Metsamor - The Fukushima of the Caucasus?

Metsamor - The Fukushima of the Caucasus?


Rafiga Gurbanzade, Contributor, The Journal of Turkish Weekly

24 August 2012

Last year’s catastrophic earthquake and tsunami off the coast of Japan and the subsequent Fukushima Daiichi nuclear meltdown highlighted the importance of a diligent assessment of nuclear power plants (NPP) to endure ground shakings or possible displacements [1].

According to the USGS, around 90 to 95 percent of the world’s earthquakes occur on the boundaries of the tectonic plates as a way of releasing energy that builds up through the plate interaction [2]. While the knowledge about interaction of tectonic plates helps to identify seismically active regions, predicting an exact place and time of an earthquake remains impossible. This diminishes the chances of a proper warning and evacuation of populations ahead of a catastrophe. The problem is even more severe in countries with economic hardships [3].

Similar to Japan, the South Caucasus region of Eurasia is a zone of high seismic activity. The Arabian and Eurasian tectonic plates collide here generating regular destructive earthquakes across the Caucasus, eastern Turkey and northwestern Iran[4]. On December 7, 1988, two ground shocks with three seconds apart left at least 25,000 people dead, 19,000 injured and 500,000 homeless in the Leninakan-Spitak-Kirovakan area of northern Armenia, then a Soviet republic.The magnitude of the earthquake was estimated at 6.8, while the damage was estimated at about 16.2 billion U.S. dollars. The disaster severely damaged infrastructure within the affected areas of Armenia and the neighboring Kelbajar region of Azerbaijan. The shocks were felt in Armenia’s capital, Yerevan, in neighboring Georgia and as far as the Russian North Caucasus [5].Following the catastrophe, concerns intensified over the only NPP built by the Soviet government in the Caucasus region – the Metsamor (also known as Oktemberyan) NPP in Armenia.Built in 1976 with two VVER-440 Model V230 nuclear reactors, the structures of the plant resembled those of the Chernobyl NPP [6].

In the former Soviet Union, the most commonly constructed reactors were the RBMK and VVER. The RBMK reactor, which was utilized in Chernobyl and exploded in April 1986, was a water-cooled and graphite-moderated reactor. In this type of reactors, the fuel elements can be exchanged while the reactors are powered. Such reactors are considered to be the world’s most dangerous because of the risk of a fire in the graphite moderator and the absence of safety containment [7]. The VVERs are known as pressurized water reactors that utilize light water as both the moderator and the coolant [8]. These reactors were developed in three generations. The first generation was developed in 1960s (reactor 440/230), the second, in early 1980s (reactor 440/213), and the third in late 1980s (reactor1000). The first two generations of VVER-440 are thought by the international experts to be the unsafe of all three because the reactors had no safety containment. Also, the cooling systems were considered to be unsafe [9].

Similar to Chernobyl’s RBMK, the VVER-440 reactors of Metsamor lack safety containment structures and are single-walled. The function of a single-walled containment is to carry the pressure load preventing it from rising above the designed pressure limit [10].Compared to the single-wall containment, the double-wall containment better controls any possible leakage through the inner containment by collecting it in “the annulus between inner and outer shell” [11]. Therefore, in case of an accident, a double-walled containment would maintain the leakage under a negative pressure, which would facilitate the collection, filtering and rejection of the radioactive leakages. Hence, lacking key safety features, single-walled RBMK and VVER type reactors present a high risk of radioactive release during an accident [12].

After the 1988 earthquake, in fear of Chernobyl-like disasters, the Metsamor NPP was shut down. But the urge to reopen it arose during the 1991-94 Nagorno-Karabakh War between Armenia and Azerbaijan. As the Armenian forces occupied parts of Azerbaijan, the latter blocked energy supplies, leaving Armenia’s population without electricity during the harsh winter seasons. Subsequently, Armenian authorities were forced to reopen the two Metsamor reactors in 1993 and 1995 [13]. Since 2003, the NPP has been operated by the Russian Inter RAO UES, owned by Russia’s State Nuclear Energy Corporation (RosAtom), in return for repaying Armenia’s $40 million debt to the Russian nuclear-fuel suppliers [14].

Located in a highly active seismic zone and built according to the outdated Soviet standards, the Metsamor became a subject of severe safety concerns from Armenia’s neighbors – Turkey, whose border is only 10 miles away from the NPP, Azerbaijan and Georgia. Numerous requests by these countries to permit their specialists for examining the plant were declined [15]. In 2011, Azerbaijan moved for a resolution in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe stating that Armenia had refused “the EU’s call for Metsamor to be shut down by 2011 at the latest and its offer of 100 million euros to help meet the country’s energy needs” [16]. Further, the motion noted that in case of an accident at the Metsamor NPP, destructive consequences in Armenia, the South Caucasus, the Middle East and Europe would be inevitable.

Armenian government asserts that the shutdown of the old reactors is expected in 2016 after a new facility will be built. Nevertheless, a risk of an accident during the coming four years continues to put Armenia under pressure [17]. In response to renewed concerns after the Fukushima Daiichi disaster, the Armenian government invited inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency(IAEA). The IAEA assembled and sent an Operational Safety Review Team (OSART) of 11 experts. In its June 2011 report, the OSART noted “good plant practices” at the Metsamor and highlighted that “during the last number of years, several important safety systems have been updated using resources of the plant's staff” (IAEA Press Release). However, the OSART report also found a number of deficiencies and the head of OSART mission, Gabor Vamos, claimed that identifying deficiencies in need of an urgent repair is a challenge to the Metsamor technicians. He also suggested that a more meticulous mechanism is needed to keep the plant in an ideal state [18].

Despite the inspection, the EU continues still insist “on the earliest possible closure of the Metsamor NPP and on the adoption of a detailed decommissioning plan based on the [OSART] tests.” As stated further in the European Neighborhood Policy Package, Country Progress Report (for Armenia) of May 2012, the Metsamor NPP “cannot be upgraded to meet the internationally recognized nuclear safety standard” [19]. According to the All-Armenian Association of Power Specialists, Slavik Sargsian, “if a hazardous situation emerges at our plant, we have neither the capabilities nor the specialists to fight back” [20].

In 2010, the European Parliament passed a resolution on the EU strategy for the South Caucasus [2009/221([INI)], in which it encouraged the Armenian authorities “to seek viable alternative solutions for energy supplies.” However, Russia now advances plans for a new NPP at the same location as the Metsamor and intends to generously invest in its construction. Sergei Kiriyenko, the head of RosAtom, recently said that his agency is ready to commit 20-25% of investments and more options could be discussed [21].

Despite the mounting international pressure, Armenia is unlikely to shutdown the Metsamor NPP in a visible future. Firstly, the plant remains a critical source supplying some 40% of Armenia’s energy demand amidst the ongoing conflict with neighboring energy-rich Azerbaijan. Secondly, the Metsamor NPP is owned and operated by Russia, which, in turn, is interested in using the plant as a trump card for defending its remaining strategic positions in the Caucasus. The closure of the Metsamor NPP is only possible if Armenia resolves its conflicts with Turkey and Azerbaijan, hence opening the country to the East-West Energy Corridor architected by the United States. This would deal a major blow to Russia’s classical divide-and-conquer policy in the Caucasus, removing the last obstacle to region’s economic integration with the West. As shown by its 2008 invasion of Georgia, Russia is ready to prevent this scenario at any cost. Based on the same logic, Russian government will spare no effort to keep the Metsamor NPP running for as long as possible even if the plant poses the gravest environmental threat to the region.


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