fossil fuels. Nuclear energy is the cleanest of all in this respect. Is does not have any CO2-emissions, but it creates a lot of radioactive waste that is difficult to dispose of. In August 2007 during a meeting of hundred countries on a UN Framework Convention on Climate Change a UN report advised much more investments in nuclear energy. It was the first time that the UN was so explicitly favoring nuclear energy.

Other factors contribute to the renaissance of nuclear power. Crude and natural gas are increasingly controlled by national oil companies like Gazprom in countries with autocratic regimes which can use their growing economic power for political arm twisting. Improved technology that prolongs the lifespan of reactors and makes them safer is another factor for the comeback of nuclear power.

The number of nuclear reactors in Europe peaked in 1988. The future of nuclear energy seemed clouded by the growing concerns about the safety of nuclear plants that was reinforced by the disaster at Chernobyl in 1986. Due to an explosion of a reactor, other explosions and radioactive fallout an estimated 4,000 people died and 336,000 people had to be evacuated and resettled.

Since then fewer new reactors have been built and aging ones were decommissioned. The popularity of nuclear energy was declining further by the growing production of cheap natural gas and initiatives to develop renewable energy sources such as solar power, wind turbines and biogas.

Over the last five years the amount of electricity that comes from nuclear power has decreased worldwide. And the number of reactors dropped by five to 439 since 2003 according to a study by the European Parliament’s Green Party that was released in November 2007. But a reverse of this trend is clearly on the horizon.

Although governments in several European countries made pledges to their voters to close down nuclear plants, most of them are reconsidering their anti-nuclear energy policies. In Belgium, where 20 per cent of its energy is produced by nuclear plants, the purple-green government decided in 1999 to start reducing the role of nuclear energy from 2015. But because of the growing concerns about greenhouse-gas emissions and the rising prices of fossil fuels Belgian politicians are no longer promising the closing of nuclear plants. The red-green coalition of the German chancellor Gerhard Schröder decided in 2002 to push back the role of nuclear energy and to close all 17 nuclear plants over a number of years. Angela Merkel seems to become more flexible on the role of nuclear energy. Her climate targets are not realistic without adding nuclear energy, according to a study which was commissioned by her government.

In the Netherlands the debate about building a second nuclear power plant is no longer taboo. In the governing coalition and in the public opinion there is an increasing awareness that nuclear energy may be needed to reduce global warming. And in the United Kingdom a recent poll showed 30 percent of the population opposed to nuclear energy, compared to 60 percent three years ago.

Some environmental activists reflect the changing climate in the debate on nuclear power. Patrick Moore, co-founder of Greenpeace, who believed that ‘nuclear energy was synonymous with nuclear holocaust’, changed his views and insists now that the ‘rest of the environmental movement needs to update its views, too’. In The Washington Post he wrote in an op-ed piece in which he stated that ‘nuclear energy may just be the energy source that can save our planet from another possible disaster: catastrophic climate change’.

Worldwide around 16 percent of electricity is generated by nuclear reactors. France is by far the world leader in nuclear-generated power: 78 percent of its national electricity production comes from nuclear fission. The US has the highest number of nuclear reactors: 104 in 31 states. They produce 20 percent of the US total electricity supply..

The current wave of new reactor construction is most visible in the US where the last application to build a new reactor was filed almost three decades ago. Up to 30 new applications are expected in the next three years. It will be the biggest expansion in more than a generation. In September Texas was the first state which filed for a construction and operation permit for two new reactors with the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). Another 16 are due before the end of 2008. The first will be operational in 2015. The new plants are needed to meet the increasing energy demand in the US, which will grow by an estimated 40 percent by 2030.

In the Muslim world there is a growing interest in nuclear power too. Iran’s drive for nuclear energy encourages countries in the region to follow suit. Sunni Arab states nor Turkey want to be left out of the prestigious premier league of nuclear nations. The New York Times noted that Saudi Arabia is one of the countries ‘scrambling to hire atomic contractors, buy nuclear hardware and build support for a regional system of reactors’. According to the paper ‘roughly a dozen states in the region have recently turned to the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna for help in starting their own nuclear programs’. The Times quoted King Abdullah II of Jordan as saying: ‘The rules have changed. Everybody’s going for nuclear programs’.

President Nicolas Sarkozy of France is more than willing to give Muslim countries access to nuclear power. He hopes it will be a boost for the French nuclear industry, although he says his ambition is mainly political. ‘Preventing a confrontation between Islam and the West is helping Muslim countries to access the energy of the future: nuclear power’. Failure to do so ‘will lead to an explosion of terrorism’, he warned.

