Just 35 kilometers west of Yerevan sits the world’s “most dangerous nuclear reactor.” The Armenian Nuclear Power Plant, also known as the Metsamor Nuclear Plant or simply “Metsamor,” has been a topic of debate and discussion in Armenian society for many years. Located in a seismically active area and designed to be decommissioned in 2016, the power plant’s continued operation is a reflection of the country’s dire state in the early 1990s and the ongoing struggles associated with energy production in Armenia.
Construction, Deactivation, Resurrection
Officially known as the “Armenian Nuclear Power Plant,” Metsamor was constructed throughout the 1970s. The plant was designed to hold two nuclear reactors, designated Armenia-1 and Armenia-2, activated in 1976 and 1980 respectively. Metsamor was the only nuclear power plant in the South Caucasus with the only other nuclear reactor in the region being a research reactor operated by the Andronikashvili Institute of Physics in Tbilisi. Armenia-1 and Armenia-2 were VVER-440 model reactors. VVER-type reactors differ from the RBMK reactors seen in Chernobyl and elsewhere in the Soviet Union and are generally considered safer that their RBMK counterparts. Metsamor was only fully operational for nine years before its closure in 1989 following the Spitak earthquake. What followed in the months afterwards was the gradual dissolution of the Soviet Union and the start of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, both of which exasperated Armenia’s recovery efforts following the Spitak earthquake.
For Armenia, the early 1990s were characterized by chronic electricity shortages. The conflict with Azerbaijan cut Armenia off from its previous Soviet-era energy network, while the economic blockade imposed by Turkey obstructed the import of fuel. Although rich with natural gas, sanctions and a lack of infrastructure hindered the import of natural gas from Iran to Armenia. Any natural gas used in thermal electric plants had to be imported from Russia via Georgia and was often the target of saboteurs. It was under these intense conditions that the Armenian government decided to reopen the Metsamor nuclear plant in 1993. After two years of consultation and renovation, the plant was reopened in 1995.
The reactivation of the powerplant was a first in the world of nuclear energy, as never had a deactivated reactor been restarted before. Only one of the plant’s two VVER reactors, “Armenia-2” was brought back online, running at 90 percent efficiency. Even then, this single reactor was enough to alleviate Armenia’s energy needs until more reliable forms of power could be found. Today Metsamor generates 40 percent of the electricity used in the Republic of Armenia, with the bulk of the remainder coming from hydroelectric dams alongside gas-powered thermoelectric plants.
Questionable Choices, Questionable Design
While the reactivation of Metsamor provided an immediate relief to Armenia’s energy crisis, many of the flaws in the plant’s construction were brought back into view. One of the most glaring was the decision to construct a nuclear reactor in an area known for seismic activity in the vicinity of the Sardaparat, North-West, and Yerevan Faultlines – the Sardarapat Faultline being only 12 kilometers away. Although Metsamor experienced only minor shaking from the Spitak Earthquake, the plant was still located 75 Kilometers from the epicenter of the magnitude 7 earthquake. While the plant is reportedly resistant to magnitude 7 seismic activity, the International Atomic Energy Association and other sources have referenced a potential magnitude 8 local seismology. Even after its reactivation Armenia-2 was missing a primary containment structure, a feature that would become standard on later VVER model reactors. These concerns over location and design are compounded by the plant’s placement near the Metsamor river. While the river provides water for cooling the plant, it also feeds into the largest waterway in the Caucasus, the Aras river valley.
The plant was initially designed in accordance to “Temporal Standard for Design of NPPs in Seismic Regions VSN-15-78,” a Soviet standard for seismic safety in nuclear plants. This was later replaced with the 1987 “Seismic Design Standard PNAE G-5-006-87,” which was also used when assessing the plant’s structural safety leading up to the 1995 reactivation. The Armenian government has yet to adopt a policy or set of standards with regards to safety beyond this standard. The Soviet Union’s protocols on construction of nuclear plants generally did not recommend construction of nuclear plants in areas of high seismic activity and considered any location featuring potential quakes greater than magnitude 8 unsuitable.
Beyond the safety and integrity of the plant itself, there is also the question of what to do with Metsamor’s nuclear waste. Currently, the vast majority of spent nuclear fuel is kept in recently built American-designed NUHOMS storage facilities on the grounds of the Metsamor plant, while municipal nuclear waste (used in medical or industrial processes) is kept in an above-ground RADON facility, a typical design seen in the former USSR. While these facilities provide an adequate short-term solution to the problem, there is no clear designated area for the long-term disposal of nuclear waste. “Disposal” refers to the long-term sealing and storage of nuclear material once its usable radiation has been spent, as opposed to “storage” which is the interim holding of nuclear waste as it decays. The 2004 Convention on Nuclear Safety only references the disposal of spent fuel in the context of the eventual decommissioning of Metsamor. Additionally, the Armenian government has passed legislation and regulation regarding the design and licensing of a disposal facility, but has yet to construct such a facility. The difficulty in this situation is that Armenia has continuously renewed its agreement for the delivery of nuclear fuel from the Russian Federation, but has no plans for the long-term disposal of this fuel nor the transit of nuclear waste to disposal facilities outside of the country. While Metsamor may continue to act as a short-term storage for spent fuel, these materials will be subject to the same seismic conditions as the rest of the plant. Considering that the 2004 Convention on Nuclear Safety was drafted with the mindset that the plant would close by 2016 and the Armenian government has continued to extend the operating time of the plant, the likelihood of the development of a long-term plan for the disposal of nuclear waste is unlikely.
