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In Wake Of Japan Disaster, Safety Of Armenian Nuclear Plant Questioned

The Metsamor power plant outside Yerevan has been cited as at potential risk of a similar disaster as happened last week at Japan's Fukushima.
The Metsamor power plant outside Yerevan has been cited as at potential risk of a similar disaster as happened last week at Japan's Fukushima.
By Astghik Bedevian, Ruben Meloyan and Courtney Brooks
YEREVAN -- Just a half-hour drive from the Armenian capital, Yerevan, a Soviet-era nuclear power plant sits precariously on an earthquake fault line.

Environmentalists have long said the Ararat Valley, located just 16 kilometers from the Turkish border city of Igdir, is an extremely dangerous place to house the Metsamor nuclear power plant. And those concerns have only become more urgent amid the ongoing crisis at Japan's crippled Fukushima plant.

"There are five earthquake tectonic breaks [near the plant] -- one is 34 kilometers [away], another is 16 kilometers away, and one is at a distance of only 500 meters," explains Hakob Sanasarian, chairman of Yerevan's Greens' Union environmental group. "And [yet] today they say it is safe. The one who controls such a facility would, of course, praise it."

Armenian government officials have until now insisted that their country is immune to the kind of nuclear emergency Japan now faces.

They say the Metsamor power plant's reactors could withstand up to a magnitude-8 quake, and that such a powerful earthquake is highly unlikely to hit the country anyway.

But amid fresh questions about the safety of the plant in the wake of Japan's crisis, Armenian Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian announced that a safety review would be conducted.

"We will once again discuss this question and invite international experts to get their assessment of what measures we must take in order to raise the safety standards at our nuclear power plant," Sarkisian told a cabinet meeting on March 18.

Fears of another accident similar to Fukushima have put the safety of nuclear power at the top of the agenda.
Vahram Petrosian, director of the government's research institute on nuclear power plant operation, defends the plant's safety standards. "Not only our experts, but also international seismologists" say the plant could withstand an earthquake of magnitude 8.

Petrosian and others have made this claim, despite the fact that a devastating 6.9-magnitude quake hit the area just over two decades ago.

Nevertheless, Ashot Martirosian, the head of the State Committee on Nuclear Safety Regulation, says Metsamor's cooling system is more reliable than that of Japan's Fukushima plant.

"The Metsamor reactor is cooled by a second contour, which is a separate system, a separate barrier," Martirosian says. "Theoretically, such an emergency situation cannot arise here."

Critics Doubt Reliability

Gia Arabidze, a dean at Georgia Technical University in Tbilisi and a specialist on nuclear issues, takes issue with such claims.

Arabidze says that while Metsamor's normal operations pose no threat to Armenia or bordering countries such as Georgia and Turkey, if an earthquake the size of Japan's were to hit Armenia the results could be devastating.

"The probability for the plant to be damaged in the case of a powerful earthquake is high," Arabidze says. "The nuclear power plants in Japan are far more earthquake-resistant than those which were built in the former Soviet Union, and if we see these problems at the Japanese plant today, you can imagine what problems could occur in the case of a similar disaster in Armenia."

Karine Danielyan, a Yerevan-based environmentalist, says that seismically, the Ararat Valley is "the worst place for a nuclear power plant. The example of Japan shows how unpredictable [the reliability of safety features] is."

Likewise, Frank Barnaby, a U.K.-based nuclear physicist, says that based on the design and age of the station it is unlikely to maintain safety standards during a powerful earthquake.

"Nuclear power plants that are that old have very old-fashioned safety features. I mean, modern power plants are much safer, and even those are not safe enough to withstand a Japanese type of earthquake followed by a tsunami," Barnaby says. "So I think that story is probably incorrect; I would think the Armenian plant is certainly not safe."

Working To Meet Standards

Metsamor, which currently supplies 40 percent of Armenia's nuclear power, was shut down for seven years after a massive 6.9-magnitude earthquake in 1988 that left 25,000 dead. The epicenter of the 1988 earthquake was 75 kilometers from Metsamor.

Armenia is no stranger to earthquakes, such as the one in 1988.
The Soviet government, which then ruled Armenia, cited security concerns in closing it. But a crippling energy crisis in newly independent Armenia in the mid-1990's led the government to reopen the plant's second reactor amid strong international criticism.

The European Union has classified the plant's light-water reactor as one of the "oldest and least reliable" of 66 such facilities built in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Since 1995 both the EU and United States have spent tens of millions of dollars to improve safety standards at Metsamor.

Moreover, Suren Azatian, Metsamor's former director-general, cautions that the plant is "not that protected" against radioactive leaks. He says that unlike Metsamor, Fukushima has concrete containment vessels around its reactors that appear not to have been breached after the tsunami.

Azatian adds that Armenia should continue to rely on nuclear power, although the country's safety standards must be revised after the Japanese emergency, just as they were after the devastating 1986 Chornobyl disaster.

