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Last Updated: Saturday, 1 July 2006, 04:55 GMT 05:55 UK
Turks wary of nuclear project
By Sarah Rainsford
BBC News, Sinop, Turkey

Coast at Sinop
Local activists want to protect Sinop's unspoilt coast
On one of the busiest streets in Sinop a group of middle-aged ladies appeals for signatures.

They call themselves Mothers Against Nuclear Power. The women have been campaigning for several weeks now, ever since the Turkish government announced that Sinop had been approved as a possible site for the country's first ever nuclear power plant.

"I'm no expert, but I'm sure we can produce healthy energy here using the wind and the sun," Gulizar Kavak says, as locals queue up to add their names to a petition against the proposal. It is already more than 25,000 signatures long.

The government plans three nuclear plants in total, to come online by 2012. It argues they will help reduce Turkey's heavy dependence on expensive energy imports.

But here in Sinop, opposition to the proposal is fierce. The site the government has chosen is on the northernmost tip of Turkey, on cliffs where today cows graze lazily beside a lighthouse.

Fishermen alarmed

Local fishermen say the Black Sea below is one of the richest fishing grounds around. What they catch here is sent all over Turkey. Many of the boats in the nearby harbour now carry anti-nuclear posters or stickers.

"The plant's cooling system will increase the temperature of the sea so the fish will change their routes," Sertas Suner complains, as he untangles his nets after a morning at sea.

"The construction means our fishing area will be restricted anyway. And just think about it psychologically: who wants to eat fish caught next to a nuclear plant? It's going to finish this city."

But there is another reason fuelling widespread opposition to atomic energy in Sinop.

Chernobyl impact

Right along Turkey's Black Sea coast people believe they were directly affected by the nuclear accident at Chernobyl two decades ago.

"I have been working as a doctor here for 13 years and the frequency of cancer cases I deal with has clearly increased, especially among children," explains Doctor Cem Sahan, head of the local Chamber of Doctors.

Sinop harbour
Sinop thrives on fishing - but the future is uncertain
Recent research by doctors in Hopa in the eastern Black Sea region revealed that 48% of deaths in the town are cancer-related.

Dr Sahan believes a survey in Sinop would show a similar picture. Like many he blames the radioactive clouds that drifted to Turkey from Ukraine 20 years ago.

Turkey's Atomic Energy Research Institute released its own report last month which does acknowledge that Turkey suffered radioactive fallout from Chernobyl. But it records no measurable health risk in the Black Sea region or beyond.

Clearing weeds from the grave of a cousin in the tranquil city cemetery, Hale Oguz is convinced the institute is wrong. She has lost five members of her family to cancer and is now a passionate activist against plans to bring nuclear power to Sinop.

"The Atomic Energy Institute and the ministry did their best to hide the truth about Chernobyl in Turkey," Hale says.

Anti-nuclear campaigners
Anti-nuclear campaigners are haunted by Chernobyl
"They pressured anyone who revealed information, and they went on TV and said there was no danger.

"We learned two things on 26 April 1986. One: the risk from nuclear plants is very high. Two: the then Turkish government lied to us."

The Atomic Energy Institute declined to comment on those claims, or talk about Turkey's plans for nuclear power.

As well as offering Turkey greater energy independence and helping meet rising demand, Ankara argues that a nuclear plant would help regenerate a struggling area.

But it is the emotional rather than economic arguments that dominate the debate here in Sinop.

Mounting opposition

Even the town's acting mayor from Turkey's governing AK party expresses serious doubts about the proposal.

"The power plant is the government's initiative. We don't know why they want it here - maybe the climate is suitable?" Talat Bas suggests, sounding distinctly unsure. He too refers to Chernobyl, claiming that cancer rates have increased "drastically" in recent years.

"We respect the decision of the government, but personally I am opposed to the plant. We want our town developed for tourism and culture instead."

The Turkish government is currently seeking partners to help finance, build and manage its nuclear project - which was first mooted more than a decade ago, but then abandoned amid public protests and a lack of funding.

Those environmental protests are now gathering force again. But here in the Black Sea region the government faces a long legacy of distrust of nuclear power in addition, that it has done little so far to counter.

"We are still losing children today because of Chernobyl," anti-nuclear activist Gulizar Kavak claims, between calls to passers-by to join the protest. "I am collecting signatures because I believe nuclear power is dangerous. I want my children to live in a healthy environment. But I am sure our campaign will succeed - Sinop is ours!"

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