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Japan Quake Prompts Armenian Nuclear Worries

Authorities insist aging plant is earthquake-proof.
By Armen Poghosyan
  • Metsamor power station in Armenia. (Photo: Mediamax)
    Metsamor power station in Armenia. (Photo: Mediamax)

The nuclear disaster in Japan has revived concerns about environmental safety at the aging Metsamor power station in Armenia, a country which suffered a massive earthquake in 1998.

Experts say they are all the more alarmed as the Armenian government has been sparing with information about the plant and about disaster contingency plans

“Japan was regarded as the world’s safest country in terms of seismic protection and for surviving earthquakes and nuclear disasters. But look what happened there,” Inga Zarafyan, head of the environmental group Ecolur, said.

The tsunami that was triggered by a huge earthquake off the coast of Japan in March damaged water-cooling systems at a series of reactors at the Fukushima-1 plant, causing overheating, explosions and radioactive leaks.

The Metsamor plant, where the first reactor dates from 1979, was closed following the Armenian earthquake of 1988, which came two years after the Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster in Ukraine.

But with Armenia’s economy devastated by the quake, the conflict in Nagorny Karabakh, and the economic collapse that followed the end of the Soviet Union, energy shortages forced the authorities to reopen Metsamor in 1995, and it now provides 40 per cent of the country’s electricity.

The plant is due to be closed and replaced by a more modern power station, but according to Zarafyan, the completion date for the new facility is “unclear, even though many experts believe that the reactors at Metsamor are already at the end of their working life, or pretty much near the end”.

Zarafyan said little technical information was publicly available about the pressurised water reactors used at Metsamor, especially upgrades carried out since they were first built.

“We’re told that modernisation work has been carried out, but no details have been made known, for example about what technologies were employed in this process,” she said. “We are assured that all is well and that changes have been made, but words alone aren’t satisfactory.”

Vahram Petrosyan, head of the energy ministry’s Nuclear Power Research Institute, said there was no reason to worry about nuclear safety.

“Armenia is constantly taking steps to ensure safety at the nuclear power station meets the required standards,” he said. “In addition, there are International Atomic Energy Agency [IAEA] requirements for security and modernisation. Armenia has fulfilled all aspects of IAEA requirements.”

Petrosyan said the risk of damage caused by earthquakes was minimal.

“The Metsamor plant’s location was well chosen, as it has a thick layer of basalt, meaning that the force of any earthquake is reduced by about 1.5 points. That means that in this part of the country, the chances of an earthquake of level eight or more are insignificant,” he said, referring to the 12-point MSK scale used in the former Soviet Union to measure earthquake intensity. According to this scale, widespread structural damage occurs only at level eight or above.

“If there is an earthquake that poses a threat to the facility, the system will swiftly recognise this and send instructions for the reactor to shut down,” Petrosyan added. “All equipment are fitted with modern Japanese dampers which will absorb the shock of a quake and prevent major impact on the power station.”

Zarafyan is also concerned about the possible effects of a quake on nuclear waste stored underground.

“We can’t send nuclear waste out of the country, since there is no railway link with the outside world. The waste material is building up here. Of course, it goes into a special storage facility, but it’s underground. No one can say for sure what would happen to it if there was an earthquake – whether there radiation would seep out through underground water,” she said.

Other analysts are concerned that current disaster response measures would not be adequate if something did go wrong.

“The training to cope with these situations is in very poor shape in Armenia’s schools. There’s virtually no public warning system for natural or man-made catastrophes,” Richard Giragosian, director of the Yerevan-based Regional Studies Centre, said.

The ministry for emergencies insists a comprehensive disaster response plan is in place and is updated regularly.

According to Hovhannes Yemishyan, who heads the ministry’s civil defence office, “This plan sets out rules for rescue efforts and for the state institutions that have to take specific steps. The emergencies ministry will coordinate all this work, including civil defence, evacuation, accommodation, monitoring and so on.”

Armen Poghosyan is a freelance journalist.