"One must not panic and say that this is terrible technology that must be abandoned. That's wrong," Azatian says. "Such an approach would be unjustified. After all, our nuclear power plant continued to operate during the [1988] earthquake, which was no less devastating."

According to Petrosian, more than 1,200 measures have been taken to enhance the safety of the facility at the demand of the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency since the plant was relaunched in 1995. He says the implementation of such measures was continuous.

By 2016 the Armenian government intends to replace the old Soviet-era-built station with a new one that would meet Western safety standards. Efforts on construction of the new plant are behind schedule, and the Energy Ministry is considering extending the existing plant's term of operation.

Marina Vashakmadze of RFE/RL's Georgian Service contributed reporting from Tbilisi and Suren Musayelyan of RFE/RL's Armenian Service contributed from Yerevan
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Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: John Harduny from: Reston, VA, USA
March 19, 2011 14:07
The key reason why the Metsamor nuclear station is still in operation is because of the blockade by Turkey and Azerbaijan. The blockades were imposed by these two countries as a compensation for their inability to crush Nagorno Karabakh Christians' quest for freedom from the Muslim oil autocracy of Azerbaijan. The blockades should be lifted, Turkey and Azerbaijan should finally be punished for their illegal actions, and then the nuclear station could be safely closed down.
In Response

by: Rudolf from: Norway
March 20, 2011 12:00
Don't bring Islam or Christianity into this.

This is more a problem with Turkish nationalism than anything else.

Keep your Islamophobia in the US where it belongs

-An Armenian
In Response

by: Gary from: USA
March 20, 2011 16:14
John has it right.
In Response

by: Sohrab from: Baku
March 21, 2011 18:51
John, this is so apologetic. The nuclear station first and foremost threatens the Armenia's existence as a nation. Most of Armenia's population lives in the close distance to to plant.

Secondly, do not expect Azerbaijan to supply oil & gas to Armenia, when the latter keeps its lands under occupation. This would be very dumb.

Also, NK problem is purely a territorial dispute and has nothing to do with religious dimensions.
In Response

by: Donovan from: PA
March 22, 2011 11:53
Nothing is 'occupied'. You don't have that territory assigned to you, you got it from Russians in 1920s.
In Response

by: Sohrab from: Baku
March 23, 2011 21:10
Donovan,
It is occupied as Azerbaijan's internationally (UN) recognized borders are under occupation of military forces of Armenian Republic.

History is not a science, so there is no firm truth. So I do not want to pop up "facts" that both Armenians and Azeris love to do. But, for something more objective, refer to the population census of Karabakh, Zangezur and Yerevan from early 19th century and late 19 century, and I am sure you will make the right conclusions.

and Russia giving some land to Azerbaijan is a sci-fi from the parallel universe.

by: Khachatrian from: Yerevan
March 20, 2011 10:57
The best way to improve the situation (although it has proven to be safe enough for 40 years) is (besides taking additional safety measures) constructing the new NPP meeting contemporary standards, which the Armenian government has planned. So strange as is might sound, it is the best time to encourage investors to participate in the project.

by: Donovan from: PA
March 21, 2011 00:17
Azatian has a valid point: there was a strong earthquake and the nuclear station showed no damage. One has to recognize this about that technology- things were built to be functional and to last. Without any regard for saving five dollars on this or that and making parts from cheaper materials to save a buck. They were not stingy. You can still get a glimpse of that if you fly Ilyushin 86, a plane built without trying to squeeze in 2 more seats to charge a few dollars for those too. The approach was different back then.

On a related topic read- http://www.theonion.com/articles/nuclear-energy-advocates-insist-us-reactors-comple,19740/

by: George Tatevosyan from: Brooklyn, New York
March 21, 2011 01:40
I immediately thought of Metsamor. when the earthquake and tsunami damaged the Fukushima plant. How terrified people (who knew) were during the last earthquake.Aftershocks? No aftershocks? I can't believe it's still operating. One doesn't need to be a risk analyst to figure out that a plant sitting on top of a fault line is a matter of when, rather than if. Risk to benefit analysis is simple here as well. It would be in the interest of the international community to provide the capital and a political incentive to decommission Metsamor. Low level exposure effects are already evident, it's unethical to keep it operating.

by: RD
April 05, 2011 21:00
If both Azerbaijan and Turkey open their borders to Armenia, they will be helping themselves in addition to Armenia. Armenia will begin to receive energy from more sources and not have to depend on Iran, Georgia and the nuclear plant at Metsamor as much. In return, Azerbaijan and Turkey will receive to main benefits. This act of goodwill will improve the potential for a diplomatic resolution of the Nagorno Karabakh issue, and will avoid a disaster at Metsamor if an earthquake takes place, which may impact Turkey and Azerbaijan. After all, Metsamore is very close to Turkey and not far away from Azerbaijan either. All this, not to mention how Turkey and Azerbaijan will promote themselves as peace loving nations.

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