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Armenian Atomic Dilemma

Aging nuclear power station is a vital source of energy for Armenia, but its future is uncertain given its location on geological and political faultlines.

Its four giant cooling towers dominating the skyline outside Yerevan, the Metsamor nuclear power station is a huge presence in Armenia – and a major controversy outside it.

Armenians depend on the station for about 40 per cent of their electricity, so most believe they cannot do without Metsamor – even bearing in mind the potential risks from the earthquake-prone land it has stood on for three decades.

“I have worked at the station for many years and I don’t think it is more dangerous than any other in the world,” said Metsamor employee Araik Ovsepian. “Of course, it would be better to live further away from it, especially as they keep the nuclear waste on site. But I want to work in my own [professional] field, and I need to feed my family.”

Constructed in 1976, the twin-reactor station sits near major geological faultlines, one of which caused the Spitak earthquake that killed at least 25,000 people in 1988. Metsamor is also in one of Armenia’s most densely populated areas. The capital Yerevan is 30 kilometres away.

Only one 440-megawatt reactor is running today, but the European Union says that given the plant’s location and age and the need for its nuclear fuel to travel by air, Metsamor should close down altogether.

The plant, which is managed by Russian electricity giant RAO UES, also gives rise to concerns in the immediate region. The Turkish border is just 16 kilometres away, Iran’s about 60 kilometres, and Azerbaijan and Georgia are less than 150 kilometres away.

“God forbid that there should be an earthquake there. There would be a catastrophe, and there would be radiation fallout within a radius of at least 400 kilometres,” said Yetermishli Kurban, deputy director of Azerbaijan’s Seismological Centre.

Georgian Green Party leader Giorgi Gachechiladze added, “According to computer modelling done by our experts, if anything happens on the Armenian plant’s territory, we’d have only eight hours to evacuate Tbilisi’s population,”

Alvaro Antonian, the head of Armenia’s own National Seismic Protection Service, said he couldn’t rule out the possibility of another major earthquake before 2008 or 2010, it would happen in the south of the country, relatively far away from Metsamor.

Armenian officials insist that Metsamor was specially built by Soviet engineers to survive earthquakes of up to 8-9 on the Richter scale. And although of a similar vintage, the VVER-440 reactor it uses is safer than the type at Chernobyl, experts say.

During the 1988 earthquake, the nuclear plant withstood tremors measuring five to six on the Richter scale. Both reactors at the plant were shut down in the aftermath of that earthquake, but the second unit was restarted in 1995 because of the country’s dire need for energy.

While Metsamor was out of action, the country suffered electricity rationing, economic decline and environmental damage as people felled trees to get through the freezing winters.

“The tragedy was that many people left in winter, while those who stayed had to warm themselves with firewood and other fuel. This led to deforestation of Yerevan and the surrounding areas and reduction of the population by a third,” said a report by the PA Consulting Group, which represents USAID in Armenia.

The European Union argues that the risk of accidents or earthquakes is too great, and that more effort must be made to find alternative power sources. In June last year, the EU froze a grant of 100 million euros because of what it said was the Armenian government’s slowness in fulfilling earlier commitments to close the station.

One detail that worries the EU – which wants to see the closure of Chernobyl-era power plants right across Europe – is Metsamor’s lack of a secondary containment facility, a failsafe in case of radioactive spills.

Another problem is the need to fly in fuel on Russian planes through Georgian airspace to Armenia. That “is the same as flying around a potential nuclear bomb” said Alexis Louber, head of the EU delegation in Armenia, who has been quoted as saying the plant poses “danger to the entire region”.

Metsamor general director Gagik Markosian said the flights, which pass over Georgia, take place once a year.

However, Soso Kuchukhidze, in charge of nuclear energy matters at the Georgian environment ministry, insisted that flights are made only once every five years. and said he thought there was no danger.

“We know precisely when the fuel is to be transported and on what plane. The fuel which is carried through Georgia’s airspace is totally harmless and presents no danger whatsoever until it enters the reactor’s active zone and the chain reaction begins. When passing through Georgian airspace, the fuel is a normal substance emitting no radiation.”

