Armenia Approves New Nuclear Plant Over Green Objections

By Gayane Mkrtchyan

YEREVAN, Armenia, December 28, 2009 (ENS) – Armenia has cleared the way for a new nuclear power plant, despite green groups’ objections that its location could put the country’s capital at risk.

Earlier this month, the government approved the creation of Atomstroyexport, a joint Russian-Armenian company that will own the station.

“Today we are taking a political decision, we are giving our agreement to the creation of a joint venture with our Russian partners,” said Prime Minister Tigran Sargsyan on December 3.

Armenia plans to finish the new generating unit by 2016, and it will replace the Metsamor plant, which produces 40 percent of the country’s power but is nearing the end of its life. Without the nuclear plant, Armenia would be largely dependent on gas imported from Russia or Iran.

“The new nuclear power station will become a security zone for Armenia in the energy system. A nuclear reactor is necessary as an energy resource that can ensure the self-sufficiency of the country,” said Sevak Sarukhanyan, an economist and deputy director of the Noravank think tank.

Sargsyan said the new station is crucial to efforts to revive Armenia’s economy, which has suffered both from the post-Soviet collapse and the blockade imposed by Azerbaijan and Turkey.

“If we do not build the nuclear power station then, of course, our competitive position will significantly worsen,” he said.

Construction of the plant will take five or six years, and it should have a working life of 60 years, which will guarantee Armenia’s electricity supply far into the future.

Ecological groups, however, remain strongly opposed to the plans. Hakob Manasaryan, head of the Union of Greens, said the government did not explore other energy options in its rush to approve a new nuclear plant. He worries that Armenia, which is prone to earthquakes, could see a disaster such as the one that struck Ukraine’s Chernobyl reactor 23 years ago.

“I have the impression that the officials are thinking only of the next 15 or 20 years. A new structure, with a capacity of 1,200 megawatts should be at least 100 to 150 kilometers (60 to 90 miles) from big cities. The existing Metsamor station, which is just 20 km in a straight line from the capital, does not even meet this condition,” he said.

“There is not one safe working reactor. Of course it is good if it is super-modern, which means, it is less dangerous, but who can vouch for that? And with a capacity of 1,200 megawatts, the consequences of the risk could be more significant. The construction of a new reactor in the same place [as the Metsamor plant] is even more dangerous,” said Manasaryan.

But Areg Galstyan, deputy energy and natural resources minister, said new reactors are built to far higher safety standards than Chernobyl-type nuclear power stations, and that the ecologists have nothing to worry about.

Armenia’s Metsamor nuclear power station (Photo courtesy Nuclear Threat Initiative)

The Metsamor power station sits in the Ararat Valley, in the very heart of Armenia, and is surrounded by the towns of Armavir, Echmiadzin and Metsamor. Its first unit started producing power in 1976, and the second in 1980.

According to Armenia’s Department of State Atomic Control, the structure was strengthened after the devastating earthquake of 1988. The waste is not stored permanently on site, but is sent to Russia for disposal.

Sarukhanyan said an atomic plant is probably the cleanest possible option for Armenia – compared to a fossil fuel or hydro station – and would allow the country to become a major exporter to neighboring countries. That could even include selling power to Turkey, if a peace deal agreed this year is ratified.

“What would happen to Armenia, if there is another war in Georgia? You can say the same thing about Iran. If, because of the tense political situation, our gas supplies are cut, then we would face an energy collapse,” he said.

At the moment, Armenia’s electricity network has the capacity to export 200 megawatts to Turkey. After the two countries normalize their ties, Yerevan could upgrade the power lines and become a major source of energy for eastern Turkey, which is growing quickly.

Stepan Safaryan, a parliament deputy from the Heritage party, said this could prove a major source of revenue for Armenia.

“All predictions about global energy resources, and particularly for electric energy, in the next decade show a tendency towards growth. There are developing countries in the region, therefore in the long term we have not only a market but also chances of creating our own electricity,” he said.

Sargsyan in spring even announced that Turkish companies would be welcome to participate in the tender for the plant’s construction, which was organized by Australia’s Worley Parsons. Nationalists were shocked by his comments at the time but Sarukhanyan said they need not have worried, since the only serious bidder for the project was the Russian State Atomic Energy Corporation.

Sarukhanyan said top western companies would not be prepared to invest such large amounts of money in exchange for a non-guaranteed return.

“For Russia it is a realistic decision, however, since it will have a leading position in Armenia’s energy sector. For a French or American company, it would be a doubtful deal, since the Armenian economy remains closed,” he said.

But Safaryan worries that Armenia is becoming over-dependent on Russia, which already dominates much of the Armenian economy, including the telecom and electricity sectors.

“This will lead to a deeper dependence by our country with all the political consequences inherent in that,” he said. “In this, like in any other sector, the existence of an alternative and of diversification is a question of independence and sovereignty.”

{Gayane Mkrtchyan is a journalist with Armenianow.com. This article originally appeared December 24, 2009 in Caucasus Reporting Service, produced by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting}

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