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Armenia: Yerevan To Relaunch Vital Nuclear Plant Without Fresh Russian Fuel

Armenia has decided to reactivate the strategically important nuclear-power station at Metsamor next week without its planned partial refueling. The move follows the Armenian government's failure to secure fresh supplies of Russian nuclear fuel on time, despite earlier agreements with Russian energy agencies. Armenian officials claim that Russian fuel will, after all, reach Metsamor this spring and that the decision to resume power generation there was purely an economic one. However, there is mounting speculation that Moscow is using the issue to clinch more concessions from Yerevan ahead of next month's Armenian presidential elections.

Yerevan, 16 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The Metsamor nuclear plant, which accounts for more than 40 percent of Armenia's annual electricity production, will be reactivated without receiving fresh nuclear fuel for the first time in its history.

The decision announced by the Armenian government late last week reflects serious difficulties in its protracted negotiations with Russia over fuel supplies, which have kept the Soviet-era facility operational for more than two decades.

The unexpected delay followed a Russian-Armenian agreement last September on the terms of the new deliveries. It has fueled speculation that Moscow is no longer interested in the plant's continued work or may be seeking additional leverage against the current Armenian leadership.

Metsamor's only functioning reactor, located 35 kilometers west of the capital, Yerevan, was brought to a halt in October for regular maintenance and refueling. The Armenian Energy Ministry, confident of fresh Russian deliveries, hoped to replace one-third of the plant's fuel and bring it back on line within the next 45 days.

However, subsequent talks with the Russian government and the Rosenergoatom nuclear operator ran into trouble for reasons that are still unknown.

Armenian Energy Minister Armen Movsisian announced on 10 January that, although the refueling has again been delayed, a new agreement has been reached to ship the Russian fuel to Armenia "in late April." He said Metsamor will be reactivated in late January and operate with the remaining fuel until then. The next refueling is due to take place in May or June. "The negotiations with relevant Russian commercial structures, including Rosenergoatom, are over. The issue of nuclear fuel has been solved. We, however, decided to utilize the nuclear plant with a different timetable," Movsisian said.

Speaking to journalists, Movsisian said the Armenian government will purchase twice as many Russian uranium "cassettes" as originally planned so that Metsamor can produce energy for 300 consecutive days and not require another stoppage next winter. "This allows us to use the remaining fuel in an optimal manner, carry out maintenance and refueling in the summer months, and start a new production cycle that will last until the next summer [in 2004]," Movsisian said.

Previous upbeat forecasts made by other Armenian leaders on the issue have failed to materialize, however. President Robert Kocharian, for example, said on 3 December that a deal with the Russians would be hammered out "in a few days." Prime Minister Andranik Markarian assured reporters afterward that Russian fuel would be shipped before the new year.

Not surprisingly, the government's latest assurances are being treated with skepticism by some local observers and the media. They wonder when the new agreement with the Russian atomic-energy agency, cited by Movsisian, was reached. Movsisian's reply to a reporter's query on that subject was telling: "When was it reached? It's none of your business."

Metsamor's executive director, Gagik Markosian, meanwhile, told RFE/RL that the two sides have not yet sorted out all of their problems. "There are still some technical matters on which discussions are continuing," Markosian said.

He did not elaborate.

The Russians reportedly want Yerevan to repay $32 million in outstanding debt for their previous fuel supplies. Under a Russian-Armenian agreement announced last September, Armenia was to clear the debt this year with proceeds from its anticipated exports of electricity to third countries. It is still not clear what went wrong during subsequent bilateral talks.

The uncertainty has raised questions about possible political motives behind Russia's tough stance on the nuclear-fuel supplies. Moscow had always backed Yerevan in its reluctance to shut down the Metsamor plant despite strong pressure from the European Union.

The EU believes that its Soviet-built reactor is located in a seismically active zone and is vulnerable to serious accidents. But Armenia, which had implicitly promised to decommission Metsamor in 2004, now insists that it is safe enough to operate for 10 more years. The authorities also argue that they have no alternative source of relatively cheap energy.

The Yerevan daily "Haykakan zhamanak" suggests that Russia is no longer interested in keeping Metsamor afloat after winning control of Armenia's largest thermal-power plant as part of a recent assets-for-debt agreement with the Armenian government. The plant was placed under Russian ownership along with four other state-run enterprises in payment of Armenia's $100 million debt.

Russian natural gas is the main source of the more expensive electricity generated by Armenian thermal plants. With nuclear energy costing considerably less, Metsamor's three-month stoppage has meant millions of dollars in losses for Armenia's cash-strapped energy sector.

Analysts have also speculated that the Kremlin is pressuring Kocharian into pursuing a more pro-Russian foreign policy instead of seeking closer security ties with the West. Russian support is considered crucial for Kocharian's victory in presidential elections scheduled for 19 February.

The Metsamor issue is thus expected to be high on the agenda of the Armenian leader's official visit to Moscow, which begins today.

The fate of the nuclear facility also depends on the results of a major safety inspection that is due to be conducted at Metsamor by the International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA, later this year.

Massoud Samiei, a high-ranking official from the Vienna-based UN nuclear watchdog, told RFE/RL in October that IAEA inspectors will assess the implementation of measures that they had suggested for boosting Metsamor's safety.

The IAEA regularly inspects Metsamor and has not reported serious violations of safety standards there so far.