Metsamor - another Chernobyl: French journalist visited Armenian nuclear power plant

Metsamor nuclear power plant, September 26, 2010
Metsamor nuclear power plant, September 26, 2010

Catastrophes at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in 1986 and Japan's Fukushima in 2011 affected production of nuclear energy, revealing how dangerous it is. Rich countries, and especially poor countries, still think about abondoning nuclear energy. This is especially true for Armenia, which is located in the seismic zone, journalist Damiens Le Fauconnier wrote in Le Monde Diplomatique newspaper. Radio France Internationale published Russian translation of his article.

Soviet open-air museum

Hundreds meters from fence of the Metsamor atomic power plant, a group of women gather tomatoes. Their husbands work at the nuclear power plant and say that "there is no risk to health" there. One of them still admits that she's "afraid that earthquake will happen."

Metsamor was built during the Soviet era in a seismic zone, at the junction of Arabian and Eurasian geological plates. The first VVER-440 unit with 400 megawatts capacity was launched in 1976, and second one with the same capacity was built three years later. In 1988, 6.9 magnitude earthquake hit Armenia. It completely destroyed Spitak city, located 70 kilometers to the north of the nuclear power plant. 25000 people died, 500000 - were left without home. At that time government decided to close this plant.

After Armenia gained independence in 1991, it faced a serious shortage of energy. During the Karabakh war, Turkey and Azerbaijan imposed blockade on Armenia. In 1995, Armenian authorities decided to once again launch the second reactor of the plant, which raised concern among neighboring countries. "This plant still poses a threat to the entire Europe, considering the fact that its old and is located in a seismic zone," newspaper of the EU representative who visited the region said.

The European Union offered Yerevan 100 million euros to shut down the plant, but it wasn't enough. Representative of the European External Action Service said that "the immediate closure of the plant remains a priority issue because it doesn't meet internationally accepted safety standards."

However, according to Areg Galstyan, former deputy Energy Minister of Armenia, "in the early 1990s, Armenia began to cut down forests and excessively consume water from Lake Sevan due to terrible energy crisis." He believes that launching the plant was vital for the country's economy. Today, according to official data, Metsamor provides Armenia with 40% of all energy it consumes.

Local non-government organization have repeatedly criticized Armenian authorities, demanding transparency in issues associated with the plant. Le Monde Diplomatique managed to obtain permission to enter the territory of the nuclear power plant. Residents of the city of Metsamor say that they ofter witness officials visiting the plant. Employees of the NPP have to pass through a metal detector before entering. There are a lot of military patrols. Author of the article had the impression that he was on the territory of "Soviet nuclear museum".

Director of the nuclear power plant Movses Vardanyan says that this plant didn't suffer any damage during the 1988 earthquake, and 1400 technical works were carried out to improve the plant after it was once again launched in 1995. External walls were reinforced with metal coating, there are now transverse beams on the ceilings, including in the block where reactor and turbines are located.

Plant's management doesn't allow to take pictures of the "lower areas" of this place. And it's not surprising, journalist writes, considering that it's full of rubbish, pipes and dusty equipment from the old block, which was shut down in 1989. Its reactor hasn't been dismantled yet. The second block is similar to the first, but it's in a better condition.

The Metsamor nuclear power plant has no hermetic shell around the reactor. Movses Vardanyan says that its construction is impossible, because foundation won't be able to withstand it.

"We will have problems in a couple of years"

Journalist raises the issue of nuclear wastes stored at the plant since 1976. "Experience shows that they can be stored for 50 years, so in a couple of years we will have problems," director, who refused to show the place where they are stored, said.

Head of international department of France's National Agency for Radioactive Waste Management, Gérald Uzunyan, visited Metsamor on several occasions and noted that just like with many other plants of post-Soviet countries, wastes remain there until it's shut down. "Then they are processed together with wastes generated as a result of dismantling the plant." Armenian government assures that it's currently studying a project for storage of nuclear wastes, designed for next 300 years.