Kuchukhidze said the last load was shifted in the summer of 2004, when two planes transported about 32 tonnes of fuel.

Many Georgians appear poorly informed about the issue, which is rarely, if ever discussed in the media.

Gachechiladze, the Green Party chairman, said he had never been told. “The law says no sort of nuclear materials can be transported through Georgian territory. We are not talking about ordinary fuel. It must be enriched uranium, which is very dangerous.…

“Those who allow it should be imprisoned. Can you imagine what will happen if such a plane crashes?”

An additional worry is the waste material generated at Metsamor, said Akob Sanasarian from the Union of Armenian Greens. The practice of burying the waste on site – in facilities constructed with technical aid from French firm Fromatom – “cannot be allowed from a security and ecological standpoint,” he said.

But the main obstacle to shutting down Metsamor is that Armenia simply does not have the natural resources or the money to find working alternatives.

Energy minister Armen Movsisian said it would cost one billion dollars to stop the plant. “Negotiations with the [European] Commission are still underway. Armenia is offering to identify what sources could become the basis for building new, alternative capacities. But today, when we have no financial means available, we cannot talk about the closure or any timelines.”

One plan, which part of the EU grant was meant to help finance, is to lay a gas pipeline from Iran. However, Movsisian said using gas to power thermoelectric stations would result in higher electricity bills and have a negative effect on the economy as a whole.

Electricity tariffs in Armenia are already double those in Russia, according to RAO UES head Anatoly Chubais. Prices in Georgia are still higher.

Hydroelectric schemes are also limited by the lack of major water resources in Armenia other than Lake Sevan, which is already suffering the effects of Soviet-era ecological damage.

While some have even called for a new nuclear plant to be built, Armenian and Russian experts believe that Metsamor can still function safely for at least another 11 years.

Plant director Markosian said 35 million dollars had been spent on improvements since the reopening of the reactor, and 22 million euros have been provided under the EU’s TACIS programme. “The safety level at power plant two has increased since 1995 compared with 1989 when the plant was stopped. We can say with assurance that the safety of the plant has been growing yearly.”

Markosian said that this second unit should be kept running to the end of its 30-year service life. Taking into account the six-year period it was switched off after the earthquake, that would be 2016. However, similar Russian plants have seen their service life extended by another 15 years, raising the possibility that Metsamor will stay in operation until 2031.

For neighbouring Georgia, the Metsamor debate is complex. Though some fear potential disaster, Georgia has its own energy shortages and relies in part on electricity that Armenia, thanks to Metsamor, is able to export.

Georgia buys between 100 and 150 megawatts of electricity daily from Armenia – not from Metsamor, but from the Razdan thermoelectric power station. Bur Georgian energy minister Nika Gilauri warns, “if the Armenian nuclear power station stops, it will be impossible for Armenia to export electricity to Georgia. Armenia will have available 400 megawatts less than now,”

Despite its oil and gas resources, Azerbaijan also experiences electricity shortages – particularly in the southern Nakhichivan autonomous region, which is separated from the rest of the country by Armenian territory, leaving it somewhat isolated ever since the war over Nagorny Karabakh in the early Nineties.

Armenian energy ministry representative Levon Vardanian said at an EU-sponsored conference in Baku last November that Yerevan was ready to export electricity to Nakhichevan.

“We know that there are certain problems with electricity supplies in the Nakhichivan Autonomous Republic, and we are prepared to cooperate with Azerbaijan in restoring existing links,” Vardanian said. “Energy specialists are always ready for cooperation and politicians must set aside the problems.”

However, Azerbaijan’s deputy prime minister Abid Sharifov said there was no chance of such cooperation as long as the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia remained unresolved.

“As long as there is no peace deal with Armenia, there can be no talk of mutual links. They can come here to take part in conferences, but that does not mean we want to begin some sort of links with them,” he said.

Kerob Sarkisian is a correspondent for Iravunk newspaper in Yerevan. Sophie Bukia is a correspondent for 24 Hours newspaper in Tbilisi. Idrak Abbasov is a correspondent for Ayna newspaper in Baku. All three journalists participate in IWPR’s South Caucasus Network project.

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