In the shadow of Chernobyl: Armenia, EU locked in debate over aging nuclear power plant

Twenty years after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster sent a radioactive cloud over Europe, European Union efforts to shut down Armenia's aging nuclear power plant remain at a standstill.

The EU has offered 100 million euros ($121 million) to close the Metsamor Power Plant out of concern that the Soviet-designed nuclear plant does not have a backup containment system to prevent radioactive leaks in the event of an accident. Ukraine's Chernobyl nuclear power plant also lacked sufficient containment facilities to prevent radioactive plumes from being released following two explosions at the plant on April 26, 1986.

Environmental groups also fear the plant, just 28 kilometers from central Yerevan, is vulnerable to earthquakes and that disposal of spent radioactive fuel creates a cleanup problem that will last generations.

But Armenian officials contend that the plant meets international safety standards and that steps were taken in the 1990s to protect its sensitive nuclear reactors from earthquakes.

They warn that prematurely closing Metsamor could mean a return to the dark days when Metsamor was shut down by Soviet authorities in the late 1980s.

Far from putting an end to Armenia's nuclear power era when Metsamor is scheduled to be decommissioned in 2016, the National Assembly is considering legislation that would open the country to investors who would build a replacement for Metsamor – a process that could take a decade.

Minister of Energy Armen Movsisyan thinks that Armenia will never be able to build a new nuclear station without outside investment, and says the EU's financing to mothball Metsamor is nothing, compared to what the country needs.

The EU's offer "does not solve the problem," Movsisyan says. "First, some $300 to 400 million is needed for the decommissioning of the Metsamor nuclear power plant. And up to $1 billion is needed for the construction of a new one."

The minister says the National Assembly should consider ending the republic's government monopoly on nuclear energy and allow outsiders to build a new-generation power plant. "The nuclear station can have also a non-state monopoly, a widespread practice in the world," he says.

In 2001, the European Union offered to help finance the decommissioning of Metsamor as part of its policy of urging former Soviet-bloc nations to phase out use of Chernobyl-type nuclear reactors. Opened in one stage in 1975, and in 1980 with two electricity-generating reactors, Metsamor today operates on one reactor that provides the lion's share of the country's electric power – 40 percent.

EU representatives in Yerevan did not respond to ArmeniaNow's requests for interviews on the Metsamor policy.

Zaven Kirakosyan, a physicist and director of Arev Nuclear CJSC, says the EU has supported the closing of similar reactors in Eastern Germany, and two of the six reactors were shut down in Bulgaria, which is scheduled to join the EU next year.

Earthquake safety

The Ararat Valley, dominated by two-headed Mount Ararat, is the symbol of Armenia. A good view of it opens from high places in Yerevan. The wide valley of the Biblical mountain is the home of Metsamor's four cooling towers and the town built by the Soviets for plant workers.

Vladimir Sokolyan, who was deputy head of the civil defense department in Soviet Armenia in 1987, says that during those years people were not worried about the construction of a nuclear station in the country. Metsamor had been turned into a huge construction site to which people from different corners of the Soviet Union had come to work.

The first energy unit of Metsamor was launched in 1976, the second in 1980. The estimated operational time for both units is 30 years.

But some of those who witnessed the planning and construction of Metsamor say that the choice and location of the nuclear station had aroused a wave of concern among the population.

Hakob Sanasaryan, president of the environmental group Union of Greens, says that the approval of the project in March 1969 prompted 24 well-known scientists to send a letter to the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Armenia questioning the safety of the site because of the potential for a catastrophic earthquake in the Ararat Valley.

Ashot Mnatsakanyan, current deputy chief of the Inspectorate for Nuclear and Radiation Safety Regulation, says that the plant has been strengthened to take into account seismic threats.

Regulatory officials also say Metsamor’s spent nuclear fuel is safe. Spent fuel rods can remain radioactive for generations, and safe disposal has stirred debates in other nations since the 1960s and '70s-the heydays of nuclear power plant construction.

Radioactive wastes at Metsamor are reprocessed and kept in special temporary storage facilities at the plant site. The waste is eventually shipped in hardened canisters for disposal in Russia.

Others point out that Metsamor was untouched by the 1988 Spitak earthquake that devastated the Shirak region, killing at least 25,000 people.

