Armenian leaders are ecstatic that Russia is getting involved in the construction of a new nuclear power plant at Metsamor. Environmentalists and technical experts are far less enthused, saying that a new Metsamor unit poses considerable risks.
Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan and Russian leader Dmitry Medvedev signed bilateral agreements on August 20 to enable Moscow’s participation in the construction of a new unit at the Metsamor atomic power station. Under the agreement, Russia could contribute about 20 percent of the financing for the unit’s construction, currently projected at between $5 billion and $7.2 billion. Work is slated to begin in 2012, although questions remain about how Armenia will come up with the bulk of the money to build the facility.
The international community, led by the United States and European Union, has exerted heavy pressure on the Armenian government to de-commission the existing nuclear plant at Metsamor, which opened in the 1970s with two VVER reactors based on a Soviet-era design. Construction of the new unit, capable of producing 1,060 Megawatts of power annually, will help Armenia comply with the international community’s wishes to shut down the VVER reactors. Currently, Metsamor produces about 40 percent of the power consumed in Armenia.
“This will be a modern power station that will considerably boost the electricity produced in Armenia. It means that, in general, our industry will have better development perspectives,” said Prime Minister Tigran Sargsyan, referring to the new reactor during an August 23 interview broadcast on Public TV.
Metsamor sits in a seismically active area, about 30 kilometers west of the Armenian capital of Yerevan, with a population of over 1 million. In the aftermath of the devastating 1988 earthquake, centered on Spitak, Armenian authorities decided to shut the Metsamor facility. But the economic difficulties brought on by the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict with Azerbaijan -- especially an economic blockade imposed by Turkey, Baku’s ally – prompted Armenian leaders to start up Metsamor again in 1993. It’s been operational ever since.
Environmentalists say that the area’s vulnerability to earthquakes, makes operating a nuclear plant at Metsamor a high-risk proposition, regardless of the new reactor’s design.
"It's a crime to build a new nuclear power station in Metsamor," Hakob Sanasaryan, president of the Greens Union of Armenia, told EurasiaNet.org. "A nuclear power station cannot be constructed near water and agricultural systems, in seismic zones, in densely populated areas.”
Sanasaryan said the reactor should be situated at least 150 kilometers from Yerevan. “This means all norms are being violated, and the consequences could be disastrous," he said.
Beyond ecological concerns, Slavik Sargsyan, the chairman of the All-Armenian Association of Power Specialists, expressed concern about a lack of qualified technicians in Armenia to operate the plant. "Russia will support us, of course, but the situation with nuclear power specialists in our energy sector is very difficult," Slavik Sargsyan told Eurasianet.org. "First, we need to bring back the specialists that have left Armenia and are currently working in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus enjoying great respect there, and only after that can we talk about building a new nuclear power station. Besides, it means the whole staff needs re-training.”
Marianna Grigoryan is a freelance reporter based in Yerevan.