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Nuclear Plant In Armenia Poses Grave Risk To Population & Region

By Yaver Kazimbeyli October 19, 2018

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Steam rises from the cooling towers of Metsamor nuclear power station in Armenia in September 2010. One of the last old operating Soviet reactors built without containment vessels, its location in a seismic zone remains to be a source of concerns over its safety / AFP/Getty Images

A Soviet-era nuclear power plant in Armenia has become a focus of attention for the EU. At the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe’s (PACE) October session, held in Strasbourg last week, safety concerns regarding rapidly aging nuclear power facilities across the continent were raised.

A parliamentarian from Azerbaijan pointed to the decades-old Metsamor nuclear power plant in neighboring Armenia as a source for possible radioactive contamination throughout the region. MP Asim Mollazade called the Metsamor plant a time ticking bomb that could have fatal consequences.

“Metsamor nuclear power plant is located in a seismic zone,” Mollazade said in his address on October 11, according to Trend. “This is actually a bomb that is waiting for the moment to explode. If another earthquake occurs in Armenia, it will lead to radioactive contamination in vast territories, including Europe.”

A resolution called “Nuclear Safety and Security in Europe” was adopted during the weeklong session that kicked off on October 8. The resolution notes that 82 out of 184 reactors in Europe have been in operation for 35 years or more. Roughly one in six reactors are already outside their 40-year lifespan. PACE warned about the deteriorating conditions of obsolete facilities that could pave the way for humanitarian and environmental disasters. 

Armenia’s antiquated, dual block Metsamor reactor is a one-of-a-kind facility in the South Caucasus and is located about 32 kilometers (20 miles) from the capital of Yerevan. The plant was built on an earthquake-prone zone in the town of Metsamor and was put into operation in 1976 without a containment building.

In 1989, a 6.8 magnitude earthquake hit the nearby Spitak region, about 70 km (45 miles) north of the plant, leading to deaths of thousands of people and the closure of the facility. But by 1995, the reactor’s second block was back in operation. In 2016, the plant generated 31 percent, or 2.2 terawatt-hours (TWh), of total electricity produced.

As far back as 1995, observers termed it a “reckless gamble” with Armenia's future and the lives of millions of people living in the surrounding countries. At the time, the Nuclear Energy Institute in Washington, D.C. said in a report that Metsamor is not in line with Western-style safety standards, comparing it to Ukraine’s collapsed Chernobyl reactor. That plant, too, lacked a containment facility that would prevent radioactive substances from escaping, in the event of an accident.

The dangerous conditions of the reactor have put the European Union at odds with Armenia over halting the use of the aging Soviet-era plant. In 2004, the EU offered around $116 million in aid to Armenia, requesting it shut the reactor down. Armenia refused, and the EU subsequently suspended its offer.

“The EU is fully aware of the risks posed by the Metsamor nuclear power plant, therefore, a swift closure and decommissioning of the plant remains a key objective for the EU, as this power plant cannot be upgraded to meet internationally recognized nuclear safety standards,” the European Commission Vice-President Federica Mogherini said in a statement released in October 2017.