Failure to exploit capacity: Foresights into nuclear age
Tuesday, December 18, 2007
As Turkey prepares to go nuclear, a prominent energy analyst points to the country’s need to develop a domestic brain force on energy to reap the benefits of atomic power as well as other sources of energy
Mustafa Oğuz- ANKARA - Turkish Daily News
The Turkish Energy Ministry will declare criteria for the construction of Turkey's first nuclear power plant this Friday and bring Turkey one step closer to the world's nuclear league.
More than half a century has passed since the world's first nuclear power plant produced electricity for the national grid in Obninsk (outside Moscow) in 1954. But Turkey is still far away from acquiring this technology. Haluk Direskeneli, a prominent energy analyst in Turkey, warned on the one hand that Turkey must hurry to train its own nuclear scientists or be completely dependent on foreign expertise, in an exclusive interview with the Turkish Daily News. Direskeneli provided us with a dreadful picture of Turkey's current handling of its energy assets, in order to help evade future pitfalls while using nuclear energy.
Turkey had its own source of nuclear scientists in the 1960s, thanks to Middle East Technical University- (METU) led training programs. It even set up the Nuclear Plant Department of the Turkish Electricity Administration in 1971. However the Turkish economy could not afford to build a power plant, and the Department was shut down in 1987. “The Department's mostly METU graduate engineers were either transferred to other departments or left the establishment,” said Direskeneli. Since then Turkish graduates have either launched private firms in the energy sector, or participated in site installations abroad, particularly in Middle Eastern and Central Asian countries. “Those who remained in Turkey secured high posts in public administration, while others found employment in nuclear power plants, occupying high-level positions in the U.S., Canadian and Swiss nuclear power industries. We let them slip out of our hands,” he said.
Direskeneli said nuclear technology is not the only energy sector where Turkey lags far behind the level an industrialized state should already have attained. “We are way too late for even preparing thermal power plant projects and practicing relevant engineering. Our contractors contend with site installation and civil structure,” said Direskeneli. Except for the two big fish in the sector, no Turkish companies give indigenous engineers a chance to prove their talents, according to Direskeneli. “But those two companies harnessed the creativity of young Turkish engineers and created wonders abroad,” he said.
As if local contractors' reluctance to take the risks of thermal power plant engineering was not enough to hinder indigenous efforts to kick start new plants, competition from Chinese firms seem to have banished all hope for meaningful local participation in big energy projects. “Chinese firms are constructing power plants in Biga, Zonguldak, Şırnak and Beypazarı. It is unbelievable that Turkish investment firms prefer Chinese construction firms over their Turkish colleagues as their subcontractors,” said Direskeneli. Unfortunately for Turkish contractors, Chinese firms have a holistic approach to power plant building and undertake its every stage, from simple construction to the key engineering components. “They even bring their own workers from China. In the old days Turkish firms were satisfied with site installation, now they do not even have a chance at it,” said Direskeneli.
But Direskeneli is wiser than those who succumb to the tempting but simplistic “blame the Chinese” approach. It is up to Turkish firms whether and how to make use of the country's skilled force. “Fresh graduates from chemical and mechanical engineering departments can build power plants themselves, with a little guidance from their experienced colleagues,” Direskeneli said. But even in the operation phase Turkey cannot be said to be doing perfectly according to Direskeneli during a November visit to Turkey's most important thermal power plants.
An appalling case of energy sector operations
Afşin-Elbistan thermal power Plant A, erected in the 1980s in the southeastern province of Kahramanmaraş and its sister Plant B is a case in point. “Afşin-Elbistan hosts Turkey's most important electricity generation projects, and half of the country's proven lignite reserves are located there,” Direskeneli said.
Thermal plant A and B each consist of four units that have an approximately 350 MW output. Plant A however, lacks flue gas desulphurization and it releases poisonous smoke into the air, causing massive environmental damage to the plains of Elbistan and serious health problems, like lung cancer, amongst the local population. Plant A sure has “electrostatic precipitators” (that collect dust and somewhat lessen the environmental damage the plant can cause), but the problem is that they are not working properly. Turkey signed a 280 million euro credit agreement with the World Bank in September 2006 to refurbish Plant A, but the project still lingers.
