Nuclear energy: A violation of human rights

Teaser Image Caption
According to the Ipsos survey in June 2011, in Turkey those who say no to nuclear are about 80%.

For at least half a century, several times a year government officials have been screaming and shouting about Turkey’s energy crisis. According to their claims, the energy shortage is prodigious, and getting worse by the day. Trying to scare the population, they say that Turkey will have a total blackout in just three months.

So, when you look back at the newspaper archives, you might think that Turkey had experienced ten blackouts in recent times. However, Turkey did not run out of power, and there were no blackouts except for bad weather. Companies stop electricity generation in protest of low prices, because of repairs, or some ‘cats’ sneaking into the transformer on the night of general elections. The recent nationwide blackout, on the other hand, was caused by energy privatizations, according to the Chamber of Electrical Engineers. Yet, probably because it more fitting with the idea advanced democracy, nowadays they reject the energy deficit and argue for “necessity” instead of need. Furthermore, they base their insistence on nuclear energy on the importance of resource diversity. Nevertheless, the picture remains the same. While they mention needs or necessities, new power plants are planned, sumptuous inaugurations are held, ceremonies are broadcast live on TV, and statesmen herald even more energy investments in those ceremonies. To overcome the never ending energy problem, nuclear power is emphatically presented as the solution each time as if it was the first time.

This state of floundering resembles stories in which the castle moves away as you get closer; it is indeed a very well known old trick of the establishment. Real energy lobbies, not fantasy ones, influence states, governments and manage perceptions to create needs/ necessities—read markets—and once those needs are met, new needs are generated, while capital grows and grows. 

Synonymous with bribe           

This cycle continues to exist because it serves the governments, too. There are two reasons. First, the energy issue is seen as a political investment with guaranteed returns. By constantly underlining the need for energy, they give their constituency the message “Look at how much we have developed the country, there just isn’t enough energy for our booming industry.” This message is appreciated by some white-collar employees, who still believe that the criterion for development is not the minimization but instead the boost of energy consumption. However, this belief is not sufficient to generate consent among the wider masses. To reach them, the government emphasizes the new employment opportunities to be created through energy investments. In the final outcome, all of these discourses yield more votes and thus the cycle is completed.

The second reason is that in undeveloped democracies such as Turkey, one cannot talk about energy investment decisions without talking about bribes. Only 11 years ago, the police had launched the White Energy Operation to unveil corruption in public tenders held by the Ministry of Energy and Natural Resources, revealing that firms participating in tenders had to pay bribes. That is, for ministers keen on making big money, nuclear energy tenders are an opportunity not to be missed!

Nuclear energy is a political issue

For these two reasons, energy investments, especially nuclear energy investments, are not based on needs but political decisions. And saying that these decisions are democratic is unfortunately impossible. No one asks the populace what they think during the decision-making phase or in implementation process. Governments in Turkey know that if they did, the answer would probably be not one they would want to hear.

And they are right. That is because according to a survey in Turkey taken by Greenpeace right after the Fukushima Nuclear Disaster in April 2011, 64% of participants stated that they would vote “no” in a possible referendum on nuclear power plants, and 86.4% stated that they did not want to live near a nuclear power plant. 1

In June 2011, the leading British marketing and survey company Ipsos announced that 80% of respondents in Turkey opposed nuclear energy.2 Two years later, in May 2013, a survey by KONDA showed that 63.4% thought that “A nuclear power plant should never be built if associated risks are obvious.”3

Simply disregarding the anti-nuclear stance and worries of large parts of the populace is much easier and more functional than facing the facts honestly. In order to counter anti-nuclear voices, governments make use of arguments such as increased employment, foreign dependence on energy, the cheapness of nuclear energy, one after the other. These arguments help shape public perception. Add to these a few words implying how nuclear energy is a technical issue which cannot be grasped by the people, and that statesmen know what’s best for the people, the problem is solved! For the remaining dissident voices, there is always pepper gas and lawsuits.

Anti-democratic by nature

However, nuclear energy is not a technological issue; it is about life itself. It is a question of democracy. And to put it in a way which will be appreciated in the “New Turkey” nuclear energy is anti-democratic and non-transparent by nature. Nuclear energy is anti-democratic and non-transparent by nature, so much so that MPs from the ruling party, let alone simple citizens, did not have a chance to take a look at the intergovernmental agreement signed with Japan in 2013 to build a nuclear power plant in Sinop. That is transparency for you.

