Revisiting the Metsamor Nuclear Power Plant

The Soviet Union may have dissolved more than two decades ago, but its nuclear legacy is still a matter of contention and controversy in and among its former territories and their neighbors. One nuclear power plant stands in the town of Metsamor, located 32 km. (20 miles) west of Armenia’s capital, and about 76 km. (47 miles) east of Gyumri, where a massive earthquake shook the city to ruin 24 years ago. The town was built to house Metsamor workers. The aging power plant has raised concerns by environmentalists and politicians from across the globe, who argue that a massive nuclear disaster looms in the region. The Armenian government, on the other hand, argues that the plant is safe and economically beneficial for the country.

The Soviet Union may have dissolved more than two decades ago, but its nuclear legacy is still a matter of contention and controversy in and among its former territories and their neighbors.

The enormous jazzvé-like towers of the Metsamor Nuclear Power Plant have provided about 40 percent of Armenia’s electrical power since their construction in 1976. Originally set to have expired in 2016, the plant’s operation has been extended for an additional 10 years, with approval from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Metsamor, built without primary containment structures, is one of the five remaining Soviet nuclear reactors of its kind. According to Marianne Lavelle and Josie Garthwaite of National Geographic News, the other four are located in Russia and are all either past—or close—to their original retirement ages.

Armenia’s plant, however, raises greater concern because it stands on one of the world’s most earthquake-prone regions.

 

Armenia’s troubled energy situation

Metsamor was shut down following the devastating earthquake in Gyumri in 1988. A massive energy shortage in the 1990’s, caused by the dissolution of the Soviet Union, compounded with the trade blockade by Turkey and Azerbaijan during the Nagorno-Karabagh War, prompted the nation to search for alternative sources of energy.

Despite help from other nations, such as Russia and Iran, which offered Armenia their electric energy, the funds were not enough to invest in these alternative resources. With no feasible options to consider, the government considered reopening the Metsamor facility, to the disapproval of the European Union (EU) and the IAEA. Armenia countered their concerns, arguing that it did not have the ability to equip Metsamor to European standards, nor to consider alternative energy sources. Approximately $70 million was needed to restart the plant, and Russia assisted with providing the enriched uranium needed. It is the only nuclear plant in the world that was restarted after years of complete closure, in 1995.

Despite the EU’s disapproval of the extension, the United States has agreed to assist Armenia in the safe operation of the facility for another 10 years, stated U.S. ambassador to Armenia John Heffern, at the Oct. 18 signing of the U.S.-Armenia memorandum on cooperation in the energy sphere, as confirmed by the ARMESRI (Assistance to Energy Sector of Armenia to Strengthen Energy Security and Regional Integration) news site.

The chairperson of the Armenia State Nuclear Energy Control Committee, Ashot Martirosian, initially argued that because the facility was shut down for 6 years, and the reactors are repaired every 3-4years, the 30-year life span of the plant could easily manage to produce electricity until 2016. He later stated in an interview with EurasiaNet.org that the concerns about the plant are exaggerated because “the demands to shut down the functioning energy block only because it is old are not grounded.” The millions of dollars spent on making the plant safer to run are viewed as a remedy to the backlash against the nuclear station.

 

Criticism from neighbors

In the aftermath of the earthquake-turned-tsunami and the Fukushima nuclear disaster that shook Japan last March, the world began to refocus its attention on the long-forgotten Cold War-era nuclear reactors. After the earthquake in Van, Turkey, last October, many in Turkey began to challenge Armenia’s desire to advance its nuclear energy field. Questions resurfaced from those who argued that the combination of a high-risk location and outdated technology, located just 10 miles from the Turkish border, make Metsamor one of the most dangerous nuclear power plants in the world.

Armenia’s neighbors argue that if Metsamor were to experience a serious accident, Turkey, Iran, and Azerbaijan would be affected. Although there has not been any serious effort from the Turkish or Azerbaijani governments to force Armenia to shut down the plant, Ankara has threatened to pursue more serious action. In January 2003, the mayor of Kars, Naif Alibeyoglu, applied to the IAEA and the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), demanding the closure of the facility.

Although the prospect of an alternative source for Armenia’s energy need remains bleak, if by some chance the officials of Kars were to cooperate with the Green Party and other European environmental groups, there is a possibility that the ECHR would seriously consider Alibeyoglu’s case, said Dr. Hatem Cabbarli, the president of the Eurasia Safety and Strategy Research Center, in an op-ed for the Turkish newspaper, Today’s Zaman.

