Friday 23 February 2018 Last Update: 08:01 AM

Le Monde Diplomatique: Metsamor, a Potential Chernobyl - Risk To The Whole Of Europe

Published: 01-28-2018

News.Az reprints an article by Damien Lefauconnier from Le Monde diplomatique.
The Chernobyl disasters in 1986 and Fukushima in 2011 broke the momentum of atomic energy by exposing its dangers to the general public. But, if the exit of nuclear is proving uncertain for the rich states, it appears even more delicate in the countries in difficulty. Even when, reactors are in a seismic zone as in Armenia...

A group of women are working among tomato plants a hundred meters from the barrier marking the entrance to the Metsamor nuclear power plant near Armavir. Bordered by vegetable crops, the four cooling towers stand between the giant volcanoes of the Aragats Mountains (4,095 meters), the highest point of Armenia located thirty-five kilometers to the north, and Ararat (5,165 meters), the highest peak. Turkey, fifty kilometers to the south. Their buckets filled, the women go home. "Our husbands all work at the power plant. They say it's safe," said Aygegotsakan, who is in her fifties. Her friend Diddora adds: "Of course, we fear a new earthquake."

Metsamor was built during the time of the Soviet Union, at the geological junction between the Arabic and Eurasian plates, a highly seismic zone. The first VVER-440 unit, with a capacity of 400 megawatts, was connected to the grid in 1976, followed in 1979 by the second tranche of the same power. In 1988, a tremor of magnitude 6.9 on the Richter scale destroyed the town of Spitak, just seventy kilometers to the north, killing more than 25,000 people and throwing 500,000 refugees on the roads. The government decided to shut down both reactors as a precautionary measure.

Having become independent in 1991, Armenia faced a severe energy shortage aggravated by the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and the blockade imposed on it by Azerbaijan and Turkey ever since. In 1995, the government decided to restart the number 2 reactor, causing the concern of its neighbors. "This plant continues to pose a considerable risk for the whole of Europe because of its age and its situation in a region with strong seismic activity," a European Union envoy wrote later. The latter proposed an aid of EUR 100 mln for the closure of the site. The sum was considered insufficient. "The Commission's position is still that the reactor should be shut down as soon as possible because it does not meet internationally recognized safety standards," says Sharon Zarb, from the European Union's External Action Service.

"For us, this power station is 'to be or not to be'," Areg Galstian, former minister responsible for energy, infrastructure and natural resources, now a consultant in his office, says. Yerevan, the capital, located about thirty kilometers from the power station. "In the early 1990s, we were facing a serious energy crisis. We began to overuse the water of our Sevan Lake, and to cut the trees in a massive way. The restart was vital for our economy and our environment. Today, according to official figures, the plant provides 40% of the energy needs of Armenians.

While local non-governmental organizations (NGOs) regularly denounce the lack of information of the population, we still obtained permission to enter the site. According to the inhabitants of Metsamor, parades of official cars regularly take the road leading to the plant. At the entrance, employees are searched and go through a metal detector. Between the buildings, soldiers circulate in small groups. We are quickly seized by the impression of visiting an open-air Soviet nuclear museum. "In the 1988 earthquake, not a window pane was broken," says Movses Vardanian, the director, who greets us with his staff and says, "1,400 technical improvements have been made since 1995 ". Among the visible works, metal reinforcing plates were fixed on the outer walls of the units, to increase their resistance in case of an earthquake. Similarly, imposing braces support floors, including the building that houses nuclear reactors and turbines.

The management of the plant prohibits any photography of the "lower part" of this huge hall. We understand why by discovering in a junk of pipes dust machines of the unit stopped since 1989, and whose reactor has still not been dismantled. A bridge allows to follow the one who remains active, copy of the other, but better maintained. Some metal patches, similar to makeshift repairs, have been arranged on steam connections. To protect the at-risk parts of the plant, sixty-four Japanese hydraulic shock absorbers would have been installed under the main blocks. "In case of earthquake, they would take the wave," says Vahram Petrossian, the director of the Armenian Nuclear Research Institute, Armatom, mimicking the position of a surfer on his board. "The plant can operate at a normal speed with a thrust of 0.35 g, maximum up to 0.47 g," adds Vardanian, using the unit that is used to determine the seismic hazard for buildings (the maximum ground acceleration). During the 1988 earthquake, "maximum near ground acceleration exceeded 0.50 g, and could have approached 1 g", according to a study by the Electric Power Research Institute cited by the International Energy Agency Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

In the control room, full of 1970s stylus screens and diodes, the power emitted oscillates in red numbers: between 258 and 362 megawatts. On the back wall, a computer screen displays the same values ​​as the witnesses scattered around the room. "This computer backup system allows us to shut down the reactor from the outside," says the director. Asked about the lack of containment around the reactor room, Mr. Vardanian considers "impossible" the construction of such a dome, because "the foundations would not support this weight".

