As the political and radioactive fallout of Japan’s Fukushima meltdown spreads, serious regional concerns over the safety of Armenia’s aging Metsamor Nuclear Power Plant continue to mount. Not only does the plant lie on a physical fault line, but it is also located in a politically unstable neighborhood, intersected by ethnic and sectarian divisions, especially with Azerbaijan and Turkey, the latter two being at loggerheads with Armenia over political, territorial, and valid environmental safety issues.
While all the parties have an interest in making sure there are no problems at Metsamor, the recent Fukushima nuclear disaster has simply magnified the security and environmental concerns of regional actors, and this will inevitably have an effect on their political relations, also.
One only has to look at the history of the Metsamor Nuclear Power Plant to understand that it is basically an accident waiting to happen. Following the earthquake in the Armenian city of Spitak in 1988, which measured 6.9 on the Richter scale and killed over 25,000 people, Soviet officials decided to shut down the plant. However, a highly effective economic blockade imposed by Azerbaijan and Turkey in response to the illegal occupation of the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh by Armenian troops created conditions which led to the reopening of the plant seven years later, despite expert advice that it should remain deactivated.
Landlocked Armenia has few short term alternatives to nuclear power. The Metsamor reactor provides about 40 percent of Armenia’s electricity. Attempts to replace it have been continually frustrated and efforts to find alternative energy sources, or install a new reactor with state-of-the-art controls and backup systems, have so far proved fruitless. However, something will have to be done because the clock is ticking. In October 2008, Areg Galstyan, the Armenian Deputy Minister of Energy and Natural Resources, announced that the construction of a new nuclear power plant is due to start sometime in 2011 and is expected to be commissioned in 2017.
Hakob Sanasaryan, an Armenian chemist and head of the Green Union of Armenia, claimed in 2003 that the Metsamor did not meet internationally accepted nuclear safety standards, as it lacks a containment vessel, whose function is to prevent radioactive release in the event of an accident. Moreover, the plant is located a mere 75 kilometers from the 1988 earthquake epicenter, an area with a long history of powerful quakes, and 30 kilometers from the Armenian capital Yerevan.
Nonetheless, officials in Yerevan insist that Armenia is immune to the kind of nuclear emergency which has struck Japan, even if the country is located in a seismically active zone. Ashot Martirosian, head of Armenia’s State Committee on Nuclear Safety Regulation, claims that a magnitude-8.9 offshore quake, such as the one that has wreaked havoc on Japan, is extremely unlikely ever to hit Armenia. He also claims that the cooling system of the nuclear plant at Metsamor is superior to that of the Fukushima Daiichi facility and that it can withstand an even more severe earthquake than has been experienced either in Japan or Armenia in 1988.
The consensus statements by Armenian officials indicate that they have closed ranks on the nuclear issue. Rafael Arutunian, Deputy Director of the Institute for Nuclear Energy Security Problems of Armenia, thinks that Metsamor has shown its capability to withstand serious earthquakes since 1988 and that any speculation about the threat posed by Metsamor is merely politicking. However, the Japanese tragedy has definitely been a wakeup call, he believes. Additional security measures will now have to be put in place to make the nuclear power station safe for Armenians as well as for their immediate neighbors.
The Soviet-built nuclear power plant is not considered safe enough by Western governments either, according to a Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty report. Also, there has been considerable public controversy – sometimes even hysteria – lately over the use of nuclear energy and the nuclear industry has a contentious track record. So much so, for example, that Germany has plans to decommission several of its plants, even if they are considered as modern and state-of-the-art. However, the trend for putting safety first is about to stall in many regions of the world, as political and economic expediency pushes safety concerns onto the back burner. In that context, Armenia’s neighbors cannot now assume that the once all-pervading anti-nuclear logic can be used as an unassailable argument against the Metsamor plant.
The Azerbaijani government and international experts continue to voice safety concerns over the Metsamor nuclear plant. Azerbaijan wants solid assurances from Armenia that the plant does not constitute a danger for any state in the region. Eduard Shevardnadze, former president of Georgia, has urged his country’s authorities to negotiate with Armenia on the safety of the plant. “Reports about the Armenian NPP’s condition raise serious concerns. The Armenian NPP turned out to be in the most deplorable condition and there are not any safety guarantees, what threatens the entire region,” reports PanArmenian. Up until now, however, it appears that the threat of nuclear disaster and the damage this potential threat is inflicting to its international relations are prices the Armenian government considers worth paying to avoid losing face with their domestic consumers and international lobby.
Azerbaijan and other regional states’ reasonable concerns deserve to be taken seriously and properly addressed by the Armenian government. In particular, they need to be reassured that there is an effective emergency response plan in place; and that needs to be done without any bias by all the sides as well as other stakeholders. The same questions which have been thrown up by the Fukushima disaster should be asked in the case of Metsamor and parallels should be drawn.
Another source of misgivings is the fact that Metsamor has been operated since 2003 by the Russian Inter RAO UES, owned by Russian state-run Rosatom Corporation. The contract is valid until 2013. Azerbaijan and contiguous countries should be particularly concerned by the “business ethic” of Rosatom. A relic of the Soviet system, it still operates largely with full autonomy and without oversight since its activities are not under the scrutiny of any independent agency. Also, suspicions abounds that Rosatom’s officials and scientists are engaged in money-laundering schemes, clandestine technology transfers and other types of ‘transactions.’ An embodiment of Cold War-style secrecy, Rosatom is a complex of laboratories and secret “closed cities” where mostly former soviet scientists design and build nuclear power plants for local demand and foreign markets.
 See http://wn.com/1988_Spitak_Earthquake
 See http://www.arka.am/eng/energy/2008/10/24/11736.html
 See http://www.nti.org/e_research/profiles/Armenia/index.html
 See http://hyemedia.com/2011/03/14/armenia-protected-against-major-nuclear-plant-emergency/
 See http://www.messenger.com.ge/issues/2332_april_6_2011/2332_econ_three.html
 See http://www.armeniadiaspora.com/news/2176-armenia-protected-against-major-nuclear-plant-emergency.html
 See http://www.panarmenian.net/eng/world/news/65443/Georgias_expresident_joins_those_concerned_over_Metsamor_NPP
 See http://www.letemps.ch/Page/Uuid/a869f708-7645-11e0-ad9c-5bc151931d57
 See http://csis.org/blog/nuclear-policy-news-may-11-2010; http://www.geotimes.ge/index.php?m=home&newsid=21565