The Oxymoron of Unsustainable Growth

Growth is a part of the human condition. We must grow to survive in an ever-changing world where new technological innovations are conceived almost every day, simplifying our daily lives. However, if growth is unrestricted and executed through unsustainable measures, we might not have a future to grow into.

Nonetheless, we are not without hope. There are many alternatives to our current approaches to industrial growth, such as sustainable urban infrastructure and environmentally friendly energy production.

In 2018, toward the end of my senior year of high school in Turkey, my classmates and I prepared group presentations for our Environmental Systems and Societies class. Every group presented a project they believed would contribute to environmental advocacy and sustainable infrastructure. While I remember very little about my own project, another group’s presentation on the ecological impacts of nuclear energy has stuck with me to this day. 

Around the same time, one of the most significant topics of debate in environmental circles was the construction of the Akkuyu Nuclear Power Plant, which was in the process of being built in the Mersin province of Turkey. The group covering the nuclear energy presentation briefly discussed the establishment of the power plant and its potential impacts on the environment and the Turkish economy.

The foundation-laying ceremony for the power plant was held on April 3, 2018, in Ankara, the nation’s capital. Both the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Russian President Vladimir Putin were in attendance, speaking to the project’s significance on an international scale. The power plant was said to begin operations in its first reactor in 2023 and eventually generate enough power to provide energy to 10 per cent of Turkey’s population. This would be just in time for Turkey’s 100th anniversary of becoming a sovereign republic, which many believed was not coincidental. The calculated deadline allowed the nuclear power plant to become a part of Turkey’s history, even before the first cement was poured into the pit.

Announcements were made in celebration of the power plant’s construction in both Russian and Turkish. A live stream video was presented from Mersin, showing the construction site located next to a beautiful shoreline with a tree-laden mountain just across the cove. Large Turkish and Russian flags were hanging above the empty lot as concrete was poured in for the very first time. Red, white, and blue balloons were released into the air, combining the colours of both nations’ flags.

Mersin is a beautiful coastal city by the Mediterranean Sea known for its picturesque mountain ranges and historical ruins. My family and I would visit the southern city during the summer months for its warm and clear waters. So, the blue water surrounding the small green islands in the background of the construction site’s live stream video were all too familiar. It looked as if they had taken away the beautiful wooden boutique hotel my family and I had celebrated many birthdays in and replaced it with a large barren lot. 

This power plant was a big deal for Turkey. Many people thought it would boost not only the nation’s economy but also create much-needed job opportunities. This is likely why so many people were wholeheartedly supporting its establishment. People believed that this plant would be the next step for Turkey in its development as a nation. However, this sentiment wasn’t shared by everyone, especially environmentalists who believed the plant would be a source of pollution and nuclear waste.

At the time, Duygu Kutluay, the climate and energy campaigner for Greenpeace Mediterranean, told Deutsche Welle News, a state-owned German media company, that nuclear energy wasn’t necessary for a strong and independent Turkey.

“Turkey will have to import 100 per cent of the fuel bars necessary for nuclear energy production,” stated Kutluay. “Turkey is a very lucky country with regards to solar energy potential. The sun is a natural resource, and it is both local and free.” This means that an endeavour such as the Akkuyu Power Plant would have been unnecessary if the Turkish government were to dedicate the same amount of money and effort to solar energy production.

Due to its agreement with the Russian state corporation Rosatom, the company in charge of the Akkuyu Nuclear Power Plant’s construction, Turkey will have to charge around $0.15 for every kilowatt-hour of energy produced for the next 15 years. In comparison, coal power plants charge $0.041, and solar energy costs $0.038 per kilowatt-hour. Even the nuclear power plant Rosatom is currently building in El Dabba, Egypt, is predicted to cost just under $0.07 per kilowatt-hour once the plant is operational. Many presume the cost of energy is so inflated in Turkey because Rosatom wants to make back the $25 billion it invested in the project.

Therefore, most of the money coming out of Turkish citizens’ pockets will be going to a Russian state corporation rather than Turkey’s economy.

1       The establishment of this power plant would not only continue the use of unsustainable energy in Turkey, but it would also contribute more to Russia’s economy than Turkey’s. Assuming that people would be willing to pay three times more for their power bill, most of their money will be handed over to Rosatom until 2038.

On August 28, 2019, BBC Monitoring published an insight report on the power plant, highlighting some concerns that seem evident but were never widely publicized in Turkish media. In addition to being a peninsula surrounded by seas on three sides, Turkey is also located on multiple seismic fault lines, with a history of catastrophic and devastating earthquakes across the nation. 

An examination of the construction site by the Turkish Atomic Energy Authority (TAEK) revealed that there were multiple subterranean cracks right beneath the area one of the nuclear reactors were planned to be built on. Following this discovery, the foundation was broken apart and rebuilt once the subterranean crack was repaired. This process had to be done twice as new cracks formed in the ground, indicating a fragile base beneath the power plant. 

Russian authorities have stated that these concerns are of no consequence and are exaggerated by anti-Russian interests.

Along with environmental activists, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe also disclosed some concerns they shared about the Akkuyu Nuclear Power Plant’s construction in their meeting on November 11, 2018. While the Assembly discussed their general reservations regarding nuclear energy and the existing power plants in Europe, they were especially apprehensive about the construction in Akkuyu. They emphasized the high-risk of earthquakes in the region and its proximity to other countries. 

