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Armenia’s nuclear power plant is dangerous. Time to close it. via the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists

By Brenda Shaffer | March 5, 2021


In late 2020, the Armenian government announced that its Metsamor nuclear power plant would close for five months in 2021 to attempt significant upgrades. Soon after, the EU urged Armenia to make the closure permanent since the plant “cannot be updated to fully meet internationally accepted safety standards.” A major nuclear or radiation accident at Metsamor would not only affect the people of Armenia, but citizens in neighboring Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Iran, Russia, and southern Europe. Besides, Armenia can meet its energy needs without Metsamor’s output, especially as it exports to Iran over half of the plant’s electricity. Further, thermal plants and renewable sources could replace what is used domestically. Metsamor does not even help Armenia achieve its declared goal of energy independence, as Russia–Armenia’s main energy supplier–provides the country with most of its natural gas, along with nuclear fuel and specialized technicians for the plant. But none of these arguments have swayed Armenia to close Metsamor in the past.

Is there an argument that could work now?

The EU might urge Armenia to consider a closure in light of recent developments. Post-war road, railway, and energy-development plans should increase trade and transportation linkages in the South Caucasus region after the recent conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The new infrastructure and financing provide Armenia with a fresh opportunity to tap newer, safer, and more diverse energy supplies. By closing Metsamor, Armenia would not only contribute to the safety of its own citizens and those in neighboring countries but strengthen peace in the South Caucasus.

Metsamor nuclear power plant. Metsamor is located in a major seismic zone close to Armenia’s capital, Yerevan, and near Armenia’s border with Turkey. The original, Soviet-built plant included two 400 megawatt reactors. Unit 1 began commercial operation in 1977. Both units were closed by the Soviet authorities in 1989, following the Chernobyl accident and the massive Spitak earthquake in Armenia in 1988, which killed over 25,000 people. In 1995, following Armenia’s independence, Metsamor Unit 2 was restarted at 375 megawatts electrical with Russian funding and technical support. The plant’s original operating license was supposed to end in 2016, but Yerevan extended it to 2021, and late in 2020 announced its intent to extend the plant’s operation even longer. Unit 1 has remained closed.

Metsamor is one of five of the last operating Soviet-era reactors without a containment vessel, which is a requirement of all modern reactors. (The other reactors without containment vessels are located in Russia.) Nuclear fuel for the Metsamor plant is flown in from Russia, with no special announcements to the Armenian public or regional aviation authorities. In contrast, most nuclear fuel is delivered in the world by sea or rail to minimize the impact of potential accidents. Since the restart of Metsamor Unit 2, the reactor’s spent nuclear fuel has remained on site. Then-Armenian Deputy of Energy Areg Galstyan stated in 2004 that details on the air shipments of the nuclear fuel were kept secret to “avoid alarming the people.”

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