Is Yerevan Rolling Atomic Dice?

Armenia’s 36-year-old Metsamor nuclear power station received a positive report form the IAEA in early 2011, prompting the Armenian government to decide to keep the plant open until 2026. Armenian environmentalists are concerned the aging power station could have a catastrophic failure before then. (Photo: Anahit Hayrapetyan)
Armenia’s 36-year-old Metsamor nuclear power station received a positive report form the IAEA in early 2011, prompting the Armenian government to decide to keep the plant open until 2026. Armenian environmentalists are concerned the aging power station could have a catastrophic failure before then. (Photo: Anahit Hayrapetyan)

The Armenian government’s recent decision to prolong the lifespan of the aging Metsamor nuclear power plant– a decision supported by the United States – is provoking a public outcry. But with no replacement energy source in sight, the government maintains it has no choice but to place faith in the facility’s sole functioning reactor.

Metsamor opened in 1976 and sits on earthquake-prone terrain near a residential area about 30 kilometers away from the Armenian capital, Yerevan. The nuclear plant generates almost 40 per cent of Armenia’s electricity. For almost two decades, various international plans have been circulating to either shut the plant down, or keep it on life-support until a new power source can be secured.

Authorities several years ago set 2016 as the target date for Metsamor’s retirement. Then, on November 6, officials announced that, given Metsamor’s favorable results in 2011 stress tests conducted by the International Atomic Energy Agency, the facility’s lifespan would be extended to 2026.

The United States, under an October 18 memorandum of understanding on energy-sector cooperation, is willing to lend a helping hand. American Ambassador to Armenia John Heffern told RFE/RL that although Washington would have liked to see Metsamor shut down by 2016, “it is ready to continue providing the necessary resources to keep the plant operating safely.”

A copy of the memorandum, made available by US diplomats in Yerevan, pledges training assistance in a variety of areas, including nuclear safety, “related energy technology” and emergency preparedness.

Energy and Natural Resources Minister Armen Movsisian has indicated that the extra decade for Metsamor will give Armenia a chance to build a new nuclear power station in a different location. The government estimates that a new, 1,000-megawatt unit would cost roughly $5 billion – a project in which Armenia expects its strategic ally Russia will take part in. This April, President Sargsyan named 2014 as the project’s likely start date, but details have not been publicly released.

Meanwhile, another option — construction of a new nuclear-reactor unit at Metsamor (only one of the plant’s original two reactors is still functioning) — apparently has been quietly dropped. Energy Minister Movsisian earlier had named 2013 as this project’s start date, but Armenia’s 2013 budget envisages no such expenditures.

With no immediate progress on either of these fronts, Armenian environmentalists worry that the country, for sheer lack of alternatives, has been left strapped to a ticking time bomb. American support for safety measures is meaningless, they say.

“The longer the reactor works, the more fragile it becomes; it loses flexibility, and the accident risk increases,” argued Greens Union of Armenia Chair Hakob Sanasarian, who terms the decision to prolong Metsamor’s life “sabotage against the nation.” Metsamor’s remaining unit should, in fact, have closed by 2006, he added.

Former Prime Minister Hrant Bagratian, who oversaw the start of government attempts in 1995 to increase Metsamor’s operational security, shares that view. “Metsamor … can no longer be operated,” said Bagratian, now an opposition MP for the Armenian National Congress. “The metal of its reactor has already gotten thin, and we’ll face a danger worse than Chernobyl one day.” “[E]verything has its expiration date,” he continued. “I see the solution in construction of a new unit [with a nuclear reactor]. If there is none, then there is no solution.” Responding to criticism, Deputy Energy and Natural Resources Minister Aram Simonian on November 6 told parliament that “if we had the least doubts with regard to the reactor’s metal, we would not raise the issue” of prolonging Metsamor’s operating life. He did not elaborate on why construction of the new nuclear reactor has not begun.

The government insists that concerns about Metsamor are overblown, citing the tens of millions of dollars it has allocated since the 1990s on making the power station safer to run. “The demands to shut down the functioning energy block only because it is old are not grounded,” State Nuclear Safety Regulatory Committее Chairperson Ashot Martirosian declared.

Such demands carry political implications, he charged, since foreign specialists test the Metsamor reactor every four years. The latest check-up occurred “recently,” he said, adding that, as of next May, the results will be made public. “There are no deviations, everything is normal,” Martirosian told EurasiaNet.org. “Anyway, it’s good this issue raises serious concerns; it’s good that people do worry [about this].”

And worry they do. Some voters see the decision about prolonging Metsamor’s lifespan as symptomatic of the general difficulty that the government has had in tackling the country’s persistent economic woes, especially unemployment and inflation. Others stress that, though “[w]e live in difficult times,” the notion that the government would “play with nuclear safety” is “unbelievable.”

As Armenia gears up for its February 2013 presidential elections, look for political attention to all such views only to increase, local observers say.

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