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March 17, 2011, Thursday

A nuclear melody

Life is dangerous. We are all dodging bullets all the time, and just occasionally we don’t duck quickly enough.This is not, rest assured, a little homily on the fate of the ibrahim Tatlıses, now fighting for his life after being sprayed by a Kalashnikov in what the police are suggesting was a gangland attack. Apparently the popular singer had brusquely declined to pay $10 million to protection racketeers. Rather it is my own summary of some folksy advice delivered by the Turkish prime minister.

Mr. Erdoğan was leaving for Moscow where the subject of nuclear safety is bound to pop up. Turkey is planning to purchase its first nuclear electricity generating station from Russia to be installed beside a bay in the Mediterranean city of Mersin. This is to be the first of many such power plants, although not all of them Russian supplied. Not unnaturally, there are now concerns that if Japan in all its high tech glory cannot protect itself from a meltdown, what chance has an equally seismic Turkey with an additionally poor record of work safety.

Mr. Erdoğan made it clear that his government is a member of the “you can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs” school. “Every investment has its risks,” he said and added that if you can’t stand the heat you shouldn’t install bottled gas in the kitchen. That was risky, too.

He may well be right. But then again he might not. The curious thing is that despite the government’s decision to go nuclear there has been very little debate about the wisdom of such a decision in the country at large. This is remarkable given the enormous sound and fury that goes on in Germany, where the government’s decision last autumn to extend the life of its nuclear power plants was highly contentious, headline news. Chancellor Angela Merkel now faces regional elections and as part of damage control has decided to put that decision on hold. Nuclear power is an electorally sensitive issue in Germany and the rest of Europe. In Turkey it does not seem to be. In fact, the Russian power station intended for Akkuyu Bay was not purchased through public tender, so we don’t have all that much to go on about its specifications. I am not even sure we know who the principal contractor will be.

There are arguments for nuclear power -- it doesn’t rely on imported carbons nor burning noisome coal. But it is expensive, and even without the risk of accident it burdens generations to come with the disposal of radioactive waste. Turkey is a country with huge wind and solar potential so we need to hear the arguments where its priorities should be. I am still trying to find out if the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) has a well-thought-through energy policy -- and will let you know when I discover. However, the local Mersin MP, Ali Rıza Öztürk, found his voice. He accused the government of accepting outdated nuclear technology which even the Russian courts had ruled unacceptable. “Russia doesn’t have earthquake experience, how can we explain choosing them for Akkuyu?” he asked. This may sound like opportunism, but that is the way democracy works.

It could work better. Turkey needs politics which addresses real issues and which produces real policies rather than those which focus on symbolic differences.

In the meantime let us hope that Mr. Tatlıses is able to sing again. He is the hero of what used to be known as the Arabesque genre; his plaintive songs were all about man submitting himself to fortune’s wobbly wheel. His doctors report that he has regained consciousness, despite four bullets to his head. In a case of life imitating art, he has paid tribute to the fatalism he once intoned. On the other hand, fatalism is not necessarily the song to which all Turkey should hum along.

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