Turkey renews demands for ‘immediate closure’ of Armenian nuke plant

Turkish authorities in Ankara have demanded an immediate closure of the nuclear station in Armenia which it claims is a threat to the entire region after authorities in Yerevan decided to extend its lifetime for another decade.

Turkey’s Minister of Energy and Natural Resources Taner Yildiz told Turkish media on Wednesday that the Metsamor nuclear power plant has been operating for over 40 years to reach an age beyond which it begins to pose a “great threat”.

The facility situated not far from the Turkish border is a vital component of Armenia’s energy security as it accounts for 40 percent of electricity generated in the country. Its closure out of environmental concerns in the late 1980s, following an earthquake in the north of Armenia, led to a severe energy crisis in the South Caucasus country that was aggravated by the disintegration of the Soviet Union and a blockade imposed on the Armenian state by Turkey and its regional ally, Azerbaijan, during the 1988-1994 armed conflict in Karabakh.

The unprecedented reoperation of the plant in the mid-1990s returned 24-hour electricity supply to homes across Armenia, taking pressure off the struggling economy. At present, Armenia is an electricity exporting country and potentially could supply electric power even to economically less developed eastern provinces of Turkey.

Still, the construction of a new nuclear reactor to replace the aging one that was built in the 1970s has been a pressing concern for Armenia in the past few years. Finding investors for a project with an estimated cost of several billion dollars has proved a tough task for the government in Yerevan so far.

Earlier this month the Armenian government decided to extend the operation of the nuclear station originally set for shutdown in 2016 for another ten years. The United States, which has allocated funding for the plant’s safety for years, has in fact agreed with such a decision taken in Yerevan.

After the October 18 signing of a U.S.-Armenia memorandum on energy sector cooperation in Yerevan U.S. ambassador to Armenia John Heffern reportedly said that Washington shared the position of the European Union that the facility in Metsamor should be shut down by 2016. “But if you have decided to extend its service life for another 10 years, we are ready to assist in its safe operation,” said the ambassador, as quoted by the Arka news agency.

Turkey as well as Azerbaijan have repeatedly raised concerns over the safety of the Armenian nuclear power plant in recent years. They became more vocal in their calls for its shutdown in the wake of the March 2011 earthquake in Japan where a nuclear station was damaged by a subsequent tsunami to pose real danger to the environment and the population, as well as the October 2011 earthquake in Van, Turkey, not far from the border with Armenia and the Metsamor station itself.

Armenia has shrugged off the criticism heard from both its Turkic neighbors, putting it down to their desire to weaken the Armenian economy for easier geopolitical gains, including in the potential new war over Karabakh.

At the same time officials in Yerevan have routinely downplayed the safety concerns regarding the Metsamor plant, giving assurances that the facility is in a good operating condition and is designed to withstand an earthquake measuring up to 9, something that is unlikely to occur in the Ararat Valley where it is located.