On April 26, 1986, when the Chernobyl disaster ravaged Soviet Ukraine, the immediate death count was less than 100. However, due to the long-term effect radiation exposure can have on the human body, the actual death toll is estimated to have reached around 60,000 over the decades.

While the city of Chernobyl was located in Northern Ukraine, the radiation quickly moved down south to the Black Sea. My grandparents are from a coastal town in the Black Sea region of Turkey. Growing up, they would tell me about the years following the Chernobyl disaster. The people from the notoriously rainy coast were frightened as the ground soaked up everything the sky poured down. Many people believe that cancer cases skyrocketed in the months following the nuclear accident, and they were afraid to eat or drink anything that grew from the soil.

People around the globe have been very apprehensive about nuclear energy since the Chernobyl disaster. However, the Turkish and Russian governments both seemed to welcome the opportunity to build a nuclear power plant with open arms. Not only is Akkuyu located in an area considered to be high-risk for earthquakes, but it also sits by the Mediterranean Sea, which is shared by many other nations. This intercontinental sea is encircled by 21other countries, which puts each at risk of a nuclear catastrophe.

None of these concerns were addressed or even acknowledged at the foundation-laying ceremony. Erdogan and Putin stood smiling side by side in the chilly spring weather, wearing long dark jackets, applauding the start of construction for the Akkuyu Power Plant. Folk music was blasting through the speakers, alternating between classic Russian and Turkish melodies. The event resembled the celebrations my high school organized on national holidays. Without context, one might assume the event was in honour of an international treaty that would change the course of the world, rather than a foundation-laying ceremony.

Turkey has much potential when it comes to sustainable energy production. Its abundance of coastlines, windy plateaus, and sunny cities is perfect for a variety of eco-friendly projects. Yet, the government chooses to support projects that might cause irreparable damage to the ecosystem.

These concerns aren’t exclusive to Turkey. Similar scenarios are taking place all around the globe. World leaders continue to support unsustainable energy production methods and industrial growth, ignoring the environmental disasters they might lead to in the future. The industrial complex’s complete disregard for the environment and future generations’ well-being might be considered criminally negligent behaviour by many people. However, in Turkey, there is evidence suggesting actual illegal conduct.

On January 12, 2015, the Turkish newspaper BirGun Daily reported that the signatures on the Akkuyu Power Plant’s environmental impact report were forged. Environmental impact reports are crucial for sustainable urban development. These reports take months, sometimes years, to complete and are made up of multiple documents. Through the publication of these documents, the public is informed about the impacts a certain project might have on its surrounding ecological systems. 

By requiring companies to conduct ecological research and produce an impact report, the government ensures that projects will not cause significant environmental harm. But what happens when the government is behind the project?

BirGun Daily’s report also revealed that the six engineers in charge of the Akkuyu Power Plant’s construction area had resigned six months before the environmental impact report was submitted. This led many to believe that the examinations of the site were conducted without supervision.

Following these suspicions, the Union of Chambers of Turkish Engineers and Architects (TMMOB) called for a criminal investigation. It was soon revealed that two of the signatures belonging to the engineers had been forged. The TMMOB also found that the report had been privately tampered with by Akkuyu NPP, a subsidiary company of Rosatom, without the engineers’ knowledge. Moreover, the altered report containing the forged signatures was approved by the Ministry of Environment and Urban Planning, allowing the company to begin construction efforts.

When asked about the aforementioned claims, the Environment and Urban Planning Minister Idris Gulluce rejected the findings and took to Twitter to defend the government’s integrity. “No one should think they can hinder the development and growth of Turkey with these types of intentional articles,” tweeted Minister Gulluce, implying that not only were the accusations false but that they were intentionally made up to obstruct Turkey’s development.

The signatures were confirmed to be counterfeit by three separate experts in their independent analyses despite the minister’s passionate assertions. While many people expected Akkuyu NPP to lose its license and the Ministry of Environment and Urban Planning to revoke its approval of the environmental impact report, that was not the case. Rosatom continued to develop the land, and by April 2018, it was ready for the foundation-laying ceremony.

The Turkish government wants Turkey to grow and become a powerful country with a flourishing economy. It envisions a future where employment rates are low, and citizens are happier than ever. However, the government sees the Akkuyu Nuclear Power Plant as a step forward and is willing to damage the environment in the process. 

While I also want my home country to develop as a nation, I want it to be done sustainably so future generations can see the beauty Turkey has to offer. I would hate to imagine a future where Turkish children grow up without experiencing the picturesque landscapes I was lucky enough to see during my time in Turkey. Growth is a natural part of life and Turkey needs to develop and embrace new projects. However, Turkey cannot truly grow if it continues to pursue unsustainable initiatives and depend on other countries for support. While growth is necessary, so is a healthy environment. The two should not be mutually exclusive.

UTMSU Student Correspondent (Volume 48)
Vera is in her final year at UTM and is completing a specialist in Criminology, Law, and Society. She previously worked as the News Editor in Volume 47 of The Medium. Vera’s biggest passions are environmentalism, art, and investigative journalism which she channels into her work with the newspaper. In her free time, Vera is either marshalling at a climate action rally, reading a magazine, or watching campy horror movies from the 80s. You can connect with Vera through Instagram or LinkedIn.

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