Again, not even the representatives of professional chambers, let alone simple citizens, have access to the site of the Akkuyu Nuclear Power Plant. Even though ground has not been broken for the power plant, no one is allowed to see the empty plot of land. What a mystery! Especially in countries where the operator companies belong to the state, information on the workings of the power plant, including the amount of profit and loss, the level of radiation released to the environment, and any leakage from the plant can only be obtained through these companies’ public statements which do not tend to reflect the true figures. In any case, it is not possible to talk about independent audit mechanisms. As such, nuclear energy, which hangs like the sword of Damocles over the ecological equilibrium, can hardly be defined as ethical.

A dangerous heritage

This unethical character of nuclear energy cannot be explained only by the lack of transparency and democracy vis-a-vis the people alive today. A key issue which needs to be underlined in this debate on ethics is the fact that today’s nuclear power plants concern future generations. Even if all the nuclear power plants active today across the face of the Earth were to be shut down immediately, the radiation and waste released while these plants were in operation or being dismantled and the irreversible damages they have done to nature remain threats for future generations.

This is a dangerous heritage that will have a direct impact on the lives of future generations, and it has been created without any concern for what they might think about it. That is because no answer has been found to respond to the question of what is to be done with nuclear waste. Never mind that some politicians and scientists, who are all too intimate with nuclear power, pretend that they will find a solution sooner or later, or make declarations which downplay the issue at hand. It takes not 250, or 25,000, but 250,000 years for certain radioactive isotopes to become totally innocuous. 250,000 years!

126,000 lost barrels

What will happen to all that waste for these 250,000 years? There are various studies on this issue, but a solution has yet to be found. The industrial giant Germany has deactivated eight of its 17 nuclear power plants as part of its program called “Energiewende/Energy Transformation,” a program that aims to save energy and transition to renewable energy. The remaining nine reactors will be gradually shut down by 2022. Now German officials are deeply worried about what to do with the 17,000 tons of highly dangerous nuclear waste which will be in their hands once the last power plant is closed.

Therefore, Germany finds itself in a straitjacket: 126,000 barrels of nuclear waste are lost in the Asse II salt mine, which has been used as a research site since 1965 to explore whether it is suitable for storing nuclear waste. Unbeknownst to the public, and without waiting for the research results, these barrels with light and medium level waste were stored in the salt mine. The mine later collapsed due to water leakage and an operation was initiated in 2012 to extract the nuclear waste, albeit at a slow pace. It is estimated that the extraction of the waste will take at least 30 years to complete and will cost over 4 billion euros.

Given the state of things, the German government does not dare to take risks with the Gorleben salt mine in Lower Saxony, designated as the final nuclear waste storage site of the country. There, despite the protests of the locals, there has been ongoing research since 1977 about placing nuclear waste permanently inside the salt mines. The government asked the managers of DBE, which operates the mine, for a guarantee that the nuclear waste will be able to be extracted from the salt mine without any problems in 500 years. However, the company cannot give this guarantee.

Christian Islinger is a geological engineer working in the Gorleben Salt Mine Final Waste Storage Site Project whom we met in February 2013 during the press visit dubbed “Energy Transformation in Germany” organized by the Heinrich Böll Stiftung Turkey. He summarized the issue as follows: “When we started work here in 1990, it was said that it would take eight years to complete. The facilities were supposed to be finished in eight years. However, I am still working here and it will take at least ten years to complete the research here.” I had asked him: “So, you started operating the nuclear plants first, and then began work on the issue of storage. Weren’t you a bit late for that?” To the nine journalists from Turkey, Islinger said: “Yes, we flew the airplane without having built the landing strip.”

The USA is also in trouble

Germany is not the only country which is in trouble with nuclear waste. In the USA, there are five nuclear reactors in construction, one of which has been going on since 1972, but they have yet to find a solution for storing the nuclear waste. In 2002, George Bush had proposed that 77,000 tons of high level waste be stored in the Yuca Mountain in Nevada, which was subsequently approved in Congress. However, in 2011, Barrack Obama decided that this §100 billion project was unaffordable in the midst of the economic crisis and shelved it.4 If high level waste stored in around 60 locations across the USA were to be transported to Nevada, they would traverse over 40 states and threaten around 50 million people on their trajectories. In addition to the protests of the people living around the transport routes, the Nevada locals were opposed to the project because Nevada, whose economy is centered on tourism, would no longer be anyone’s choice of holiday destination. The region is prone to volcanic quakes and so the risk of leakage is high.5

The possibility of a leak cannot be overlooked. At the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington State in 2013, radioactive liquids leaked from six of the 117 storage tanks underground. It was declared that the first leakage dates back to 1960 and it was followed by leakages from 67 tanks.6

The volume of high level waste across the world, which poses a significant threat, has exceeded the order of 200,000 tons; however, the technology required to set up the final storage sites has not yet been discovered. There is no final storage site for nuclear waste anywhere in the world. There are ongoing studies, but they have yet to yield results. The USA even proposed that nuclear waste be buried under the oceans or sent to the space. For years, Sweden and Finland have been working on placing nuclear waste amongst granite rock and Germany in salt mines. However, no one has the answer to the question whether it is at all possible to store nuclear waste for one thousand years in a world threatened by armament as well as earthquakes, volcanoes and global warming.7

What will Turkey do with its waste?