Officials in Yerevan have all but ignored the criticism from their neighbors, claiming its from a desire to weaken the Armenian economy for easier geopolitical gains, particularly with the Nagorno-Karabagh conflict still unresolved.

Notwithstanding, the Armenian government has made sure to routinely downplay the safety concerns regarding the Metsamor plant, ensuring that the facility is in good operating condition and can withstand an earthquake measuring up to a 9.0 on the Richter scale, which they argue is not likely.

To put the Turkish and Azerbaijani protests in perspective, Dr. Cabbarli argued that it is necessary to discuss the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline that was constructed in 2005. Although there were mass protests and rallies organized by Turkish and Georgian environmentalists—with demands made to compensate the residents of the region—Turkey did not close down the pipeline, arguing that its economic incentives were far too great to be ignored.

Along this vein, Cabbarli points out that Turkish environmental groups have not riled up in protest of Metsamor like they did against the oil pipeline. They do not seem to realize the real risks posed by the Metsamor plant to the environment and those living around the region. Many who support the nuclear plant in Armenia find it curious how the environmentalist groups of Turkey, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and elsewhere have reacted so differently to the two situations. Cabbarl said that “while the effective measures taken by these same environmentalists when it comes to preventing the pollution of the Bosporus should be applauded, it is difficult to understand their silence when it comes to the possible ‘second Chernobyl’ looming next door.”

 

Disputes intensify with new plant

Hrant Bagratyan, a former prime minister and current opposition member in the Armenian Parliament, argues that the facility cannot longer be operated. In an interview with EurasiaNet.org, he said that “the metal of its reactor has already gotten thin,” and warned of “a danger worse than Chernobyl one day.”

The Armenian government has approved a measure that will create a new nuclear power station in a different region of the country. The government, with the help of Russia, estimates the start date of the $5 billion project for a 1000 MW unit to be 2014, although the details have not yet been released to the public. A plan to add another reactor unit at Metsamor next year was abruptly abandoned.

Proponents of the measure say that a new plant would meet Armenians’ demand for electricity, as well as skeptics’ safety concerns.

Although there has been no significant progress on the addition of another power plant in the nation, Armenian environmentalists have voiced their concerns over the ecological, as well as health, risks the nuclear plants would pose. Safety measures can only do so much to prevent large-scale disasters.

The chairman of the Green Union of Armenia, Hakob Sanasaryan, is one of the most prominent voices of the anti-nuclear energy movement in Armenia. “The longer the [Metsamor] reactor works, the more fragile it becomes; it loses flexibility, and the accident risk increases.” He says plant is located at the intersection of several major fault mines. “According to some data, the main fault is just 500 meters away from the reactor. This is extremely dangerous and totally goes against all the norms of nuclear power plant construction.”

Sanasaryan believes the plant should have closed down in 2006—a view that is vastly different than that of many political representatives of the country, such as Martirosian, who argues that the generating unit at the Metsamor Nuclear Power Plant is operating at 92 percent capacity, with 8 percent left in reserve to ensure safe operation.

Areg Galstyan, the Armenian deputy minister of energy and natural resources, shares Martirosian’s opinion. “Of course it’s a second generation of nuclear reactors and a Russian design, but these types of reactors are very safe,” he said.

The general director of the plant, Gagik Markosyan, says the plant is safer than ever. “At the time of the Spitak earthquake, I was working here at the plant. Sure, the earthquake happened not far away—it was catastrophic—but our nuclear power plant will continue to work absolutely fine, at full power, both during and after the earthquake,” he stated in an interview with Russia Today.

Despite what politicians and diplomats say, many Armenians see the decision to prolonging Metsamor’s lifespan as symptomatic of the general difficulty the government has had in tackling the country’s persistent economic woes, especially unemployment and inflation. Still, others cannot believe that the government would “play with nuclear safety,” so to speak.

As the nation prepares for its presidential elections next year, political disagreement on whether the plant should stay or be shut down will only be heightened in the months to come.

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Lilly Torosyan

Lilly Torosyan is the Assistant Project Manager of Hamazkayin’s h-pem, an online platform to engage young diasporans in Armenian art and culture. She holds a master’s degree in Human Rights from University College London and a bachelor’s degree in International Relations from Boston University, where she served on the ASA Executive Board. Her writings primarily focus on highlighting unique facets of, and approaches to, identity, community, art and youth events.

