Flush with cash from energy exports, Azerbaijan is preparing to build its first nuclear reactor. Government scientists and officials tout the project as a sign that the country is now poised to flex its research muscles, but some ecologists warn of potential risks to the health and welfare of nearby population centers.
In June, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) issued a preliminary agreement for the construction of a 10-15 megawatt nuclear reactor outside of Baku for research purposes. The $119-million reactor will operate under the auspices of the National Academy of Sciences' Institute for Radiation Problems, which specializes in nuclear energy research.
"We will be using it to carry out research in physics, nuclear chemistry, to find new materials, to modify the properties of materials and to process new short-lived isotopes for medicine," Institute for Radiation Problems Director Adil Garibov told EurasiaNet. "Simultaneously, we will be training new personnel there. This means that, on the one hand, it will be a research reactor, but on the other, it will make products."
An IAEA feasibility study, to be conducted from 2009-2011, will be the first step toward setting up the reactor, according to Garibov. The government will take a final decision in 2011, the IAEA has told Azerbaijani news agencies. Essentially, though, that decision has already been made.
The government has proposed a 15-hectare lot for the reactor and other auxiliary facilities at a location 15 kilometers north of Baku, between the village of Pirakuskul and the town of Khirdalan. Design and construction of the reactor is slotted to begin in 2011-12.
Support for the project, however, is far from uniform. One ecologist worries about the reactor's proximity to Baku and the current lack of nuclear energy specialists in Azerbaijan. The reactor would be situated near the Ceyranbatan reservoir, the main source of water for Baku's population of roughly 2 million, noted Shamil Movsumov, an adviser to the International Eco-Energy Academy in Baku. Other concerns also exist.
"It is dangerous from an ecological point of view because two-thirds of the country's territory, including the Absheron Peninsula, is located in an earthquake-prone zone," said Movsumov. "Also, we have not yet developed technologies to process nuclear waste -- to utilize, store and deliver it. . . [W]e do not have experts for that."
Plans to construct a nuclear power plant in Azerbaijan first surfaced in the 1970s, but were shelved after the 1985 Chernobyl disaster.
Garibov downplayed the risks, however. The Istanbul Technical University, located in the heart of Istanbul, contains a similar reactor and has encountered no problems to date, he noted. "An explosion or other emergency situations are ruled out and there will be no waste either, because all waste will be taken out of Azerbaijan and new fuel will be delivered here, meaning that the reactor will have no environmental impact," Garibov said.
Over the project's first three years, the reactor would receive 50-100 kilograms of uranium from a supplier who would also remove the waste from the reactor site, he continued. One alternative is to build a small storage facility "for waste products that are valuable material," he added.
Garibov's institute will send six young nuclear research specialists to Russia, France, Austria and the United States to train to work with the materials. The IAEA has also expressed willingness "to assist in personnel preparations," the Trend news agency reported on June 11.
One environmental activist and nuclear radiation expert calls the personnel training "crucial."
"Although there are some experts on this issue, the use of existing human resources is not efficient," commented Islam Mustafayev, chairman of the Ruzgar Ecological Union, a non-governmental organization. "Now they are going to develop young specialists, but three to five years is not enough for this, even if they will study abroad. It is impossible to prepare specialists in the short term."
Aside from personnel training, the project's first three years will include the establishment of administrative mechanisms that would manage the work with nuclear materials and technologies. In April, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev ordered the establishment of the State Agency on Control of Nuclear and Radiation Activities under the Ministry of Emergency Situations. The agency will be responsible for ensuring that the reactor's activities meet international standards, according to the government.
Mustafayev said the Agency would need to develop an adequate mechanism for radiation monitoring. Fresh legislation and environmental regulations on the reactor's operations also need to be worked out, he added. "Currently, we use old Soviet standards in many areas," Mustafayev said.
If all goes according to plan, IAEA officials believe Azerbaijan could use the expertise acquired in the coming years to develop a nuclear power-generating capacity. Jan Stuller, the IAEA deputy director for technical cooperation, has stated publicly that it makes sense for Azerbaijan to consider nuclear power stations, given that "nuclear energy is going through a revival process," Trend reported in June.
Garibov, though, insists that Azerbaijan's focus is not on eventually building nuclear power stations, but on developing the country as a scientific research center. He stressed that the institute's reactor would be used to produce radioisotopes to disinfect medical equipment and instruments. "There are financial resources in the country and now is the time to think about the future of national science," he said.