Chernobyl Memories, Cancer Deaths Haunt Turkey's Nuclear Plans

Thursday, July 24, 2008

July 25 (Bloomberg) -- Hale Oguz blames the cancer deaths of six relatives on the Chernobyl disaster across the Black Sea more than 20 years ago. Now she's fighting plans for a nuclear plant near her home in Sinop on Turkey's northern coast.

''Chernobyl isn't history for us; it's very fresh,'' said Oguz, 54, as she walked her two dogs on a ridge overlooking the forested peninsula where the government plans a reactor. ''We are about to turn this paradise into a hell.''

The power station near Sinop, a fishing town in one of Turkey's poorest provinces, is part of the state's effort to cut reliance on fuel imports. Turkey plans to build three nuclear power plants in the next five years at a cost of at least $8 billion to meet demand for electricity that is rising faster than anywhere else in the world except China.

Opponents say the plants will exacerbate what they believe is a cancer epidemic caused by the meltdown at Chernobyl, the world's worst nuclear accident. They also cite risks from earthquakes -- most of Turkey straddles geological fault lines -- and terrorism in a nation that has been targeted by Islamist and Kurdish militants.

Nuclear energy is experiencing a worldwide revival with estimates from the U.S. Energy Information Administration showing global demand for electricity will almost double by 2025. Surging costs for oil, gas and coal and concern about global warming are also renewing interest in the fuel.

Atomic power remains a small part of Turkey's overall energy blueprint. The reactors would generate a combined 5,000 megawatts of power, or about 5 percent of the country's needs. Turkey also plans hydropower stations with a total capacity of 16,500 megawatts in the next five years.

Radiation Cloud
Energy MinisterHilmi Guler insists it's ''impossible'' for Turkey to meet demand that is rising more than 8 percent annually without nuclear power.

Bids for the first reactor, on the Mediterranean coast, are due Sept. 24, and the government plans to seek offers for the Sinop plant by the end of the year.

Eight days after the April 1986 meltdown at Chernobyl in Ukraine, a cloud of radiation particles moved over Sinop about 600 miles away, images from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California showed.

Though no studies have been done on the effects on Sinop itself, the Turkish Chamber of Physicians did research in 2006 on the town of Hopa, about 350 miles east along the Black Sea coast. It showed that half of all deaths there were caused by cancer and blamed the fallout from Chernobyl. That's more than twice the national rate, according to Health Ministry data.

Cancer Deaths
''There is a general sense that Sinop has a higher cancer rate because of Chernobyl, and I agree with this thinking,'' said Muharrem Coskuner, a family doctor who heads Sinop's Chamber of Physicians and treats two or three cancer patients a month.

Health Minister Recep Akdag has disputed such findings, blaming the cancers on causes such as smoking and X-rays. Two years ago, a ministry study on the Black Sea region as a whole found no significant increase in cancer because of the disaster. Turkey's cancer death rate of 22 percent exceeds the global average of 13 percent, World Health Organization data show.

The Turkish Atomic Energy Agency said it considered economic, engineering, environmental and sociological issues when determining the most suitable sites for the reactors.

''There are efforts underway in Sinop to dispel the erroneous opinions on the health risks brought by nuclear power plants,'' the agency said in an e-mailed response to questions.

Import Dependence
Hilal Atici, Greenpeace's Mediterranean energy campaigner, says Turkey has enough renewable-energy resources to meet demand. Government figures show wind power alone has a technical potential of 88,000 megawatts. Turkey's installed energy capacity was 36,800 megawatts in 2005, according to the latest figures from the U.S. Department of Energy.

Guler says Turkey needs to diversify its energy sources and that nuclear must be one of them.

The country uses imported natural gas to fire half of its generators. The government estimates that dependence on foreign energy may push the current-account deficit, the broadest measure of trade in goods and services, to about $50 billion, or 7 percent of the entire economy, by year-end.

Turkey may fail to meet demand for electricity as early as next year because of a lack of investment in the largely state- run energy industry during six straight years of economic growth, according to the World Bank.

'Incredibly Painful'
Oguz has helped gather 26,000 signatures for a petition opposing the plant. She also led a group called Mothers Against Nuclear Power, which met with former President Ahmet Necdet Sezer in the capital, Ankara, last year before he vetoed legislation allowing development of the nuclear industry. His successor, Abdullah Gul, later signed a similar law.

Oguz helped raise a niece and nephew after her sister-in-law died of cancer in 1995. The last family member to die of cancer was her cousin Recai Kuroglu, mayor of the nearby town of Gerze. His funeral in February served as an anti-nuclear rally, she said.

''It's incredibly painful to think these deaths were for nothing,'' she said.

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