17 Comments

  1. Those who do want the reactor closed should find a way to finance and help Armenia build a new safer plant. Just talking about shutting down the lifeline of a country without any alternative is not an option, will not happen, even if one has a single digit IQ. Do not waste anyone’s time buy talking or writing about hypothetical or philosophical issues without taking a hard look at reality.

    • Well said. This is another hit piece by the ARF run media in the US. In the past 2 years Asbarez and Armenian Weekly have shown their true colors, as outlets of Western interests.

    • well said Saaten Maagar:

      well said AR:
      (although I find it hard to believe AW and Asbarez are outlets of Western interests.)
      (I think something else motivates their general Anti RoA Gov orientation)
      (there is no doubt in my mind they are Armenian patriots, but with confused priority of loyalty)

      Dear Green Environmentalists:

      you criticize: fair enough.
      now please give us your specific plan as to how you will solve the energy needs of RoA.
      Please remember that current NPP supplies 40% of electricity of RoA.
      Also remember RoA has no hydrocarbon reserves.
      And no abundance of water reserves (dams, rivers) for hydroelectric generation..
      And any imported natural gas fired power generating station is subject to stoppage by outside events: both Russian and Iranian natural gas can be interrupted any day by events RoA does not control.

      How would you generate electricity for 3 million people ? Tell us.
      And please don’t bother with the usual solar and wind power hocum: I know all about energy density, energy storage, and all that.

  2. I enjoy Ms. Torosyan’s articles very much. She seems to write about things that are very dear to me. Let me add that a significant report on the operational readiness and integrity of the Metsamor plant is due to be issued by the IAEA in a few months.

  3. Turkey, and especially its ‘me too’ side-kick Azerbaijan are scared out of their wits about Armenia having nuclear capability. They know fully well it is a hindrance to their long-term turanian plan of destroying Armenia. How can “great nations” like Turkey and Azerbaijan not have nuclear reactors while the country they are trying to suffocate out of existence does?

    Recently these two genocidal nations started collecting signatures for the closure of Armenia’s nuclear plants… citing ‘environmental concerns’… but the real reason behind it is military.

    Of course the hypocrites soon revealed themselves as going forward with the deal to get some nuclear reactors in Turkey built by, none other than Russia. Perhaps they should take those signatures and apply it to themselves first. And while the plants will supposedly be owned by Russia, the Turks are not worried. Their idea is “you never know the future”, in other words, having the USA on their side, they may one day be able to give Russia the boot and take over the plants and become an “independent nuclear power”.

    I am perplexed at the world powers even allowing this. If NATO and Russia actually believe that having nuclear plants is a good idea in a disgustingly extremist and militaristic,not to mention genocidal country like Turkey is a good idea, then God help the world.

    With this in mind, these hypocrites of the world have the audacity to talk about Iran going nuclear. In the above scenario I hope Iran goes nuclear soon and even arms itself with nuclear weapons to the teeth, as well as Armenia. That’s the only language these two turanian invaders of Central Asia understand.

    And all you clueless people, Armenian or otherwise, if you care about the environment so much start complaining about Turkey getting nuclear plants instead of Armenia, which is struggling to survive in a sea of fanatical terrorists.

  4. I hope the plans to build a new nuclear power station elsewhere in Armenia, which is less earthquake-prone, will realize soon. Because if there is a nuclear disaster with the present plant the population in Armenia will suffer most.
    A new, modern nuclear power station will also be a great boost to the economy.

  5. The article on Medzamor dated December 7th 2012 requires some clarification to put at least one misleading statement in proper context.

    Under the major topic: “Crticism from neighbors”. Dr. Hatem Cabbarli the president of the Eurasia Safety and Strategy Research Center (last paragraph) compares the Medzamor plant to the Chernobyl plant.

    The implications one would assume are that the plant is as dangerosus as Chernobyl.This blatant and totally misleading statement should be called what it is. This is fear mongering of the worst kind. First and foremost the Medzamor is a pressurized water reactor with a negative reactivity coefficient; (meaning upon loss of coolant the nuclear reaction shuts the reactor down); a robust and large heat sink and multiple safety systems designed for siesmic events and interuptions.

