By Brenda Shaffer | March 5, 2021
Armenia's Metsamor nuclear power plant cooling towers. Credit: Adam Jones via Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 2.0.
In late 2020, the Armenian government announced that its Metsamor nuclear power plant would close for five months in 2021 to attempt significant upgrades. Soon after, the EU urged Armenia to make the closure permanent since the plant “cannot be updated to fully meet internationally accepted safety standards.” A major nuclear or radiation accident at Metsamor would not only affect the people of Armenia, but citizens in neighboring Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Iran, Russia, and southern Europe. Besides, Armenia can meet its energy needs without Metsamor’s output, especially as it exports to Iran over half of the plant’s electricity. Further, thermal plants and renewable sources could replace what is used domestically. Metsamor does not even help Armenia achieve its declared goal of energy independence, as Russia–Armenia’s main energy supplier–provides the country with most of its natural gas, along with nuclear fuel and specialized technicians for the plant. But none of these arguments have swayed Armenia to close Metsamor in the past.
Is there an argument that could work now?
The EU might urge Armenia to consider a closure in light of recent developments. Post-war road, railway, and energy-development plans should increase trade and transportation linkages in the South Caucasus region after the recent conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The new infrastructure and financing provide Armenia with a fresh opportunity to tap newer, safer, and more diverse energy supplies. By closing Metsamor, Armenia would not only contribute to the safety of its own citizens and those in neighboring countries but strengthen peace in the South Caucasus.
Metsamor nuclear power plant. Metsamor is located in a major seismic zone close to Armenia’s capital, Yerevan, and near Armenia’s border with Turkey. The original, Soviet-built plant included two 400 megawatt reactors. Unit 1 began commercial operation in 1977. Both units were closed by the Soviet authorities in 1989, following the Chernobyl accident and the massive Spitak earthquake in Armenia in 1988, which killed over 25,000 people. In 1995, following Armenia’s independence, Metsamor Unit 2 was restarted at 375 megawatts electrical with Russian funding and technical support. The plant’s original operating license was supposed to end in 2016, but Yerevan extended it to 2021, and late in 2020 announced its intent to extend the plant’s operation even longer. Unit 1 has remained closed.
Metsamor is one of five of the last operating Soviet-era reactors without a containment vessel, which is a requirement of all modern reactors. (The other reactors without containment vessels are located in Russia.) Nuclear fuel for the Metsamor plant is flown in from Russia, with no special announcements to the Armenian public or regional aviation authorities. In contrast, most nuclear fuel is delivered in the world by sea or rail to minimize the impact of potential accidents. Since the restart of Metsamor Unit 2, the reactor’s spent nuclear fuel has remained on site. Then-Armenian Deputy of Energy Areg Galstyan stated in 2004 that details on the air shipments of the nuclear fuel were kept secret to “avoid alarming the people.”
Map of Armenia. Credit: The World Factbook 2021. Central Intelligence Agency.
Since its re-launch in 1995, Metsamor has had multiple safety upgrades and also dozens of low-level safety incidents, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency. Hakob Vardanyan, Armenia’s deputy minister of territorial administration and infrastructure, who oversees the energy sector, explained that upgrade work at Metsamor had fallen behind schedule because Armenian workers have an “acute lack of experience” in nuclear plant construction and repair.
A nuclear or radiation accident at Metsamor would not only affect the majority of the population of Armenia due to its close proximity to the capital, but also citizens in many nearby countries. Further, an accident or leak at the plant, which is located on the Metsamor River, which feeds into to Araz River, would create damage downriver in Azerbaijan and Iran.
EU efforts to close Metsamor. Since the late 1990s, the EU has repeatedly encouraged Armenia to close Metsamor as part of a program aimed at shutting down nuclear power plants it has viewed as dangerous, including some located in the EU. Indeed, Lithuania, Bulgaria, and Slovakia agreed to shut down their plants as a condition of joining the EU.
Armenia had agreed to close Metsamor by 2004 as part of a 1998 EU agreement. The EU had even supplied Armenia with funds to close the plant and find substitute energy supplies. However, Armenia did not use the funds to transition its energy sector, leading the EU to freeze the loans in 2005. Around that time, Armenian Head of the EU Delegation Alexis Louber underscored the need for closure when he said, “(N)uclear plants should not be built in highly active seismic zones. This plant is a danger to the entire region … we wanted to close it as quickly as possible.”
Likewise, subsequent formal cooperation agreements between the EU and Armenia, including Armenia’s action plan for the European Union Neighborhood Policy in 2006 and the EU-Armenia Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement in 2017, have planks on closing and decommissioning Metsamor. The European Union Neighborhood Policy even provided technical assistance for decommissioning and managing radioactive waste. Prior to signing that policy, Armenian Minister of Trade and Economic Development Karen Chshmaritian made clear that Metsamor’s closure was a precondition for deepening Armenia’s links with the EU. Armenia signed the agreement and subsequently adopted a formal decommissioning plan in 2007. Yet Metsamor has remained operational.
In almost every official report related to the European Union Neighborhood Policy implementation, the EU emphasized that it wanted Armenia to close Metsamor. For example, the 2011 European Union Neighborhood Policy Country Progress Report-Armenia states, “The EU continues to request the closure of Metsamor Nuclear Power Plant as soon as possible, as it cannot be upgraded to meet internationally recognized nuclear safety standards.”