Plant B on the other hand, was completed in 2006 and is a state-of-the-art power plant with full equipment for environmental protection. Only harmless vapor goes through its cooling towers. In order to prevent massive damage to the environment then, it sounds logical to use Plant A at less than full capacity until necessary refurbishments are undertaken, and to use Plant B at full capacity.
That's exactly where absurdities begin. “Plant B can not be used efficiently, since the systems necessary to feed it with coal are inexistent. There is a simple conveyor belt carrying coal from Plant A to Plant B that allows the latter to function only with two of its four units,” said Direskeneli. Besides, Plant B is constructed in the center of the coal field, and there is no chance of putting the coal underneath to use. “Another example of poor planning,” Direskeneli said.
The story gets even stranger as one learns more about the dark side of the story. Power Plant B, despite its modern equipment to manage toxic gases, creates environmental damage indirectly. Standard procedure involves burial of toxic ash waste, covering it with soil and planting trees on top. But “although hazardous particles in Plant B's waste materials are collected, they are simply piled up on the plains since no ash dams have been built to bury them in,” said Direskeneli.
Last but not least, the region does not have enough water storage facilities to supply both the power plants' gigantic water-coolers and the nearby municipalities. “The population cannot be provided with adequate water if both the water-coolers work at full capacity. We are told that new dams will be erected in three years time. But they could have avoided the need for more dams by building air-cooling power plants in the first place,” said Direskeneli.
“We have two massive power plants that together can produce 2,800 MW of electricity. Both work at half capacity though, since the first is a big polluter and the second is a coal plant without adequate coal feeding. Turkey throws away at least $1billion worth of electricity each year,” Direskeneli said. Inevitably he makes an analogy to the nuclear plant to be constructed in Turkey. “Given our past and current experience with operating thermal power plants, I do not want to think what may happen if the current negligence reoccurs in the nuclear business,” said Direskeneli adding that poor planning and negligence are the two dangers that Turkey must avoid in its future nuclear experience.
Nuclear energy a must for ever growing needs
Things may look disheartening at Afşin-Elbistan, but Turkey must still meet its energy needs, growing by 8 percent every year. The government plans to build capacity for 5,000 MW of nuclear power between 2010 and 2020. “A capacity of 5,000 MW can at best be a long-term goal. Finland is struggling to attain a nuclear energy output of 1,500 MW after 10 years and works still continue,” said Direskeneli, adding that it could take even longer for Turkey.
What matters though, is that Turkey should restart its nuclear energy training or its dependency on foreign expertise will only grow. Government envisages a 60 percent domestic contribution to new nuclear power plants, but Direskeneli is skeptical. “Dealing with the site installation and civil structure of a power plant will not help Turkey to acquire nuclear technology,” he said.
Turkey is known to possess a high amount of renewable energy resources like wind, hydroelectric and solar power too. Direskeneli thinks that these sources should also be developed, although we should keep in mind their limitations. “A year has 8,760 hours, and full cycle power plants, (which use nuclear or thermal power to produce electricity) have the longest availability time with 8,000 hours,” he said. “Wind power has merely 2,000 to 3,000 hours of availability and hydroelectricity is dependable only if there is enough water running,” he said, pointing to their uncertain availability that ranges from 3,000 to 6,000 hours. Solar power is yet to mature in economic feasibility, said Direskeneli, concluding that all these reasons compel Turkey to master nuclear technology.
Turkey needs to act fast, as an energy crisis is in store for the country in 2008."Despite the massive growth in energy needs, no investments have been made since the last five years. Even rehabilitation of Soma and Yatağan thermal power plants are not completed,” said Direskeneli. Given the bleak outlook on domestic intellectual sources on energy, he stressed that Turkey must invest heavily in education. “At least we diagnosed the problems, and we know we have the power to act on them. Turkey must pull itself together,” Direskeneli concluded.