It seems that the image of nuclear energy is changing from being perceived as the most dangerous and most problematic source of energy to the cleanest, safest and relative cheap source of electricity. Nuclear plants still are expensive to built, but relatively cheap to operate. Nightmares such as the newest American nuclear reactor in Tennessee (1996) which took 23 years to complete with a price tag of $6.9 billion are history, the nuclear industry points out. The time required for construction has been reduced to four years. Time-consuming design revisions because of hidden flaws and lengthy regulatory procedures belong to the past, according to major players of the global nuclear power industry like the American giants Westinghouse and GE, the German Siemens AG, Toshiba, Electricite de France (EDF) and state-owned nuclear power giant Areva SA. Reality is more complex than the public relations departments of these vendors can imagine. The newest French evolutionary power reactor (EPR) – a powerful 1,600-megawatt design – which is built in Finland by Areva, is already two years behind schedule and the construction costs have exploded.

For this reason these ‘fourth generation’ reactors are not being considered for Turkey’s future nuclear plants. Only tested models will be considered. The criteria for the bidding and the announcement of the tender are expected shortly. Management experience will be one of the deciding factors in the selection process. The Turkish Atomic Energy Foundation (TAEK) prefers water-cooled reactors that use pressurized heavy water and natural uranium, and pressurized light water and boiling water along with enriched uranium. The level of domestic share in the construction and management of the plants will require a minimum of 60 percent Turkish ownership.

Turkey wants the private sector to build three nuclear plants with a total capacity of 5,000 Megawatts and a price tag of about $7.5 billion. There is some urgency in building the plants to prevent energy shortages. The nuclear plants should become operational in 2012 according to the Ministery of Energy. Necdet Pamir, an independent energy expert, dismissed this scenario as ‘way too optimistic; the construction will take much longer than four years’. And Selahattin Hakman, head of the energy group at Sabanci Holding, predicted: ‘If you start the project now, it will take 10 years to finish the first unit’.

Turkey has made three attempts in the past three decades to start building a nuclear power plant. There was never enough support in parliament because of strong objections from environmentalists and opposition parties. Judicial and financial problems complicated the project as well. In 2000 the IMF warned Turkey that it would halt its financial support if Ankara would embark on such an expensive project at the expense of modernizing its macroeconomic structure.

Hilal Atici, Turkey’s Greenpeace representative, said he was opposed to the nuclear bill and that Turkey should think about renewable energy, not nuclear energy. Minister of Energy Güler reacted to criticisms and fear of the population next to nuclear sites by saying: ‘We are not building a pasta plant. Inspections and examinations are being conducted in line with the seriousness of nuclear energy.’

The ministry of Energy will decide later on the location and capacity of the plants. The Turkish Electricity Trading and Contracting Company (TETAS) will organize the tenders. Sinop, a city on the Black Sea coast, is the possible location of one of the reactors. Local residents, environmentalists and fishermen are opposed the plan. Fishermen are concerned that the cooling system of the plant will harm their fish by raising the water temperatures. Other coastal residents fear any nuclear power plant after the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl in 1986 in neighboring Ukraine.

The phase for the establishment of nuclear power plants will start at the beginning of April 2008. Construction is scheduled to start in July. The independence of the Turkish Atomic Energy Authority (TAEK) will be increased, as required by the European Union Progress report. Turkey at present has two nuclear reactors for research purposes.

Foreign investors are gathering information from the ministry of Energy and the Turkish Atomic Energy Authority. Lucrative contracts await the booming energy sector in Turkey. Minister of Energy Hilmi Güler predicted that 2008 ‘will be the busiest and the most colorful year in the Turkey’s Republic’s entire energy history’.

Turkish conglomerates have been busy meeting with foreign companies to find the best suitable partner. Sabanci Holding, the second biggest in Turkey, is one of the interested parties to invest in the new nuclear plants. The company has been operating in the energy sector for the last 10 years. Energy is one of the company’s strategic sectors. The holding will start to work within the next year on one natural gas plant, one coal plant and 8 hydroelectric power plants. Building a nuclear plant is one of its priorities.

Selahattin Hakman, Sabancı Holding energy group’s chairman, said that the company is negotiating with several firms from the United States, Europe and the Far East. To the Turkish business daily Referans he said: ‘Soon we will sign a foreign partnership deal in nuclear energy’.

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