EU seeks date for N-plant closure

EU seeks date for N-plant closure
By Kieran Cooke, in Yerevan, Armenia

BBC News
June 2 2004

The plant was closed and then reopened

The EU is freezing 100m euros of aid to Armenia because of the
country’s refusal to set a date to close an old Russian-built nuclear
power station.

The Metsamor plant, which is sited some 40km west of the Armenian
capital Yerevan, is built on top of one of the world’s most active
seismic zones.

The station was closed after one major quake in 1988, but reopened in

“This plant is a danger to the whole Caucasus region,” says Alexis
Loeber, head of the EU’s delegation in Armenia.

“Our position of principle is that nuclear power plants should not be
built in highly active seismic zones.”

Protective shell

Metsamor is a pressurised water reactor that was first commissioned
in the mid 1970s.

It is about 80km from what is believed to have been the epicentre of
the 1988 earthquake, which killed 25,000 people.

The European Union, as part of its general policy seeking the closure
of elderly nuclear plants constructed in territories of the former
Soviet Union, agreed to give the grant aid ($122m; £66m) to Armenia
for finding alternative energy sources and for helping with
decommissioning costs at the plant.

In return, the government in Yerevan would commit to a definite date
for the plant’s closure.

“We cannot force Armenia to close the plant,” says the EU’s Mr
Loeber. “Originally it was agreed the plant should cease operations
this year – now Brussels is asking the government to give a definite
date as to when it proposes to close it.

“We feel that should definitely be well in advance of the end of
Metsamor’s design lifecycle in 2016.”

The Metsamor plant has no secondary containment facilities, a safety
requirement of all modern reactors.

Power needs

Another concern is that due to border and railway closures with
surrounding territories, nuclear material to feed the plant is flown
into Armenia from Russia.

“It is the same as flying around a potential nuclear bomb,” says Mr
Loeber. “It’s an extremely hazardous exercise.”

Earthquakes happen here and there is danger. On the other hand, we
do not have any other options for work

Gohar Bezprozvannkh, former Metsamor worker
Armenian and EU officials are due to meet in Brussels this Friday to
discuss Metsamor’s future. The EU has warned that if no progress is
made on the issue, its grant aid offer might be withdrawn altogether.

At present, however, there is no indication that the Armenian
government has any intention of closing Metsamor.

Areg Galstyan, the country’s deputy minister of power, says $50m (40
million euros; £27m) has been spent on upgrading safety at Metsamor.

“It was a big mistake to shut the plant in 1988,” says Mr Galstyan.
“It created an energy crisis and the people and economy suffered.

“It would be impossible for the government to cause the same problem
again by shutting off the plant.”

The deputy minister also insists that all necessary safety measures
are taken with flying in fuel to feed the reactor, though he says
exact details of the operation are kept secret “to avoid alarming the

Gas option

Alvaro Antonyan, president of Armenia’s National Survey for Seismic
Protection, says Russian scientists had built the power station on a
special raft to resist earthquakes.

Dr Antonyan says the 1988 earthquake – a magnitude 6.7 event – had
not damaged the reactor.

The Metsamor plant supplies about 35% of Armenia’s total energy

The debate centres on the energy needs of the country
Electricity industry specialists say that due to the expansion and
updating of existing thermal and hydro-energy plants, the country has
become an electricity exporter in recent years.

A major new power source will come on stream in 2006 when a pipeline
supplying gas from neighbouring Iran is due to be completed.

In a country where jobs are scarce and per capita annual incomes are
less than $600 (490 euros; £326), people have mixed feelings about
the Metsamor issue.

“I fear for my two children because I do not think the plant is
safe,” says Gohar Bezprozvannkh, who worked at the plant for two

“Earthquakes happen here and there is danger. On the other hand, we
do not have any other options for work.”

Martiroian Harazat, now retired, had worked at the plant since it
opened. “If they shut down the reactor we will die of hunger. People
have to eat. There’s no alternative place to work.”