This model Soviet city, or atomograd, was purpose-built in the 1970s to entice skilled workers to work in the nuclear power plant. Decades on, what does daily life look like?
By Daryl Mersom
Metsamor has been described as one of the world’s most dangerous nuclear power plants because of its location in an earthquake zone.
It sits just 35km (22 miles) from Armenia’s bustling capital, Yerevan, with distant views of snowy Mount Ararat across the border in Turkey.
The plant was constructed around the same time as Chernobyl in the 1970s. At the time the Metsamor reactor provided energy for the growing needs of a vast Soviet Union, which once had ambitious plans to generate 60% of its electricity from nuclear power by 2000.
But in 1988 everything changed; the 6.8 magnitude Spitak earthquake devastated Armenia, killing around 25,000 people. The nuclear power plant was swiftly closed down because of safety concerns over an unreliable electricity supply to power the plant’s systems. Many of the plant’s workers returned home to Poland, Ukraine and Russia.
Thirty years on, Metsamor plant and its future remain a divisive topic in Armenia. One of its reactors was restarted in 1995 and now generates 40% of Armenia’s energy needs. Its critics argue the site remains extremely vulnerable to earthquakes due to its location in an area of seismic activity. Its supporters, however, including government officials, argue it was deliberately originally built on a stable basalt block and insist further modifications, such as improved fire doors, have been made to make it even safer.
This model Soviet city, or atomograd, was purpose-built to entice skilled workers from across the USSR, from the Baltics to Kazakhstan. It was planned for 36,000 residents with an artificial lake, sports facilities, and a cultural centre. In its heyday the shops were well-stocked and rumours about the high quality of the butter reached Yerevan.
But the population didn’t remain static. The same year as the earthquake locals were joined by refugees fleeing Azerbaijan due to conflict in the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh territory. In the first year of the conflict over 450 people were housed in Metsamor’s vacant dormitories. Those people settled down and now live in homes they have built themselves, on the site where the proposed third housing district of the atomograd would have been located.
Today Metsamor has a population of over 10,000 people with lots of children. In the apartment blocks 5km from the cooling towers, the people balance their worries over energy scarcity against the potential threat posed by the plant. “The black years of electricity shortages are so strong in people’s minds,” says Katharina Roters, a photographer who has documented the city, “that they cannot consider life without the plant.” From 1991-1994 the country suffered an energy crisis where at times the population was left with no electricity at all.
So why do they stay? Roters found mixed attitudes towards the nuclear power plant. “The families that no longer work at the plant tended to be frustrated about the economic situation in Armenia, whereas those who still worked at the plant were much more positive.”
Read more at The City in the Shadow of an Aging Nuclear Reactor