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Experts fear Armenian Chernobyl

Jeremy Page reports from Yerevan

Local people and the European Union are at odds over a Soviet-era reactor

THE Metsamor atomic plant looms menacingly behind Eduard Kenyasyan as he offers a slice of homegrown water melon on the end of his knife.

“Nuclear melon?” he asks with a mischievous grin. After living next to this Chernobyl-era power plant on a seismic fault in southern Armenia for 30 years, he is used to the threat of nuclear disaster.

“If anything happens, it will affect the whole country, not just me,” he says, shrugging.

The rest of Europe has not taken such a relaxed approach. The European Union has lobbied hard for the plant, just ten miles from the border with Turkey, to close this year. It says that the pressurised water-reactor, based on first generation Soviet technology, may not withstand another serious earthquake. Alexis Louber, the EU’s representative in Armenia, caused an uproar recently when he said that keeping the plant open was the same as “flying around a potential nuclear bomb”.

Metsamor was built in the 1970s and shut down after a big earthquake in 1988, which killed at least 25,000 people in northern Armenia and hit 5.0 on the Richter scale around Metsamor. Yet the Armenian Government reopened the plant’s second unit in 1995 because of severe power shortages and now says that it can continue working until 2016 — and possibly 2031.

The resulting dispute pits growing Western concerns over obsolete Soviet nuclear facilities against Armenia’s determination to preserve its independence and energy security. The EU has campaigned for the closure of dozens of atomic plants in the former Soviet Union since Chernobyl, and its concerns have intensified since expanding to Russia’s borders.

Although Metsamor uses different — and safer — technology from that at Chernobyl, it lacks secondary containment facilities to prevent radioactive leakage in the event of an accident, European experts say.

In addition, nuclear fuel has to be flown to Yerevan from Russia and then driven along a bumpy road to Metsamor once a year, because Armenia’s border with Turkey is closed.

Jacques Vantomme, the EU’s acting Ambassador to Georgia and Armenia, said: “If there is an earthquake tomorrow, would it create a nuclear disaster? I don’t know — it depends on the size of the earthquake.

“The EU’s policy is that we want the closure of the plant at the earliest possible date. This type of nuclear plant is not built to EU standards and upgrading it cannot be done at a reasonable cost.”

The EU has offered €100 million (£70 million) in financial aid to shut the plant and develop alternative energy sources, but Vartan Oksanyan, the Armenian Foreign Minister, described that as “peanuts”. Metsamor not only provides 40 per cent of Armenia’s energy, it also sells excess power to neighbouring Georgia. Decommissioning the plant alone could cost more than £270 million, according to local experts. With no oil and gas, and scant wind and water resources, Armenia has few alternative energy sources.

The mostly Christian nation is also reluctant to rely on imported energy because of its history of hostility with its Islamic neighbours.

“Armenia knows this plant has to go,” Mr Oksanyan said, “but let’s make sure we have the capacity to replace it before we close it down.”

Power shortages between 1989 and 1995 have left deep scars on the country. Almost all Armenians can recall sleeping in multiple layers of clothing or waking to use their one hour of power each day.

Armenia’s forests were devastated by people cutting wood for fuel. Gagik Markosyan, the head of the Metsamor plant, said: “I saw the energy crisis myself. We can’t talk about closing the plant down overnight.”

He said that more than £27 million had been spent on improving safety since the plant reopened. British experts have been training staff there for the past three years.

The second unit, opened in 1980, was originally designed to work until 2010, but as it was shut for six years, it could now work until 2016. Tests by Russian experts on similar reactors show that Metsamor could, in theory, operate until 2031.

“As an engineer, I would not exclude that,” Mr Markosyan said. For him, as for most Armenians, a new nuclear plant is the only viable alternative. The EU is reluctant to foot the bill, however, arguing that Armenia, without the Soviet Union, would never have borne the hidden costs of development and decommissioning.

“We need the plant,” Mr Kenyasyan says. “Like it or not, we can’t live without it.”

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