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Armenia: A Nuclear Standoff

Armenia continues to defy EU demands to close its nuclear power station by 2004.
By Peter Magdashian

Armenia is resisting pressure from the European Union to shut down a controversial nuclear power plant close to the capital.


European diplomats say the Metsamor nuclear power station, situated 50 km southwest of Yerevan, is poorly constructed and located in an earthquake zone, and therefore a catastrophe waiting to happen. "No one is safe from the disaster that would strike in the event of an earthquake," said the Italian ambassador to Armenia, Paolo Andrea Trabalza. Because of these fears, the EU is calling for the station to be closed down by 2004, as agreed by the Armenian authorities, when it re-opened seven years ago. However, the Armenians now insist it can continue to operate safely for another fourteen years.


Metsamor provides more than one third of the country's energy needs, and there is no alternative supply at the present to make up for the shortfall were it to cease operating.


The plant has raised safety fears before. Built in the late 1970s, Metsamor was first closed as a result of public protests, following the catastrophic 1988 earthquake in northern Armenia. It was reactivated in 1995 -- to the dismay of neighbouring states but to the relief of most Armenians weary of crippling power shortages. When it did start to operate again, Armenia's deputy prime minister Vigen Chitechian acknowledged that the plant was a problem that needed constant attention and increased safety precautions.


This year the row between the European Union and Armenia over Metsamor is set to worsen, as the Europeans continue to foot the bill for its security. On February 16 the Armenian energy minister Armen Movsisian said that a new EU grant, improving safety features for the station and worth ten million euros, will begin shortly.


Karen Galustian, Movsisian's predecessor as energy minister, argues that Metsamor is quite capable of operating until 2015 and that regular checks show that it conforms to international safety standards. Along with other Armenian experts he says that, although technically in an earthquake zone, Metsamor is in a seismically quiet area and not at risk from potential earth tremors.


Suren Azatian, the director of the station, accuses the EU of having commercial motives for wanting to close down Metsamor. "The Armenian nuclear plant is a serious competitor to European producers of electric power in our region," he said, adding that it was safer than other similar stations in the former Soviet Union and Europe.


Other experts are unconvinced by this argument. "The Armenian nuclear plant doesn't meet European safety standards. Chernobyl demonstrated that European constructions are safer," said Robert Kharazian, a member of the Armenian parliamentary commission on energy regulation.


However, Khazarian agreed that Armenia would not be able to shut down the station by 2004. Khazarian said that Armenia had to balance the problems of energy security with its power needs and that it would take hundreds of millions dollars to compensate the country for the loss of electricity, caused by shutting the plant: money the EU is currently unable to provide.


For the general public the closure of the power station would spell a return to the dire energy crisis of the early 1990s. "I don't want the Armenian nuclear plant to shut down," said Anayit Khachaturian, 32, a teacher. "No one will want to return to the dark year of 1992, when the power was on only two hours a day. I want my kids to live in warmth and never think about whether they have power or not."


But some Armenians do acknowledge that the country would be better off in the long term if alternative energy sources were developed. "I don't say that the power station should be shut down immediately, but Armenia should look to use cheaper and safer forms of energy," said Armen Akopian, a student of Yerevan technical university.


At present, Armenia has few sources of power that could compensate it for the loss of Metsamor. When the station was shut down, it caused a severe drain on Lake Sevan, Armenia's largest lake and its main source of hydroelectric power. The water-levels in the lake began to drop alarmingly, when it was called upon to produce more electricity.


With European Union help, Armenia has embarked on several long-term energy projects, such as using wind and heat power, which could provide alternative supplies of electricity. The EU has also promised Armenia a credit of 100 million euros to develop its energy sector.


Peter Magdashian is a freelance journalist based in Yerevan.


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