    Chernobyl was a graphite moderated core with graphite; ie. much more unstable with loss of coolant accidents. The U.S has helped the Armenians in making Medzamor much more robust than it was some years ago.The Chernobyl design has a posotive reactivity coeffiicient(meaning the loss of coolant causes an increase in the nuclear reaction i.e. higher power surge and potential loss of control.

    Dr. Cabbarli should know better or if he does not then his grasp of safety issues needs a reexamination by his employer. One can only conclude that Dr Cabbarli has a somewhat hidden agenda. Perhaps the IAEA should look at his credentials before seriously considering his opinions.

    Before anyone concludes that these plants are absolutely safe one should consider what happened in Japan. There are no absolutes in the safety world. This calls for careful considerations of all the possible natural causes of accidents and resaonable i.e. cost effective solutions.

    Leo D.

    • Jemie,

      We do not have tsunamis in Armenia. As you know It was the tsunami that caused the Fukushima disaster not the earthquake.

  6. “It is the only nuclear plant in the world that was restarted after years of complete closure, in 1995.”

    This is simply inacurate, there are plenty of reactors that were re-started after years of complete closure, I have worked in consulting firm for US nuclear powerplants for the last 10 years. Below are some examples in USA.

    1) 1985 all browns Ferry nuclear raectors were shut down for operational and management issues. Units Two and Three were restarted in 1991 and 1995, respectively. Starting in 2002, TVA undertook an effort to restore Unit One to operational status, spending $1.8 billion to do so. The United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) approved the restart of Unit 1 on May 15, 2007 and the reactor was brought up to criticality on May 22 for the first time since March 3, 1985.

    2) Pilgrim and Millsotone Nuclear Power Stations (nearby to weekly in MA and CT) were both closed for several years in 1980s and 1990s

    Similar designs to the Armenia’s VVER-440 (US PWRs) are being licensed/relincensed for 60 years operation (20 years after the initial 40 years).

    USING WORDS LIKE RUSSIAN, USSR, SOVIET doesnt simply make something not SAFE.

    • Its not about USSR, its about a nuclear reactor very close to a fault. an Accident could be desaterous.

      Fokoshima was miles from oceanic fault and sunamis smashed into it. The difference between metsamore is it is even in worse location when safety is conserned.

      or maybe we should have fate in God and he will protect us in a 7.5 earthquick.

  7. “Another Fukushima waiting to happen.”

    Jaime Fukushima was different design “BWR” which directly cools the reactor by one loop of coolant, VVER-440 is a PWR which is two loops off coolant.

    Oh and it was not the earthquake but the water inside the emergency Diesels because of tsunami levels above the designed, Armenia doesn’t get a tsunami, without any oceanfront

    Google or Wikipedia the different designs, or go on Nuclear Regulatory Commission or Energy department sites for more professional and detailed information.

  8. I hope they would shut down this power plant. Turkey should not threaten but should help Armenia to close it down. A catastrophe will equally effect both countries.

  9. Whose idea was that to built a nuclear reactor next so close to the fault. Seriously the Soviets and Communists didn’t care.
    The leftovers of the Iron Curtain are still hunting former soviet republics.

    In general I think after Chernobil, Forkoshima, and the Three mile island accident there is more reason not to any longer built any reactors or even worse to restart an old clunker one. Leave them in the junk yard and remove all the fule and put it somewhere safe to be done with its half life.

    i think today with all the technology available, every nation can progress with alternative energy. Wind, sun, and hydroelectic are good ones. But, the developing nations are so in a rush to get ahead that they need quick power input into their hungry workforce. No patience and no control over speed poses risk.

    Nuclear energy is dangerous however you put it and it is very natural to be conserned. Even if no accident accures the waste will be highly radioactive for more than 10000 years ( I think even more than 20000, just google it).

    Nuclear plants are well stablished business models which have been operating like oil industry in many nations. They don’t want to give it up and there is money it it. Easy to be convinced that it is not dangerous because smart physicists are operating it, but how smart are they ? Even physisists can make mistakes.

    If Armenia didn’t restart the Metsamore Power plant, then the government and the country as a whole would of been pressured to seek other alternatives, such as wind, solar, natural gas, and more hydroelectric in combination. Along with conserving electricity and education the 40% void would of been decreased or even eliminated. what was the rush for. This happenes everywhere unfortunately.

  10. And for Turkish critisism, its mainly political. They are looking into hrassing Armenia while they have their own environmental issues.

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