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UN Nuclear Agency Chief Discusses Metsamor Safety In Armenia

By Emil Danielyan

Mohamed El Baradei, the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), praised the Armenian authorities for their “good” cooperation with the United Nations nuclear watchdog as he ended a two-day visit to Yerevan on Thursday.

In an exclusive interview with RFE/RL, El Baradei said the ongoing efforts to further improve the safety standards at the Metsamor nuclear power station were an “important focus” of his talks with President Robert Kocharian and other Armenian officials. He also said the Armenian leadership plans to keep the Soviet-built facility operational for another decade despite lingering Western concerns about its security.

“We identified issues that need to be worked on, particularly in the area of nuclear safety,” El Baradei said. “I reviewed with [Armenian officials] the progress we are making in improving safety at Metsamor and the steps that need to be taken to improve it further.”

“I think the cooperation [between Armenia and IAEA] has been good,” he added. “I think there has been a commitment to continue to strengthen safety at Metsamor. We will continue to work with Armenian authorities to improve safety there.”

Kocharian was likewise quoted by his press office as telling El Baradei that he is “satisfied” with his government’s cooperation with the Vienna-based agency. Yerevan continues to pay “special attention” to enhancing the operational safety of Metsamor’s sole reactor, he said.

IAEA has regularly inspected the reactor, which meets nearly 40 percent of Armenia’s electricity needs, ever since its re-activation in 1995 and has so far not reported serious violations of safety standards there. The head of its European department noted “a great deal of understanding” with the Armenian authorities during a visit to Yerevan in October 2002.

However, the European Union and the United States continue to press for Metsamor’s closure, saying that its light-water reactor is one the most dangerous facilities of its kind in the world. EU and U.S. financial assistance has been key to the nuclear safety measures taken there over the past decade.

El Baradei said he did not discuss with Kocharian possible dates for the plant’s decommissioning. “I think the Armenian authorities would like to continue to operate the reactor for around ten years,” he said. “It is for Armenia to decide when to shut down the reactor. Of course, there is concern about its safety and that is why we are working with them to make sure that safety is improved to an acceptable international level.”

Deputy Energy Minister Areg Galstian announced late last month that Yerevan is already making preparations for the start of what promises to be a very costly decommissioning process. He said it will be complete by 2016.

El Baradei’s itinerary in Armenia also included visits to Metsamor and an oncology clinic in Yerevan that has just been supplied by IAEA with modern radio-therapy equipment. The 62-year-old Egyptian, who looks set to run IAEA for a third term despite U.S. opposition, said he also discussed his agency’s “active program to protect against illicit trafficking of nuclear material” through Armenia. It was not clear if IAEA views the country as a potential transit route for illegal supplies to neighboring Iran whose controversial nuclear program is facing close international scrutiny.

“Overall, I think the visit has been quite constructive and the talks very useful,” El Baradei concluded.

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