By Astghik Bedevian, Ruben Meloyan, Courtney Brooks, RFE/RL
The Metsamor power plant outside Yerevan has been cited as at potential risk of a similar disaster as happened last week at Japan's Fukushima.
YEREVAN -- Just a half-hour drive from the Armenian capital, Yerevan, a Soviet-era nuclear power plant sits precariously on an earthquake fault line.
Environmentalists have long said the Ararat Valley, located just 16 kilometers from the Turkish border city of Igdir, is an extremely dangerous place to house the Metsamor nuclear power plant. And those concerns have only become more urgent amid the ongoing crisis at Japan's crippled Fukushima plant.
"There are five earthquake tectonic breaks [near the plant] -- one is 34 kilometers [away], another is 16 kilometers away and one is at a distance of only 500 meters," explains Hakob Sanasarian, chairman of Yerevan's Greens' Union environmental group. "And [yet] today they say it is safe. The one who controls such a facility, however, would of course praise it."
Armenian government officials have until now insisted that their country is immune to the kind of nuclear emergency Japan now faces.
They say the Metsamor power plant's reactors could withstand up to a magnitude-8 quake, and that such a powerful earthquake is highly unlikely to hit the country anyway.
But amid fresh questions about the safety of the plant in the wake of Japan's crisis, Armenian Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian announced that a safety review would be conducted.
"We will once again discuss this question and invite international experts to get their assessment of what measures we must take in order to raise the safety standards at our nuclear power plant," Sarkisian told a cabinet meeting on March 18.
Vahram Petrosian, director of the government's research institute on nuclear power plant operation, defends the plant's safety standards. "Not only our experts, but also international seismologists" say the plant could withstand an earthquake of magnitude 8.
Petrosian and others have made this claim, despite the fact that a devastating 6.9-magnitude quake hit the area just over two decades ago.
Nevertheless, Ashot Martirosian, the head of the State Committee on Nuclear Safety Regulation, says Metsamor's cooling system is more reliable than that of Japan's Fukushima plant.
"The Metsamor reactor is cooled by a second contour, which is a separate system, a separate barrier," Martirosian says. "Theoretically, such an emergency situation cannot arise here."
Critics Doubt Reliability
Gia Arabidze, a dean at Georgia Technical University in Tbilisi and a specialist on nuclear issues, takes issue with such claims.
Arabidze says that while Metsamor's normal operations pose no threat to Armenia or bordering countries such as Georgia and Turkey, if an earthquake the size of Japan's were to hit Armenia the results could be devastating.
"The probability for the plant to be damaged in the case of a powerful earthquake is high," Arabidze says. "The nuclear power plants in Japan are far more earthquake-resistant than those which were built in the former Soviet Union, and if we see these problems at the Japanese plant today, you can imagine what problems could occur in the case of a similar disaster in Armenia."
Karine Danielyan, a Yerevan-based environmentalist, says that "seismically," the Ararat Valley is "the worst place for a nuclear power plant. The example of Japan shows how unpredictable [the reliability of safety features] is."
Likewise, Frank Barnaby, a U.K.-based nuclear physicist, says that based on the design and age of the station it is unlikely to maintain safety standards during a powerful earthquake.
"Nuclear power plants that are that old have very old-fashioned safety features. I mean, modern power plants are much safer, and even those are not safe enough to withstand a Japanese type of earthquake followed by a tsunami," Barnaby says. "So I think that story is probably incorrect; I would think the Armenian plant is certainly not safe."
Working To Meet Standards
Metsamor, which currently supplies 40 percent of Armenia's nuclear power, was shut down for seven years after a massive 6.9-magnitude earthquake in 1988 that left 25,000 dead. The epicenter of the 1988 earthquake was 75 kilometers from Metsamor.
Armenia is no stranger to earthquakes, such as the one in 1988.
The Soviet government, which then ruled Armenia, cited security concerns in closing it. But a crippling energy crisis in newly independent Armenia in the mid-1990's led the government to reopen the plant's second reactor amid strong international criticism.
The European Union has classified the plant's light-water reactor as one of the "oldest and least reliable" of 66 such facilities built in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Since 1995 both the EU and United States have spent tens of millions of dollars to improve safety standards at Metsamor.
Moreover, Suren Azatian, Metsamor's former director-general, cautions that the plant is "not that protected" against radioactive leaks. He says that unlike Metsamor, Fukushima has concrete containment vessels around its reactors that appear to have not been breached after the tsunami.
Azatian adds that Armenia should continue to rely on nuclear power, although the country's safety standards must be revised after the Japanese emergency, just as they were after the devastating 1986 Chornobyl disaster.
"One must not panic and say that this is terrible technology that must be abandoned. That's wrong," Azatian says. "Such an approach would be unjustified. After all, our nuclear power plant continued to operate during the  earthquake, which was no less devastating."
According to Petrosian, more than 1,200 measures have been taken to enhance the safety of the facility at the demand of the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency since the plant was relaunched in 1995. He says the implementation of such measures was continuous.
By 2016 the Armenian government intends to replace the old Soviet-era-built station with a new one that would meet Western safety standards. Efforts on construction of the new plant are behind schedule, and the Energy Ministry is considering extending the existing plant's term of operation.
Marina Vashakmadze of RFE/RL's Georgian Service contributed reporting from Tbilisi and Suren Musayelyan of RFE/RL's Armenian Service contributed from Yerevan
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