The next major agreement between the EU and Armenia was the 2017 EU-Armenia Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement. This agreement states that both sides will cooperate on “the closure and safe decommissioning of Metsamor nuclear power plant and the early adoption of a road map or action plan to that effect, taking into consideration the need for its replacement with new capacity to ensure the energy security of the Republic of Armenia and conditions for sustainable development.”
Meanwhile, as Armenia signed various agreements with the EU to close and decommission the plant, it also negotiated other agreements with Russia to extend the reactor’s life. Then in March 2014, the Armenian government formally extended Metsamor’s operation. Later, while negotiating the 2017 Partnership Agreement mentioned earlier, then-President of Armenia Serzh Sargsyan stated that the agreement with the EU had not required Metsamor’s closure, despite the explicit commitment in the agreement.
Fast forward to December 2020, when the European Commission reaffirmed the EU position: “The nuclear power plant located in Metsamor cannot be upgraded to fully meet internationally accepted nuclear safety standards, and therefore requires an early closer and safe decommissioning. It is necessary to rapidly adopt a roadmap or action plan to address this, taking into consideration the need to ensure Armenia’s energy security and conditions for sustainable development.”
Armenia’s energy security allows Metsamor’s closure. Armenia has a unique energy market with relatively small consumption of electricity and a large proportion of its electricity exported, mostly to Iran. Armenia has several options for reducing its electricity needs and finding substitutes for Metsamor’s output, meaning that Armenia could close its nuclear power plant and still provide reliable energy for its population.
Most energy in Armenia is used for residential purposes and transportation, with only 15 percent consumed by industry. Armenians primarily use natural gas, which accounts for 65 percent of the country’s energy consumption. Armenia’s relatively mild summers mean that relatively little energy is needed for cooling. As a result, the country’s per-person electricity consumption is less than half that of Europe’s.
Armenia could provide reliably for its energy needs without the output from its nuclear power plant. Today, Armenia exports over half of Metsamor’s electricity to neighboring Iran. If these exports were ended, the remaining domestic needs could be met by building one additional thermal-powered electricity plant.
Armenian officials point to energy independence as a key motivation for Metsamor’s ongoing operation. They categorize its output as domestically produced energy, without acknowledging that Russia supplies all of its fuel or that the plant’s most complicated work is performed by Russian specialists under the direction of Russian state entities. Since Armenia also imports more than 80 percent of its natural gas from Russia, and the Russian energy corporation Gazprom owns Armenia’s gas network, keeping Metsamor open actually represents further dependence on Moscow, rather than less. In fact, Armenia’s energy security could be improved by diversifying its energy suppliers and supplies. A new thermal plant could have dual-fuel capacity, enabling a quick transfer to liquid fuel (such as heavy oil or diesel) or to coal, thereby reducing its dependence on natural gas. Armenia could then stockpile back-up fuel or coal and quickly transfer to the stored energy without major disruption to electricity supplies. Armenia also has the ability to increase its hydroelectric generation.
Armenia can significantly lower its energy consumption through greater energy efficiency. Moreover, Armenia’s energy demand will decrease in 2021 because it lost control of territories in neighboring Azerbaijan in the 2020 war, where it had provided electricity and gas until late 2020.
Regional peace initiatives enable new energy trade. Armenia plans to retain and upgrade its nuclear power plant, despite commitments to the EU to close it. The Armenian Energy Sector Development Strategic Program to 2040 states that “the government will stay committed to the policy to maintain nuclear power plant in the country’s generation mix.” Within Armenia, there is little public opposition to the plant, despite its lack of modern safety measures and proximity to a third of the country’s population. Indeed, Armenian officials frequently note their national pride at being the only country in the South Caucasus to operate a nuclear power plant. Financial factors also likely play a role. The main costs in nuclear power plants lie in their construction and decommissioning, while operating costs, including fuel, are relatively low. Russia also grants loans to Armenia to cover many of the costs.
During the five months of 2021 in which Metsamor is scheduled to shut down, the EU might seize the opportunity to remind Armenia of its commitments to close the plant altogether. Instead of investing in upgrades, Armenia could put the funds towards building an additional thermal plant. This would safeguard people throughout the region and strengthen the post-war peace process that includes new railway and road linkages and potentially new energy trade. Such an effort would emphasize regional cooperation, including among representatives of Armenia and Azerbaijan
With new roads, new railways, and possibly new energy pipelines in the region, Armenia would be able to diversify its energy supplies. For instance, the planned new rail connections would enable Armenia to import fuel and coal that could be stockpiled as backup to its natural-gas-fired generation. With this increased supply and source diversification, Armenia would actually improve its energy security. In the end, closing Metsamor could improve the physical security of Armenians and their European neighbors while improving Armenia’s energy security.
At a minimum, the EU should require that Armenia install an early warning system that would notify its neighbors and EU headquarters in Brussels of leaks or accidents at the Metsamor plant. The EU, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe Minsk Group, the US State Department, and the US embassy in Yerevan could sponsor and support this process.
Following the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in Japan, Germany and other key EU states shut down their nuclear power production. Also, the EU has succeeded in closing dangerous Soviet era plants among its new members. However, EU citizens remain in danger when problematic plants in their neighborhood remain operational. The EU now has an opportunity to remove one of these dangers while strengthening regional cooperation, but only if it convinces Armenia to scrap plans to repair Metsamor in favor of shutting it down altogether.