Armenia’s Aging Metsamor Nuclear Power Plant Alarms Caucasian Neighb

Written by John Daly


Oct 3 2011

The USSR might have imploded two decades ago, but debris from its
headlong industrialization drive litter the post-Soviet landscape,
and nothing more unsettles the population of the fifteen new nations
carved out of the Soviet Union than its nuclear legacy.

The poster child for Caucasian nuclear concerns is Armenia’s aging
Metsamor nuclear power plant, which provides nearly 40 percent of
the country’s electricity.

The facility has not only alarmed neighboring Georgia, Turkey and
Azerbaijan but begun to receive international notice as well – on 11
April National Geographic ran a story entitled “Is Armenia’s Nuclear
Plant the World’s Most Dangerous?”

Metsamor, 20 miles west of the capital Erevan and 10 miles from the
Turkish border, encapsulates the dilemma facing many energy-poor
nations heavily dependent on nuclear power – unlike Germany, they do
not have the cash or alternatives needed to shutter such facilities
and consequently, keep them running while crossing their fingers.

Metsamor, which began operations in 1976, contains two VVER-400 V230
376 megawatt nuclear reactors generating about 2 million kilowatt
hours of energy annually. Many environmentalists regard it as an
accident waiting to happen. The Armenian government closed Metsamor’s
Unit 1 in February 1989 and Unit 2 the next month following a massive
December 1988 earthquake which killed more than 25,000, left much of
northern Armenia in ruins and caused more than $4 billion in damage.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the facility itself is a hostage to the
vicious politics disrupting the Caucasus. Armenia went to war with
Azerbaijan in February 1988 over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh
enclave. During the clash, which lasted until May 1994, Azerbaijan
blockaded roads, rail lines and energy supplies, leading to severe
energy shortages in Armenia. In 1991 pressure to restart Metsamor
increased after a natural gas pipeline from Turkmenistan was blocked by
a Turkish and Azeri fuel embargo. By the winter of 1994-95, residents
of Yerevan often had only an hour or two of electricity daily, which
the restart of Metsamor’s Unit 2 in October 1995 increased to 10-12
hours per day and has been running ever since, environmentalists
be damned.

Earlier this month however Metsamor was brought offline on 11 September
and will resume operation on 27 October. The EU has classified the
Metsamor’s reactors as the “oldest and least reliable” category of
all the 66 Soviet reactors built in Eastern Europe and the former
Soviet Union.

Azerbaijani National Academy of Sciences President Mahmud Karimov
recently voiced his country’s concerns over Metsamor, stating, “The
European Union also expressed the need to close the plant. Despite
regular inspections of the plant by international organizations,
the results of these inspections are kept secret and no information
is given to Azerbaijan about them. The countries of the region –
Azerbaijan, Turkey and Georgia – have repeatedly proposed allowing the
specialists of these countries to examine the Metsamor nuclear power
plant. But the reports on Metsamor are not available to these three
countries. The Armenian side says ten different committees have checked
the Metsamor NPP in 2011. But the test results are not available to
neighboring countries, that is, the inspections lack transparency.”

Quite aside from its aging technology, Metsamor, high in the mountains,
lacks suitable water resources to use as reactor core coolant in the
event that an earthquake damaged the facility, while Armenia’s parlous
fiscal situation means that its government lacks financial resources
to address the consequences of a possible accident. Metsamor is one
less than a half dozen remaining nuclear reactors of its kind that
were built without primary containment structures.

Nor is the only threat to Metsamor’s operations coming from its aging
technology – more than 140 workers at Metsamor have threatened to
quit their jobs if their wages are not raised, Radio Free Europe/Radio
Liberty’s Armenian Service reported.

Metsamor Director Ashot Markosian told RFE/RL on 23 September that
despite the workers writing him directly, the plant currently lacks
the funds for a salary increase. Earlier this month several Metsamor
employees sent an open letter to Armenia’s presidential staff, the
Prime Minister as well as European branches of the International
Atomic Energy Agency, accusing Metsamor’s chief engineer Movses
Vardanyan of abusing his official position, nepotism and embezzlement.

But no mind – Armenian authorities have said they will build a new $2-5
billion nuclear power plant to replace the aging Metsamor facility,
which will operate at twice the capacity of the Soviet-built power
station. In 2004 the European Union’s envoy called Metsamor “a danger
to the entire region,” but Armenia later turned down the EU’s offer
of a 200 million euro loan to finance Metsamor’s shutdown.

Aging nuclear technology, a disaffected work force in a facility
located in a seismically active region – what could possibly go wrong?

Time for the EU to up its bribe – err, loan.

By. John C.K. Daly

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