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Armenian President Signals New Delay In Nuclear Plant Closure

Metsamor nuclear power station was built in the 1970s and reactivated in 1995.

Metsamor nuclear power station was built in the 1970s and reactivated in 1995.

YEREVAN -- President Serzh Sarkisian has given further indication that Armenia's government will delay the decommissioning of the controversial Metsamor nuclear power station that was expected to start by 2017, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reports.

Sarkisian said the fate of Metsamor's sole functioning reactor is "closely connected" with the time frame for the construction of a new and more powerful plant at the same site, which is about 40 kilometers west of Yerevan.

Armenia has been under pressure from the United States and the European Union to shut down the Soviet-era facility ever since one of its two reactors built in the 1970s was reactivated in 1995.

It is one of just a handful of such facilities around the world without so-called primary containment structures, built to limit the spread of radiation in the event of an accident.

Armenian officials for years insisted that the reactor, which provides about 40 percent of Armenia’s electricity, is safe enough to continue to operate at least until 2016.

The government announced in 2005 that it was making preparations for the launch of the decommissioning process. It said the costly process would be completed in time for the construction of a new reactor that met modern safety standards.

Officials in Yerevan insisted afterward that work on the facility would start by 2012.

The head of Armenia's State Committee on Nuclear Safety, Ashot Martirosian, called that target date "unrealistic" last year. He suggested that Metsamor's decommissioning was therefore likely to be postponed by several years.

Sarkisian appeared to echo that view on December 6 as he addressed a regular session of another advisory body also dealing with nuclear safety.

"It is obvious that in case of a delay in the introduction of the new [nuclear] power-generating unit, we will have to solve the issue of extending the operations of the Armenian Nuclear Power Station's [functioning] second power-generating unit," he told the body headed by Adolf Berghoffer, a German nuclear scientist.

Sarkisian insisted that continued reliance on atomic energy is vital for Armenia's energy security. "We are obliged to have a nuclear plant and atomic energy at the heart of our energy system," he said. "Therefore, we must be able to combine what is beneficial for us with safety."

The possible delay acknowledged by the president reflects the government's failure so far attract some $4.5 billion in foreign investment needed for building the new plant.

According to Energy and Natural Resources Minister Armen Movsisian, Russia's Rosatom state nuclear energy corporation is ready to invest up to half of the required sum.

"There are candidates from different countries for the remaining 50 percent," Movsisian told RFE/RL. "Discussions with them are in progress."

"We are continuing negotiations on attracting other investors," Sarkisian said. He noted in that context that he discussed French companies' involvement in the ambitious project with French President Nicolas Sarkozy when the latter visited Yerevan in October.

Neither Sarkisian nor Movsisian mentioned any possible dates for the start of the new plant's construction.

In a related development, Movsisian announced that the government will soon take over Metsamor's financial management from RAO Unified Energy Systems (UES), Russia's state-controlled electricity distribution company.

A UES subsidiary, Inter RAO, gained control of Metsamor's finances in 2003 in return for repaying its $40 million debt to Russian nuclear-fuel suppliers. Inter RAO said late last month that it wants to terminate the management contract that was due to expire in 2013.

Movsisian confirmed that the Yerevan government does not object to that. "There have been structural changes within Inter RAO, as a result of which it now only deals with electricity sales," he said. "Under its new statutes, it has no right to operate other facilities."

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