Often depicted as a disaster waiting to happen, Armenia’s 35-year-old nuclear power station, Metsamor, has passed muster with the International Atomic Energy Agency. But don’t expect the debate over the plant’s safety standards to end any time soon.
Armenian environmentalists and some energy analysts are challenging the IAEA’s initial findings as a pro-forma evaluation that does nothing to address the risks posed by Metsamor’s age, geographical location, outdated equipment and alleged lack of qualified staff.
“There is no industrial activity that does not pose any risk, but I think the results of our inspection show that this risk [at Metsamor] is acceptable,” Gabor Vamos, the Hungarian head of the 11-member IAEA Operational Safety Review Team for Armenia, told reporters on June 2 after a 17-day review of the nuclear power plant.
One prominent Armenian environmental activist, Hakob Sanasarian, director of the Greens’ Union of Armenia, called that assessment ridiculous. “We didn’t have any other expectations about the experts,” Sanasarian said. “It would be naïve to think that they would declare Metsamor is dangerous [since the IAEA supports the use of nuclear energy]. Anyway, we will continue our fight. The nuclear power plant is dangerous in terms of environmental, seismic and safety risks.”
Aside from its age, critics like Sanasarian worry about the plant’s location; situated roughly 30 kilometers from Yerevan, it is built in a landslide and seismic zone near residential areas and water reservoirs. Officials downplay these concerns, asserting that the nuclear power plant is “safe.”
Metsamor’s operational safety has long been a target of international criticism. The European Union and United States have both pushed for the development of energy alternatives to Metsamor, which provides about 40 percent of Armenia’s electricity. Next year, work will start on a new unit at Metsamor; Russia has agreed to finance roughly 20 percent of the estimated $5 billion-$7.2 billion construction cost.
Optimism about plans for the new unit faded amid the international outcry over the March meltdown at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear power plant. Later that month, the US magazine Foreign Policy ranked Metsamor as one of the world’s five most dangerous nuclear power plants.
Responding to expressions of concern, the Armenian government called in the IAEA to perform an in-depth operational safety review. The Armenian Ministry of Energy allowed EurasiaNet.org to photograph the nuclear power plant only after the IAEA team’s inspection.
State Nuclear Safety Regulatory Committee of Armenia Chairman Ashot Martirosian told EurasiaNet.org that the IAEA experts’ 14 recommendations and proposals are “confidential,” but said that the Committee expected that the final assessment of Metsamor’s operational risk would be “similar” to the Committee’s own conclusion of no operational risk. Inspection of the plant by local specialists will continue until the end of the year, he added.
“These recommendations and proposals are not publicized yet, but there is nothing extraordinary in them,” Martirosian said. “These are objective proposals, and work will be done in accordance with them.”
For now, the IAEA team has identified the problem areas in general terms: it has called for an improvement in daily equipment inspections and plant maintenance and a need for observation of rules for equipment use to guarantee the “safe and reliable functioning” of the plant. More effective communication from plant management about “industrial safety risks” and the use of “personal protective equipment” is also needed, the IAEA found.
After the IAEA mulls comments from Armenia’s State Nuclear Safety Regulatory Committее, the international experts’ final report will be submitted to the Armenian government by September.
Regardless of what the IAEA finds, some experts, such as Slavik Sargsian, chairman of the All-Armenian Association of Power Specialists, will continue to have misgivings. On top of Metsamor’s other problems, the plant lacks a sufficient number of nuclear power specialists since most of them left to work abroad in recent years, Sarkisian alleged. The number of such specialists employed at Metsamor is not known, but the plant’s total work force has been cited previously at some 1,200 employees.
“Several international experts conduct superficial studies and say the level of risk is acceptable, but we have big problems with specialists,” Sargsian said. “Japan, a super-developed and well-prepared country, faced a disaster. God forbid, if a hazardous situation emerges at our plant, we have neither the capabilities nor the specialists to fight back.”
State Nuclear Safety Regulatory Committее Chairman Martirosian countered that such criticism exaggerated Metsamor’s actual risk. “If the nuclear plant lacked specialists, it just wouldn’t operate,” he responded.
“The risk is always there, but we have no concerns in terms of safety,” Martiosian said.
Marianna Grigoryan is a freelance reporter based in Yerevan and editor of MediaLab.am. Anahit Hayrapetyan is a freelance photojournalist also based in Yerevan.