Safety and Security
Beyond the threat posed by seismic activity in the region, Metsamor is also a possible target for malicious actors in the region. In recent years, smugglers trafficking radioactive materials have been uncovered along the Armenian-Georgian border. Many of these operations were foiled through the usage of radiological scanners on the Armenian-Georgian border funded by the United States, along with intelligence gathered by the Armenian and Georgian governments. Most of these cases involve isotopes generated as a byproduct of nuclear fission and considered nuclear waste, such as Strontium-90 and Cesium-137. While these isotopes are unable to generate a reaction like that of a nuclear bomb, they do have a potential use in “dirty bombs,” in which an explosive is combined with radioactive materials in order to contaminate a wide area following detonation.
It is critical to note that from all available information, no direct link has been established between these smuggling operations and the radioactive byproducts of Metsamor. However, Strontium-90 and Cesium-137 have been listed in the inventory of Armenia’s RADON storage facility in a document presented to the International Atomic Energy Agency. The existence of smuggling operations targeting radioactive materials in the South Caucasus, combined with the storage of materials targeted by such operations in the territory of Armenia, should make the long-term protection and eventual disposal of these radioactive byproducts a major security concern for the Armenian government. Failure to do so would jeopardize not only Armenian security but the stability of the South Caucasus as a whole.
The most recent spike in international attention came in the wake of the Fukushima disaster as both Fukushima and Metsamor were constructed in areas with known seismic activity. Given that Fukushima’s meltdown was caused by a series of adverse conditions compounding into one failure (an earthquake striking the area, causing a tsunami that flooded backup generators, which disabled the cooling system and led to a meltdown), it seems that forethought and planning can only mitigate so many of the risks that come with maintaining a nuclear plant in a seismic area. While the investigation into Metsamor’s safety commission in the immediate aftermath of Fukushima found the plant to be adequately safe, it is worth noting that this assessment was done with the assumption that the Armenian government would shut down Metsamor at the end of its original lifecycle in 2016.
While the restarting of Metsamor is generally regarded as a necessity in a time of crisis, the indefinite operation of the plant has drawn criticism from much of the international community. In the past, representatives of the European Union have referred to the plant as the “most dangerous nuclear plant in the world” and have allocated grant funding for the government of Armenia to transition to new sources of electricity. Following the refusal to close the plant, the European Union cancelled the offer and withheld the 100 million Euros allocated to grant funding for the diversification of Armenia’s electricity production. The United States has also expressed concern over the continued operation of the plant, but has taken an active stance in not only ensuring the safe operation of the plant and the monitoring of its impact on the environment, but also ensuring the security of the region by combating nuclear smuggling.
In 2016, the European Union commissioned a peer-reviewed stress test of Metsamor’s safety capabilities. While the plant was found to be generally compliant with the safety standards set by the International Atomic Energy Agency and capable of maintaining structural integrity during a seismic event, certain aspects of the plant’s design with regards to seismic activity have not aged well. Elements vulnerable to seismic activity include secondary safety features such as fire extinguishing systems and secondary power from the “Argel” hydropower plant have not been deemed seismically resistant. Additionally, the report specifies that there is no plan on how to manage the leakage of nuclear waste from the spent fuel pods (a system for interim storage of nuclear waste).
In comparison, the Russian Federation has shown no major reservations in the operation of the plant and continues to act as Armenia’s largest partner in the operation of Metsamor. Russia’s support to the Armenian Nuclear Plant covers a wide variety of areas, from modernization of the plant’s systems and facilitating cooperation between Armenian and Russian nuclear specialists, to financing the operation of the plant. Beyond extending the current contract to supply all the fuel used in the plant, Russia has also begun negotiations on the possible construction of another nuclear reactor in Metsamor. Russia’s enthusiasm to continue its partnership with Armenia in the continued operation of the plant was likely a major factor in the decision to extend the usage of Metsamor past its originally planned 2016 end date.
The Necessity of Metsamor
One of the more difficult aspects in addressing the risks of Metsamor’s continued operation is the plant’s crucial role in Armenia’s energy portfolio. As mentioned before, the plant alone provides 40 percent of Armenia’s electricity and was key in resolving Armenia’s energy crisis. The nuclear plant has allowed Armenia to overcome its lack of natural gas and oil deposits and become a net producer of electricity in the region. This excess electricity is supplied to Artsakh as well as sold to neighboring Georgia and Iran, the latter of which exchanges electricity for natural gas delivery. Without nuclear power, Armenia would have to immediately expand either its already expansive network of hydroelectric dams or increase electricity production via thermal plants, requiring more imports of natural gas from Russia. Although geothermal, solar, and other renewables have seen a gradual growth as a source of electricity in Armenia, they have yet to reach the cost effectiveness or output as the nuclear plant.
Given the lack of communication by the Armenian government on a potential timeline for the closure of Metsamor, it is likely that the plant will remain open for the foreseeable future. While Armenia has been spared from a major seismic event following the Spitak earthquake, it is only a matter of time before another quake strikes the country. With this in mind, it is key that a continuously proactive stance is taken towards the implementation of recommendations put forth by the International Atomic Agency and other relative bodies. This includes not only ensuring the safety and integrity of the plant itself, but also taking a more holistic approach to nuclear security by ensuring that relevant infrastructure and resources - such as the roads leading to the plant and emergency equipment - are regularly maintained. Additionally, it is key that the Armenian government articulates a long-term strategy for the disposal of the waste generated by the nuclear plant and other activities in Armenia. Construction of a third reactor would be ill-advised, as it would perpetuate the current risks associated with operating a nuclear power plant in an area known for seismic activity. Instead further development of renewable sources of electricity in Armenia, such as solar and wind power, should be considered. This would not only lesson Armenia’s dependence on the Metsamor nuclear plant and thermoelectric plants but also ease the environmental impact of continued usage of hydroelectric dams.