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Armenia: Authorities Likely To Delay Nuclear Plant Closure

Yerevan, 19 September 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Armenia's Metsamor nuclear power station is likely to continue to be operational after the year 2004, despite its government's earlier pledge to the European Union to close it by that date. A spokeswoman for the Armenian Energy Ministry told RFE/RL yesterday that the deadline for decommissioning the Soviet-designed plant -- which produces 40 percent of the country's annual electrical output -- is "no longer realistic." Zhasmena Ghevondian said her government no longer believes it possible to find alternative energy sources in the next three years.

Late last week, Armenian authorities made sure that a reference to 2004 was removed from a clause on Metsamor in a statement adopted by an Armenian-EU joint parliamentary committee. This was an obvious effort to water down its earlier promise to close the facility permanently within 39 months' time.

Located some 40 kilometers west of Yerevan, Metsamor was shut down for safety reasons shortly after the country's 1988 devastating earthquake, but was reactivated seven years later to end crippling power shortages. Metsamor is the sole nuclear facility in the world to go back on line after so long a period of disuse.

The decision to reactivate Metsamor was taken over the objections of leading Western nations, which cited serious safety concerns. Unable to prevent its re-launching, the EU and the United States have since spent large sums on strengthening the plant's safety standards. In return for the aid, Armenia undertook to close it by the end of 2004.

The EU ranks Metsamor among those potentially dangerous Soviet-built nuclear stations -- including Ukraine's notorious Chornobyl -- whose reactors must be brought to a halt as soon as possible. But the Armenian government is now understood to be trying to postpone its shutdown indefinitely by setting additional conditions.

The conditions were voiced last week by Armenian parliamentarians at a meeting in Yerevan with a group of their EU counterparts. After the two-day session, Hovannes Hovannisian, the chairman of the Armenian parliament's foreign-affairs committee, told reporters:

"We are not obliged to do so, but we hope and desire to close the nuclear station, provided that we have alternative and corresponding sources of energy that would be unaffected by further blockades of Armenia [by neighboring states]." The bilateral statement adopted by the Armenian and EU parliamentarians after their meeting calls for Metsamor's eventual closure, but mentions no specific date -- a fact underlined by Hovannisian and other Armenian officials. Authorities in Yerevan now say they expect an EU commitment both to assist in the planned construction of a strategic gas pipeline linking Armenia to neighboring Iran and to seek the lifting of Turkish and Azerbaijani blockades resulting from the unresolved Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

The European Commission, the EU's main executive body, has already expressed support for the Iran-Armenia pipeline by agreeing to include it in its far-reaching INOGATE project. The pipeline would significantly reduce Armenia's dependence on Russian natural gas. But getting Turkey and Azerbaijan to reopen their borders with Armenia before a solution is found to the intractable Karabakh conflict would be a far more difficult, if not impossible task, for the EU.

Well aware of that, Yerevan is apparently looking for pretexts to justify its reluctance to stop producing nuclear energy. Energy ministry spokeswoman Ghevondian says the EU "seems to agree" with the change in Armenian position on Metsamor's future. But there has not yet been any official reaction from Brussels.

Still, comments by a senior member of the European Parliament, Ursula Schleicher, must have encouraged the Armenian government. She said in Yerevan that a majority of the EU parliament believes that if the Metsamor facility is closed, its energy output must be replaced elsewhere. That, she concluded, is "why a plan of action must show how the energy problem is going to be addressed."