Another delicate subject, the management of radioactive waste, kept in the power station since 1976. "Experience shows that we can keep them fifty years, so we will have problems in a few years," says the director. However, he refuses to show the condition of the storage site. The international director of the French National Agency for the Management of Radioactive Waste (Andra), Gérald Ouzounian, visited Metsamor several times: "The drums are stored in the power station, but they should ideally be so avoid any future risk of transfer of radioactivity to the environment. This situation corresponds to the practice of the former USSR to leave this waste stored until the end of life of the power stations, and then manage it at the same time as the decommissioning waste. Unfortunately, the aging of the barrels makes the operation less comfortable than initially envisaged by the designers. The Armenian government says that a 300-year radioactive waste disposal project is under consideration.

Located two kilometers to the south, the town of Metsamor was built to accommodate the 1,700 employees of the site and their families. It is mainly composed of tall, dilapidated buildings. Most people rely on the regular intervention of the IAEA, whose international aura seems to reassure them. "No problem has ever occurred," says Émilia, 62, who has been working at Metsamor since 1977 as a decontaminating technician. The international agency sends a team of specialists here every two years. Greg Rzentkowski, director of the Nuclear Security Department of the United Nations, notes "progress in implementing earthquake protection measures and updating several security systems". But, questioned about the state of the reactor, the Armenian methods of work and the seismic risk, the head of mission "excuses" for not being able to provide a "more technical answer", because of "restrictions" of communication imposed by IAEA.

Rumors of irradiation are circulating. According to Naïra Arakelian, president of a local NGO called the Armavir Development Center, about 30 local families are questioning disabilities affecting their children. We organized a collective meeting to gather the word of these parents, but the managers of the power plant invited themselves and did not let the others express themselves. "Many years ago, we met quite often, not now. I remember that there are two small blind people, and physical problems, "says Ms. Tsovinar Harutiuanian, met more discreetly in her apartment. She introduces us to Rostom, her 20-year-old son, who suffers from a severe mental disability. "His illness can not be genetic, because we have no similar case, neither in my family nor in that of my husband, who works at the power station as a machine operator. An accident may have occurred in the danger zone," she says.

The former mayor of Yerevan (1992-1996) and former adviser to the Armenian President (1996-1998), Mr. Vahagn Khachatrian, does not hide his concern. He says one of his friends, a worker at the power station, died of cancer a few days before our interview. "I do not know if we can link it to the plant. But every time I pass by car, I think it's dangerous, mainly because of the age of the reactor metal. "

In 2012, researchers from the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) who came to support the Armenian government on the issue of seismic risk were surprised by the safety instructions given by the population protection plan in the event of a nuclear accident. "According to this plan, people should stay on the first floor or in cellars to protect themselves," they wrote. But, in case of a strong earthquake, it is too risky to stay inside the building, because it can collapse because of aftershocks. In the event of a seismic disaster, an evacuation route must first be ensured."

The proximity of tectonic faults is one of the main factors taken into account by specialists to assess seismic risk. Officially, the first fault is more than "nineteen kilometers from the plant", it is described as "reasonably excluded". Hakob Sanasarian, a former member of parliament and chairman of the NGO Greens Union of Armenia, says the government conceals the much more alarming conclusions of another report, dated 1992, signed by four researchers from the of the Russian Academy of Sciences, on behalf of the Armenian National Seismic Protection Service: "The greatest danger to the plant is a tectonic fault in the immediate vicinity (0.5 km), at the intersection of the Aragats- Spitak and South Yerevan, with great seismic potential, "the report says. "Less than fifty kilometers east of the station, in the years 851-893, there was a series of devastating earthquakes with an intensity of at least IX on the Mercalli scale and magnitude 6.5 on the Richter scale, causing a very large number of casualties. The author of the eleventh century T'ovma Arcruni evokes an earthquake in 893, which destroyed the city of Dvin, the former capital of Armenia, located twenty-five kilometers southeast of Metsamor.

Since the ninth century, about twenty earthquakes of magnitude between 5.5 and 7.5 on the Richter scale have occurred within an eighty kilometer radius of the power plant, according to the National Atlas of the Armenia. This document also mentions a magnitude 6 earthquake in 1830, exactly in the Metsamor area.

"It is our expertise," confirms Professor Valentin Ivanovich Ulomov of the Uzbek Academy of Sciences, co-signatory of the report, a quarter of a century later. But he does not want to talk more about this mission. Professor Yevgeny Alexandrovich Rogozhin of the Moscow Academy of Sciences, another co-author contacted, claims not to remember if their team checked the site for the fault. Asked for information on seismic risk, Artem Petrossian, from the Ministry of Energy, replied that "these documents are not accessible to the public."

In the event of radioactive rejection, the Metsamor Polyclinic would be the first health facility requested. Management claims to have iodine pills to distribute to the people. The state of the building is thoughtful. The upper floors are dilapidated, the walls completely moldy and have large holes. Dr. Samuel Aleksanian, head of the oncology department, sums it up: "When the Russians left, the authorities at the plant said they had no more money for the hospital. Maternity has closed, the department devoted to irradiations too. People who have money will get treatment in Yerevan, the others here."

Despite the danger, Armenia is not ready to give up nuclear power. In 2015, the government decided to extend the activity of the current unit until 2026. The time to build a new plant, financed by Russian funds, and installed on the same site. "This unit will be between 600 and 1,000 megawatts, probably 1,000. So we have about nine years to decide on its technology, size and capacity," says former Minister Galstian.