Officials in Armenia have long downplayed the potential threats posed by the aging Metsamor nuclear power plant, not far from the capital Yerevan. At the same time, the facility has been repeatedly ranked as one of the world’s most dangerous nuclear power stations. To reassure a jittery international community in the wake of Japan’s nuclear troubles, the Armenian government has invited International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors to subject the Metsamor plant to a “stress test.”
The 12-person IAEA team is due to be in Armenia from May 15-June 1. Thirty-five-year-old Metsamor, which supplies about 40 percent of Armenia’s energy needs, has long been a target for criticism. The plant is supposed to be shut down after the construction of a new facility in 2016, but, with five years still to go to decommissioning, there is mounting pressure to ensure that no mishaps occur during this twilight phase of operations.
The IAEA tests will attempt to determine how the nuclear plant would respond to an earthquake or a tornado, said State Nuclear Safety Regulatory Committee Chairperson Ashot Martirosian. Eager to downplay possible doomsday scenarios, Martirosian underlined that the visit is “standard practice.”
“Independent experts are being invited to give their expert opinion,” he said. “After this, we will draw conclusions and introduce changes, if necessary.”
Other international experts will review procedures -- ranging from accident management to possible power failure. Metsamor management will submit the findings to the State Nuclear Safety Regulatory Committee by late September, Martirosian said.
In 1988, Metsamor was shut down in the wake of the 6.9-magnitude earthquake at Spitak. Even so, many Armenian nuclear safety specialists argue that the station is safer than Japan’s stricken Fukushima facility. Martirosian argued that, unlike Fukushima, Metsamor’s “two-loop steam cycle” could enable generators to release steam into the air under high temperatures without also releasing radioactive materials.
Some environmentalists, however, think such confidence is misplaced. “The attitude toward nuclear power stations has changed across the world,” commented Karine Danielian, a former minister of environmental protection who now heads the non-governmental organization For Sustainable Human Development. “Even if Japan, one of the most progressive countries, is at risk, how can one consider our own nuclear power station to be ‘safe’?”
Some of Armenia’s neighbors have asked the same question, though the identity of the country asking the question appears to follow diplomatic fault lines. Strategic allies Turkey and Azerbaijan, neither of which have diplomatic ties with Armenia, have called for Metsamor to be shut down. Metsamor is located 16 kilometers from Armenia’s border with Turkey. Georgia and Iran, however, have not yet issued such a statement.
Responding to international criticism, Armenian Energy and Natural Resources Minister Armen Movsisian told Panorama.am that “We must not take all these statements seriously.”
“We are open; anybody can come and see our nuclear power station. If any problem occurred, the international agency [IAEA] would be the first to ban its operation,” Movsisian said.
One environmental activist believes the concern about Metsamor’s continuing operations are justified. “How can we talk about security if the nuclear plant is constructed in a seismic zone, and is located in a densely populated settlement, instead of being 200 kilometers away [the distance between Fukushima and Tokyo – Ed] from residential areas?” asked Hakob Sanasarian, chairman of the Greens Union of Armenia. “It is constructed near an agricultural complex, a huge artesian reservoir, near highways and the airport.”
State Nuclear Safety Regulatory Committее Chair Martirosian dismissed Sanasarian’s objections as groundless and “for show.”
“These declarations are not based on studies,” he asserted.
Citing studies dating back to the Soviet era, Danielian, former environmental protection minister, also expressed misgivings. “As an environmentalist, I understand the existing hazards, and as a citizen, I realize we have no alternative option to the nuclear plant,” Danielian said. “[W]e just have to hope that the international review will give us an opportunity to exploit the nuclear power station safely.”
Marianna Grigoryan is a freelance reporter based in Yerevan and editor of MediaLab.am.