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 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.