Interview with Rafiga Gurbanzade, a student in Criminology, Law & Society at the University of California-Irvine and a member of the Pax Turcica Institute.
Q: Last month you published an article titled “Metsamor, the Fukushima of the Caucasus” in the Journal of Turkish Weekly. Was the choice of this topic incidental?
A: Not at all, the Metsamor nuclear power plant (NPP) has long been a concern not only for Armenia’s neighbors, but also for the international community, especially the European observers. The leakage of radioactive materials from the Fukushima NPP, in the aftermath of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan, highlighted threats posed by NPPs to the people and environment in seismically active regions, such as the Caucasus. And the recent August 11, 2012 devastating earthquake in the neighboring South (Iranian) Azerbaijan was an alarming reminder that, with Metsamor NPP in operation, the South Caucasus region is very susceptible to disasters alike the one at Fukushima Daiichi.
Q: You drew parallels between the Fukushima Daiichi and the Metsamor. How likely is the repetition of a similar disaster in the South Caucasus?
A: An estimated 90 to 95 percent of the world’s earthquakes occur on the boundaries of tectonic plates, and one such boundary passes through the South Caucasus. Arabian and Eurasian tectonic plates periodically collide here, generating destructive earthquakes across the South Caucasus, eastern Turkey and northwestern Iran. Armenia itself experienced a devastating earthquake in 1988, with an epicenter not far from the Metsamor NPP.
Furthermore, the Metsamor NPP is based on an outdated Soviet VVER reactors modeled in 1960s. These reactors lack safety containment structures and, just as the Chernobyl RBMK reactor, are single-walled. In case of an accident, the ability of a single-walled reactor to control leakage is diminished. Therefore, many international experts consider such reactors as the most dangerous. The combination of a seismically active geographical location and the Metsamor NPP’s outdated Soviet design poses a grave danger to Armenia and its neighbors.
Q: Armenia refuses to shutdown the NPP despite the fact that is extremely dangerous. What would persuade Armenia to change its position?
A: Armenia fills 40 percent of its energy needs from the Metsamor NPP. So, generally speaking, the plant’s operation is critical to the country’s economy, especially since the Nagorno-Karabakh (NK) conflict remains unresolved and Armenia’s exposure to alternative energy sources is limited. With that said, it shall be kept in mind that since 2003, the Metsamor NPP has been operated by the Inter RAO UES, owned by Russia’s State Nuclear Energy Corporation (RosAtom), in repayment of Armenia’s $40 million debt to the Russian nuclear-fuel suppliers. So, just like with anything else pertaining to Armenia’s geopolitical future, a final decision over the fate of the Metsamor NPP rests not in Yerevan, but in Moscow.
Russia, in turn, has a vested interest in keeping the Metsamor in operation, as this deepens Armenia’s energy dependence on Russian nuclear fuel, while diminishing the need for other energy supplies, such as oil and gas. Subsequently, Armenia has a lesser incentive to seek normalization of ties with its neighbors, even further entrenching itself in the Russian sphere of influence. Therefore, unless there is a more vociferous concern expressed by the European Union or the United States, yielding Russia to reconsider its position, it’s unlikely that the Metsamor will be shut down in a visible future.
Q: Does anyone outside the region understand the seriousness of the issue? What steps shall be taken in diaspora to increase awareness of the looming radioactive threat in the Caucasus?
A: Before the 2011 accident at the Fukushima Daiichi, most of the world did not know about this NPP or its potential dangers for the environment if subjected to an earthquake or another natural disaster. The same is true about the Chernobyl and the Metsamor NPPs. Unfortunately people become aware of these dangers only after the tragic consequences are already present. So to raise awareness, it is necessary to periodically inform media and the relevant government agencies in Europe and North America, as well as the international organizations about the situation around the Metsamor.
The Metsamor NPP is localed 16 miles away from the border with Turkey and in a close proximity of the Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhchivan. Naturally, Turkish and Azerbaijani diaspora in the United States, Canada and Europe should strive to bring the issue to the forefront of international policy agenda in those countries. But so should the Armenian diaspora, if it genuinely cares about the environmental safety and well being of Armenia and its inhabitants.