"The Spitak earthquake was felt at the nuclear station with a magnitude of 4-5 points, which absolutely did not hinder its work," says Friedrich Arakelyan, director of the Nuclear Energy Seismic Project, an engineering and geological research company in Yerevan. "The engineering and geological conditions are that naturally the station is based on rocks that ... have a property of absorbing rather than strengthening shocks. It is also for this reason that I say that the plant is situated in the best construction site in the world."

But the quake, combined with concerns about another Chernobyl, did prompt Soviet authorities to shutter the plant in 1989.

MP Arshak Sadoyan says the fact that the Soviets closed the plant in the wake of Chernobyl and the 1988 earthquake suggests there is a risk.

"The nuclear station was closed when everyone understood the scale of its risk, especially after the Chernobyl tragedy," Sadoyan says. "Now they say there is no seismic risk. But if there is no risk, why was it closed?"

There is no risk, according to National Service of Seismic Protection Agency Deputy Head Artur Manukyan because: “A comprehensive study of the territory was conducted before the re-commissioning not only by our specialists but also international organizations under the supervision of the IAEA, which did not give permission until it made sure that it could not cause any undesirable consequences from the seismic point of view.”

Manukyan says, too, that the latest report produced by his agency for the IAEA – completed earlier this year – concludes that the power plant is earthquake resistant.

Arakelyan explains that the Metsamor plant enjoys a favorable geological peculiarity not normally found at other nuclear sites.

The station, he says, is built on a base laid thousands of years ago by volcanoes, meaning that the upper layers of the earth’s surface are more solid in the Ararat valley than in typical areas.

Nevertheless, such data is not convincing to deter European Union concerns. Its 100 million Euro grant for alternative energy is on offer, but not until the Armenian Government announces a specific date of the plant’s shutdown.

Physicist Kirakosyan explains that the EU’s concern is for first-generation reactors and “safety measures are simply external and have nothing to do with the reactor”. The EU will continue its demand, he says, “because there is no second-shield protection.”

Questions for the future

Economist and Member of Parliament Tatul Manasaryan says that if the EU allocates such a sum, it means that it creates an absolute interests for the nuclear station to be closed.

“But they don’t provide grounds why. The only reason they consider is that it is old. Then how come the same time, the EU will allow a new one to be built? It is a paradox. And at this moment shutting down the nuclear station means to be deprived of electric power and find ourselves in darkness again,” he says.

World’s leading nuclear power producers

Nuclear power 16 percent of electricity generation worldwide. Armenia is among the top producers:

Country

   (%)

Lithuania

      79.9

France

      77.7

Slovakia

      57.4

Belgium

      55.5

Sweden

      50.0

Ukraine

      45.9

Slovenia

      40.4

Armenia

      40.0

Republic of Korea

      40.0

Switzerland

      39.7

Bulgaria

      37.7

Sources: Nuclear Energy Institute (Washington, DC), United Nations Environment Program

The current sitting of the National Assembly is engaged in debate on amendments to Armenia’s energy laws, including enabling private investment in the field of nuclear energy.

Chairman of the National Assembly Commission on Finance-Legal, Economic and Budgetary Affairs Gagik Minasyan explains the advantages of a private nuclear plant for Armenia. According to him, while in the past the EU categorically demanded that the ANPP be closed, today its position is softer, allowing for a new station that “will have regional importance”.

With ten years left until 2016 lawmakers think changes in the law are overdue. The construction of a new nuclear station would take at least eight years.

“The draft law must create a legislative framework that will enable countries that have significant experience in nuclear energy to make investments also in our country,” Energy Minister Movsisyan says.

But economist Manasaryan is against abolishing the state monopoly in nuclear energy. He thinks that it is a serious threat especially for Armenia’s neighbors.

“They are concerned: and what if it explodes? It is necessary to preserve the monopoly for responsibility. Otherwise, we become vulnerable to such criticism. There is only one step between nuclear energy and nuclear weapons,” he says.

And MP Sadoyan thinks that emergencies connected with a nuclear station in a small country like Armenia may result in the destruction of the whole country.

“There must be state control. The control package of the nuclear station to be built must belong to the state, and it should have the monopoly for management,” he says.

For environmentalist such as Union of Greens’ Sanasaryan, the question who or where or how much or when regarding nuclear energy should not even reach debate.

“There is no nuclear station in the world working safely,” he says.