Armenia's Nuclear Dilemma

Yerevan is resisting calls to decommission its only nuclear power plant - an obsolete legacy of the Soviet era

Armenia's Nuclear Dilemma

Yerevan is resisting calls to decommission its only nuclear power plant - an obsolete legacy of the Soviet era

European leaders are urging Armenia to shut down its aging nuclear power station - named by Newsweek as one of the six most dangerous reactors in the world.

However, Yerevan is loathe to sacrifice the only nuclear plant in the South Caucasus which currently produces around 40 per cent of the nation's electricity.

And government ministers - still haunted by the energy crisis of 1992-1995 - are refusing to decommission the station until alternative energy sources have been established.

The Armenian Nuclear Power Station (ANPS) was temporarily closed in March 1989, four months after the former Soviet republic was devastated by an earthquake. Three years later, the European Union called on governments across the CIS to dismantle any "unreliable" Soviet installations - including the VVER-40 near Yerevan.

However, the Armenian government was very aware that nuclear energy would guarantee the nation a large degree of self-sufficiency and the ANPS was reopened in November 1995.

The then prime minister, Grant Bagratian, commented, "The nuclear power station puts Armenia ahead of all the other countries in the region."

Today the station produces two billion kilowatt hours of electricity annually, enabling Armenia to export the excess to neighbouring Georgia. There are even plans afoot to supply electricity to Turkey in the event of a political rapprochement.

However, the Europeans have continued to keep up pressure on Yerevan. In September 1999, representatives from Armenia and the European Union signed a preliminary agreement to close the ANPS over the next five years.

And the issue was raised by Sweden's foreign minister, Anna Lindh, during a recent European Union visit to Yerevan.

The Armenian Green party has joined the calls for the ANPS to be closed. Party leader Akop Sanasarian claims that the reactor is located on a seismic fault and, given its proximity to Yerevan, a possible earthquake could have tragic consequences.

But the authorities are quick to play down the risks. When in 1999 the ANPS featured on Newsweek's list of the world's six most dangerous reactors, Ashot Avsepian, secretary of the president's council on safety at the plant, said that safety standards had been approved by specialists from Russia, England, France, Germany and Finland.

And ANPS director Suren Azatian says, "The life expectancy of a nuclear reactor is defined by the condition of its metal casing which was built to last 30 years. The ANPS has only been in operation for 14 years, which leaves another 16."

He believes that nuclear energy alone can ensure Armenia a degree of self-sufficiency in the region. "It is unthinkable that the nation's main energy source should depend on deliveries of oil or gas," said Azatian.

Energy minister Karen Galustian supports this opinion. He said that, if the ANPS were shut down, around 80 per cent of the nation's electricity would have to come from fuel-burning power stations with the rest produced by hydroelectric plants.

"Self-sufficiency is a very serious question for Armenia," said Galustian. "Decommissioning the ANPS would be equivalent to abandoning this advantage." He stressed that the proposed closure of the ANPS in 2004 would be possible only if alternative energy sources were already in place. This would call for substantial investment and he doubted that the necessary funds could be raised in the time available.

Other alternatives include a gas pipeline from Iran and a fifth unit at the Razdanskaya power station. But work on the former has yet to begin whilst financing for the latter has run out.

The European Union is devoting considerable efforts to solving Armenia's energy problems. This month, a conference in Yerevan will focus on plans for building new power stations with an equivalent output to the ANPS.

But Russia dismisses the EU's fears. The Russian nuclear power minister, Yevgeny Adamov, denies there is any pressing need to close the ANPS, claiming that all the Soviet nuclear reactors passed safety checks in 1992, six years after the accident at Chernobyl.

"What's more important here," he asked, "politics or economics? Nothing has gone wrong in all these years. Then the Soviet Union collapsed and someone thought it was a suitable moment to put political pressure on the former Soviet republics. There are similar reactors in operation in Hungary and Finland but no one calls them dangerous or demands that they be closed down."

Some observers believe Russia is ready to help reopen the second unit at the ANPS which would enable the reactor to produce up to 40 per cent of the nation's electricity.

Meanwhile, plans for developing the nuclear energy sector in Armenia enjoy a growing following. According to an agreement between the Armenian government and MAGATE, development programmes for the next 30 years include blueprints for two nuclear-powered units with an average output of 500-700 Megawatts.

Experts from the State Atomic Inspectorate, which controls the ANPS, say that a new nuclear power station would require capital investment equivalent to $1,200 per kilowatt hour but the facility would pay for itself in just 10 years.

Sources within the Armenian energy ministry claim that firms from Germany and America are prepared to finance the construction of a new power plant regardless of their governments' position.

It is also interesting to note that the Armenian population, which supported moves to close the ANPS in 1989, now believes nuclear power to be the lesser evil. Not least because nuclear electricity is substantially cheaper than any known alternative and family budgets have never been so tight.

Susanna Petrosian is a journalist for the Armenian new agency Noyan Tapan

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