While even Germany and the USA struggle to deal with their nuclear waste, Turkey, which seems to be infatuated with nuclear energy, has acquired nuclear waste even before a nuclear plant. Murat and Hüseyin Ilgaz, scrap dealers in Ikitelli, Istanbul  purchased a container 1999, which turned out to have radioactive material inside. Murat Ilgaz’s fingers melted and Hüseyin Ilgaz died of cancer in 2004 at 57 years of age.

The Istanbul Second Administrative Tribunal ruled that the Turkish Atomic Energy Authority (TAEK), which is in charge of detecting the radioactive material called Cobalt 60, was guilty of gross negligence, and that compensation exceeding 3 million TL complete with interest must be paid to 13 members of the Ilgaz Family for material and spiritual damages. As TAEK did not make the payment, the family applied to the European Court for Human Rights and finally managed to get the compensation. With this event, Turkey managed to make it to the list of “the world’s top 20 radioactive accidents!”8

The Ikitelli accident was not the end. In 2012, tons of nuclear waste were found buried in the gardens of the industrial corporation Avcı Döküm Sanayi in Gaziemir,  Izmir. It was revealed that Ministry of Environment and Urbanization, TAEK, the Izmir Governor’s Office, the Izmir Metropolitan Municipality, the Gaziemir District Governor’s Office and the Gaziemir Municipality knew about this waste.

 In 2008, TAEK had indicated that the area with radiation should be sealed off. In 2009 the Ministry of Environment and Urbanization inspected the factory; however, no measure whatsoever was taken.9

In late 2013, the factory owner was given a penalty fine of 5.7 million Turkish Lira, which was said to be the highest ever environment-related fine in the country.10 Yet the negligent authorities went free. No one sought an answer to the question, how can the state be unaware of a black market for nuclear waste. The question “Which country does this waste originate from?” was not even brought up, and the issue was covered up. The waste in the factory garden was transported to an unknown destination with open-top trucks, and neither the people nor the lawyers in charge were informed about their whereabouts. 11

How will Turkey, which fails to cope with the nuclear waste of other countries that ‘somehow’ end up within its borders, deal with its future nuclear power plants which continuously generate waste? The answer is unfortunately simple: Turkey has no solution. That is because, as of yet, there are no plans or regulations on the issue, let alone a law.

It is not hard to forecast that, as the Turkish insistence on nuclear continues, we will sooner or later be faced to face with small or big nuclear catastrophes. Instead of waiting for these catastrophes to happen, horrified and with eyes shut, we might choose to cry out loud that nuclear energy usurps humans’, animals’ and nature’s right to exist, and that it is nothing but a violation of human rights. We might even hear other voices that join us, who knows?

2    “Türklerin yüzde 80’i nükleer santral istemiyor”, Radikal Gazetesi, 24/06/2011,…, Access date: March 6, 2014.

3    Bekir Ağırdır, “Nükleer enerjiyi referanduma götürsek…”, May 13, 2013,, Access date: March 6, 2014.

4    “Obama budget confirms end of Yucca Mountain Project”, February 14, 2011,….

5    “Nükleer Atıkların Depolanması ABD’de Sorun Oluyor”, March 16, 2002,…,.

6    “America’s most contaminated: Radioactive waste leaks into northwestern river”, February 23, 2013,

7     Filiz Yavuz, Beni “Akkuyu”larda Merdivensiz Bıraktın, 2015: Can Yayınları, p.67.

8…, Access date: April 25, 2014.

9    Serkan Ocak, “İlk nükleer çöplük İzmir’de çıktı #izmirincernobili”, Radikal Gazetesi, December 3, 2012,… Access date: 7 Mart 2014.

10  Serkan Ocak, “Çernobili’ne 5,7 milyon lira ceza” Radikal Gazetesi, October 28, 2013,, Access date: March 7, 2014.

   11  Filiz Yavuz, p.76.