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Armenia: Uranium Exploration Plans Provoke Fears

Multi-million dollar project leaves villagers worried that their health will suffer.
The villagers of Lernadzor in the southern hills of Armenia are alarmed at plans to prospect for Uranium ore in the area, nearly forty year after a local mine was closed, allegedly due to a fatal accident linked to radiation poisoning.

In April this year, a contract was signed between the Armenian environment minister, Aram Harutiunian, and the Russian company Atompredmedzoloto to mine uranium throughout Armenia.

The hills around Lernadzor, in the Syunik region, 340 kilometres south of the Armenian capital Yerevan, are a prime candidate for exploratory work, because the region is well known as a source of uranium since Soviet times. Experts believe there are thousands of tonnes of ore still in the ground.

Atompredmedzoloto is the world’s second biggest uranium miner, dominating the market in Russia.

The Armenian and Russian partners have said they will start prospecting by means of drilling in the hills near the villages of Lernadzor, Pukhrut and Katnarat. If they find sufficient amounts of uranium, as they expect, they will start to mine them from 2010.

Harutiunian said that the exploration project will not pose any danger and all work will be done strictly in accordance with Armenian legislation.

“There are no grounds for concern because we will monitor…the prospecting,” said Harutiunian. “And that means that nothing is threatening the environment.”

Sergei Kirienko, the former Russian prime minister who is general director of Rosatom, the Russian state corporation which owns Atompredmedzoloto, said that depending on the amount of uranium they discover, the company could invest tens of millions of dollars in the Armenian project. He also emphasised that the uranium would benefit Armenia’s nuclear power industry.

A new venture, the Armenian-Russian Mining Company, was launched in Yerevan in 2008 to develop the project. “By our calculations, the joint venture ought to completely cover Armenia’s supplies of uranium, which is [an important] factor in its energy security,” said Kirienko.

He said that a joint team of Armenian and Russian specialists had already identified the areas they wished to prospect – the ones in Syunik amongst them.

However, both locals and environmentalists are alarmed by the news.

“We heard about this [exploration work] only from news broadcasts, we weren’t asked what we wanted or what we should do so that the village doesn’t suffer,” said Lernadzor elder Styopa Petrosian. “We all know that uranium is a radioactive substance which can very quickly create levels of radioactivity that directly affect the environment and people’s health.”

“If work begins on extracting uranium, Armenia will turn into a disaster zone,” said Hakob Sanasarian, a leading green activist. “This kind of mining could be environmentally destructive for such a small country.”

Villagers in Lernadzor say that in the 1970s there was a brief period of uranium mining during which several miners reportedly died and the mine was abruptly shut down. There was no explanation given for the closure.

“I remember just like it was today how the whole village heard that several people had died in the mine, but no one found out what happened and why,” said 70-year-old Babken Gevorgian.

“All the conversations were about how the miners died from high levels of radiation,” said Vladik Martirosian, head of the environmental organisation Khustup and an engineer in the environmental department of the nearby Zangezur Copper Molybdenum Factory. “I think that was what happened because we did not even see their bodies. They shut the mine and they also shut our mouths.”

IWPR approached Armenia’s ministry of energy and natural resources about why the mine was closed, but officials were unable to respond to our enquiries.

Another cause for concern is the proximity of the projected exploration work to Armenia’s biggest and richest national park, Shikahogh. The director of Shikahogh, Ruben Mkrtchian, is resolutely opposed to the uranium extraction project.

“The distance between [proposed exploration area] and Shikahogh is less than 50 km,” said Mkrtchian. “That means that [if] mines open, the national park will be subjected to radiation. Animals will definitely get sick because of this and trees will start to wither. If that happens, the whole ecological balance of the forest will be disrupted.”

Scientist and academician Sergei Grigorian, who will lead the prospecting work, says that contemporary mining methods are safe and that mining will not pose any environmental hazards. He said that the more dangerous process of uranium enrichment would take place not in Armenia, but in a joint Russian-Kazak centre in the city of Angarsk in Siberia.

Environmentalists say they have not been convinced. Eveline Ghukasian, deputy director of the Institute of Hydrology and Fish-Breeding in the Armenian National Academy of Sciences, said, “In Syunik [region], where the environment has already been polluted because of large-scale mining work, the last thing we need is radiation caused by the extraction of uranium. Starting up the mines could have not just irreversible environmental effects, but cause early death, cancers and birth defects.”

Local officials say they are satisfied with the government’s assurances about the safety of the project.

But villagers like Haik Minasian, 20, are sceptical. “Because local officials support these government decisions, I am sure that our protests won’t be heard, they will start looking for uranium and the effect on us, local people, will be lethal,” he said. “One day we’ll go to sleep and we won’t wake up.”

Arpi Harutiunian is a reporter with in Yerevan.