The city of Metsamor, located two kilometers from the plant, was built for 1700 workers and their families. There are mostly high-rise buildings Here, which are already in a pretty poor state. Most residents of the city trust the IAEA, which carries out monitoring and sends a team of experts every two years.

In an interview with the newspaper, representative of the organization highligheted improvement of the plant's safety system, as well as adoption of measures for protection in the event of an earthquake. At the same time, he "apologized" for not being able to give "a more technical answer" regarding the state of the reactor and the methods of work.

Meanwhile, about thirty families living near the plant ask about the reasons why some children were born with disabilities, Naira Arakelyan, the head of the Armavir Development Center, sain in an interview with the newspaper. Journalist decided to organize a meeting with various families, but management of the plant came to this meeting, not allowing others to speak out.

Author still managed to get testimonies of Tsovinar Harutyunyan, who mentioned two blind children, who also have physical disabilities. She also introduced journalist to her 20-year-old son Rostom, who has big problems with mental development.

"It can't be genetic, since there were no cases like this in my family and in my husband's family. My husband works at the plant. Perhaps something happened in the danger zone," he said.

Former Yerevan mayor and ex-adviser to Armenian President Vahagn Khachatryan doesn't hide his concern. He said that a few days before meeting with journalist, his friend, one of the plant's employees, died. "I don't know if this is related to his work, but every time I pass by, I think that it's dangerous," he said.

In 2012, researchers of the Japan International Cooperation Agency, who visited Yerevan to assist Armenian authorities regarding the matter of seismic risks, were surprised by the instructions on safety and protection of the population in case of nuclear accident.

"According to this plan, people must remain on the ground floor or in the basement buildings, but when there's a strong earthquake, staying in the building can be very dangerous. The most important things in the event of an earthquake is to have an evacuation route," Japanese experts wrote at the time.

Did someone hide Russian report?

The probability of an earthquake is primarily determined by presence of nearby tectonic faults. According to official data, the first fault is located at least 19 kilometers from the plant. However, according to former deputy and head of the Greens Union of Armenia, Akob Sanasaryan, government hides more disturbing report from the public. It was written in 1992 by four researchers of the Physics Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences for the Armenian National Seismic Protection Service.

"The greatest danger for this plant is a tectonic fault, located in the immediate vicinity (0.5 kilometers) at the intersection of Aragats-Spita and South-Yerevan plates, which has a strong seismic potential," Le Monde Diplomatique quotes the report. Researchers also mention the events that happened in the late 9th century, when a number of strong earthquakes that resulted in a large number of deaths occurred in the region.

25 years after this report was written, journalist found one of his authors, Valentin Ivanovich Ulomov from the Uzbekistani Academy of Sciences, who confirmed that he participated in the inspection, but refused to give additional information about this mission.

Evgeny Alexandrovich Rogozin from the Russian Academy of Sciences also worked on this report, but said he doesn't remember if they inspected the presence of the fault. Kournalist appealed to the Ministry of Energy of Armenia, requesting to provide information on seismic risks, but his request was denied.

In case of any catastrophe, the medical institution to be affected by it would be the Metsamor polyclinic. Its management says that they have iodine tablets that can be distributed to residents of the region if necessary. The condition of building leaves much to be desired: upper floors are damaged, walls of the clinic have become moldy.

Head of the oncology department Samuel Aleksanyan recalls that "after Russian management left, the plant's new management said that there's no more money for the maintenance of polyclinic."

Despite the existing threat, Armenia is not ready to abandon nuclear energy, Le Monde Diplomatique concludes. Two years ago, the government decided to extend functioning of the existing block until 2026, until the new plant was built at the same locationusing Russian money. As former deputy Energy Minister of Armenia Areg Galstyan explains, the capacity of the new plant will reach 1000 megawatts. "We have nine more years to decide how big will it be and what capacity and technologies it will have," he noted.