Armenia depends on an aging nuclear plant in an earthquake zone, a situation that has raised eyebrows in Brussels. Yerevan aims to close the facility by 2016, but wants to replace it with a new reactor in the same spot.
Metsamor power plant is cradled in an earthquake zone
Entering a little-known power plant in the former Soviet republic of Armenia feels like stepping back in time.
Half of the huge building that stores the facility's turbines and generators is unlit, as only one generator is in use. A testament to its origin, the piece of equipment is labeled with Russian instructions.
In fact, Armenia is the last country outside of Russia that still uses a Soviet-model pressurized water reactor that dates back to the 1960s.
The plant's old age – and the fact that it is located in an earthquake zone – have fuelled debate from Yerevan to Brussels over whether the facility should be shut down.
Yet even as critics try to draw attention to alleged hazards, the Armenian government is moving ahead with plans to build a new plant.
"The new one would be much safer," Hakob Sanasaryan, Armenia's most prominent anti-nuclear activist, told Deutsche Welle, "but it's nearly madness to build a new reactor that close to the capital."
The new plant is slated to go up right next to the old one, about 30 kilometers west of Yerevan in the town of Metsamor.
A deadly magnitude 6.9 earthquake in 1988 initially led authorities to shut down the old plant, but one of its two reactors was reactivated amid an energy crisis brought on by the 1988-1994 war with Azerbaijan.
Azerbaijan and its ally Turkey have blockaded Armenia to this day.
Time of crisis
Armenian university student Sirush Vardazaryan was born during the energy shortage. She holds a widespread view in Armenia that the county has no choice but to bet on its power plant.
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"People didn't have light, proper food," she said. "All the factories were closed and all the country was in poor conditions. Sometimes we are surprised how our parents, our grandfathers and mothers lived in such conditions."
Since then, Metsamor has come to be Armenia's largest source of energy. According to the World Nuclear Association, which promotes the nuclear industry, Metsamor supplied 43% of Armenia's power in 2007.
Hydroelectric plants and natural gas imports from Georgia and Iran accounted for the rest.
"We do not have any other scenario than to keep nuclear energy," Armenian Deputy Energy Secretary Areg Galstyan told Deutsche Welle. "To cover our base demand for electricity, we must use nuclear energy."
Metsamor has come under renewed scrutiny since the March earthquake, tsunami and subsequent nuclear meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant in Japan.
Armenia is also located in an earthquake-prone zone, where the Arabian and Eurasian tectonic plates collide. Over centuries, the plates' movements have created the Caucasus Mountains – as well as regular, devastating
Mestamor's Director General, Gagik Markosyan, told Deutsche Welle that his facility was "safer than Fukushima" – in fact, just as secure today as when Metsamor went online in the late 1970s. He added that Armenia had invested more than 70 million euros ($100 million) in safety at the plant since the reactivation of one of its reactors.
Those measures include reinforcing the plant's foundations and building two new water pools to cool Metsamor in case of an emergency. Authorities have also installed extra generators at the facility in the event of a power outage.
Other than the reactor itself, spent fuel rods could be a source of trouble in an earthquake
No containment vessel
However, a recurring criticism of Metsamor is that its VVER-440 reactor lacks a shell that would contain radiation in the event of an accident.
Metsamor instead relies on a cooling system designed to prevent the reactor from overheating and giving off radiation if an accident takes place.
The main risk, according to Physicist Ferenc Dalknoi-Veress of the US-based James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, is that an earthquake could knock out the site's cooling system for a prolonged period of time.
"The question is, are [Armenia's] steps adequate?" he wrote in an e-mail to Deutsche Welle. "I would argue that building reactors in a seismic area is not a good idea regardless of the protections, which are all to buy time until cooling can be restarted."
In response to such concerns, the European Union's executive offered Armenia up to 138 million euros ( $198 million) in 2000 to decommission the plant. Armenia turned down the European Commission's offer, saying the funds were insufficient.
New, bigger plant
The government is waiting until 2016 to shut down the old plant– the limit of the current reactor's intended lifespan. By that time, the Armenian government wants to have a new plant near completion.
Authorities plan to install a VVER-1000 reactor, a newer model of pressurized water reactor with more than three times the capacity of the old one.
A joint Armenian-Russian company has been set up to build the new power plant, but given Armenia's limited wealth, most of the project's financing is expected to come from Russia.
Sanasaryan doubts the plant will solve Armenia's energy problems, and thinks foreign investors will benefit at Armenians' risk.
Metsamor is slated to undergo the same 'stress test' as plants in the EU
"It won't be an Armenian plant, a plant that belongs to Armenia," he said. "It will just be a plant that is constructed on the territory of Armenia."
Deputy Energy Secretary Galstyan said "in the middle term," Armenia could sell surplus electricity from its new, 1,000 megawatt plant to Georgian and Iran.
"We started and even signed an agreement with a company that was ready to supply electricity from Armenia to Turkey," he said. "But because of political problems, that's why the agreement was not enforced."
Officials in Turkey, Georgia and Azerbaijan have voiced concern that Armenia's current plant poses a threat to the region, with some of them calling for it to be closed.
To assuage its critics, Armenia invited a team of experts from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to investigate Metsamor from late May to early June.
The team suggested a number of safety improvements, but concluded that the site had no "extraordinary" problems.
Sanasaryan dismissed the findings, saying the IAEA is dedicated to promoting nuclear power, not ensuring its safety.
Meanwhile, Armenia has agreed to give Metsamor a "stress test" with parameters set earlier this year by the European Union's executive.
"If it turns out adjustments must be made, they will do that," Marlene Holzner, a spokesperson for the EU's Energy Commissioner, told Deutsche Welle. "If we get a request for co-funding, we can also co-finance" such adjustments.
Holzener said Armenian and EU officials were still working out technical details of the test. She added that after a summer pause, they would likely meet again in the fall, but that no date had been set for the test.
Author: Shant Shahrigian, Yerevan
Editor: Nathan Witkop