The New Chernobyl: Metsamor Nuclear Power Plant

Armenia's Metsamor NPP (Source: newposts.ge)
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By The USA Tribune

One of the biggest manmade disasters in history took place in 1986 in the Soviet Union, which was one of the two global superpowers of the time. The accident at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant resulted in approximately 40,000 deaths, while leaving thousands with disabilities and the country with billions of dollars in loss. Until then, nobody on earth would imagine that a nuclear power plant was capable of such an extensive destruction. The world did not even have an idea about the impact radius of a potential accident. The nuclear incident did not only affect Ukraine, but also the surrounding region including Turkey, Caucasia and Europe.

Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plan, April 1986, AP

Former Ukrainian Minister of Environmental Protection Yuri Shcherbak described the catastrophic impact of the Chernobyl disaster on human health and environment in numbers. 38 people lost their lives immediately after the accident, and 6,000 more died in the following months. Total number of deaths reached 40,000 over the next few years. Thousands of people were disabled. Hundreds of thousands of people were diagnosed with various diseases, mainly cancer. The radioactive emissions affected millions of people and animals in Turkey and Northern Europe, including Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus and Russian Federation. The economic cost of the disaster was measured at approximately $352 billion.

The Chernobyl disaster became a major turning point for many states which use nuclear energy. They either updated the technologies used at nuclear power plants, or totally shut down these facilities. But there is still one state right in Turkey’s corner, and it has not chosen either one of these options: Armenia.

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Metsamor Nuclear Power Plant, which basically relies on the same technology as Chernobyl, is seen as a ticking clock by the whole world, mainly by the European Union, which has made efforts to shut it down urgently. Located at 16 kilometers to the Turkish border, Metsamor is still kept operational by the Armenian government, despite the danger it poses to the whole region and the world.

According to the data of the UN International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Metsamor Nuclear Power Plant is one of the two most dangerous nuclear power plants in the world with 13 critical points over 15. Metsamor operates with a WWER-440 reactor, which is a water-cooled reactor manufactured with the oldest Soviet technology. In addition to the disaster risk, the facility also poses an environmental threat for ground and underground water sources in the area because of this cooling system.

The seismic activity in the region is also another factor that adds to the risks at Metsamor Nuclear Power Plant. The facility is located in a first-degree seismic zone which witnesses frequent tremors from the Mount Ararat Fault Line. Therefore, decommissioning this nuclear power point is critical not only for the region but also for the humanity.

This article aims to explain why different parties want Armenia to shut down the Metsamor Nuclear Power Plant, on the basis of the abovementioned technical reasons, which will be detailed below.

It must be recognized that the calls for shutting down the Metsamor Nuclear Power Plant is not only about opposing to nuclear energy or defending an argument against Armenia. To the contrary, the facility poses a great danger for the Armenian population, which has gone down to 2 million due to unfavorable living conditions, and these demands are solely based on environmental risks and regional and global security concerns.

What is a Nuclear Power Plant?

Nuclear power plants use uranium as raw material. Heat from the fission of radioactive atoms is used to generate water steam, which is then used to spin turbines that generate electricity. Nuclear power plants were first built in early 1960s, in the wake of a global oil crisis, which led many countries to use nuclear technology to generate electricity.

Adam Jones, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Oldest Technology

Originally called Oktembryan in Armenian, referring to the region where the facility is located, Metsamor was built with the oldest known technology of nuclear power plants. The facility is referred to with various names in the Turkish and international media, including is “Metzamor”, “Medzamor” and “Medsamor” but the correct name is “Metsamor.”

The facility, which was built with the first generation of Russian technology, consists of two units: Metsamor-1 and Metsamor-2. The Metsamor-1 unit, which is a WWER (Pressurized Water Reactor) 440 V270 reactor, has a capacity of 240 MWe. The construction of the unit started in 1973 and it became operational on December 28, 1976. The Metsamor-2 unit, also a WWER 440 V270 reactor, has a capacity of 400 MWe. The construction of the second unit started in 1975, and the block started generating electricity on December 31, 1979. The turbine type is ‘K-220-44/3000. The reactor is 11.8 m high, has an external diameter of 4.27 meters, and an internal diameter of 3.56 meters. The reactors use up to 14 tons of uranium per year, and each reactor weighs 201 tons.

Reactors have a heat energy production capacity of 1375 MWt, and an electrical power production capacity of 440 MWt. However, the plant generates approximately 320-340 MWt of electrical energy per year.

Today, Metsamor Nuclear Power Plant supplies 40% of the total electricity demand in Armenia, which also exports some of the electricity to Iran and Georgia.

As Metsamor Nuclear Power Plant uses “WWER” (Pressurized water-cooled reactor), which is the oldest technology that has been given up by many countries, the facility is vulnerable to accidents. The International Atomic Energy Agency lists Metsamor among the most dangerous power plants in the world.

This WWER 440/V270 power plant is built in the same type as the Kozloduy Nuclear Power Plant in Bulgaria. And it was only constructed to resist earthquakes with a magnitude of up to 8 on Richter scale. However, the area where Metsamor is located has a potential for earthquakes with a magnitude of up to 9.

Past Accidents at Metsamor…

Metsamor has seen many accidents since its commissioning, including 5 major and more than 150 minor incidents. The first of these accidents happened in 1982, when a generator exploded in the first block and connection cables were burnt. A major risk was averted during this accident, because the safety systems of the plant were completely deactivated.

Metsamor had to be shut down many times due to minor accidents. The plant was decommissioned in early 2003, but was reopened after the 407-MWt Metsamor-2 block became functional again in April in the same year. However, the plant had to be shut down for several months in the summer of 2004 due to another minor incident. There was a great public backlash when the facility was reopened 4 months after this incident.

When joining the European Commission, Armenia made a pledge to decommission Metsamor until 2004. But this pledge has not been fulfilled and Armenia still actively uses the Metsamor Nuclear Power Plant. During a meeting with EU parliamentary delegation in Yerevan, Hovhannes Hovhannisyan, former chairman of the Armenian parliament, said Armenia did not have to decommission the plant despite the pledge made to the European Union. Hovhannisyan also pointed out that “a shutdown may be possible under certain conditions.” According to Hovhannisyan, the EU first had to support the gas pipeline between Armenia and Iran, which was under construction. The other condition was ensuring that Azerbaijan and Turkey end the embargo against Armenia and reopen borders. In other words, Armenia has been using Metsamor for blackmailing and makes claims which are not related to the power plant.

As the whole world expects Armenia to shut down the Metsamor Nuclear Power Plant, Armenia has a new nuclear power plant on its agenda. Energy Regulatory Commission at the Armenian Prime Minister’s Office is currently holding a consultation process for building a new nuclear power plant. According to the commission, a new power plant will cost $600-700 million if the Russian technology is used. The costs will be well above $1 billion if the plant is built with Western technology.

According to reports quoting former Armenian Minister of Energy Gagik Martirosyan, the new power plant will be built near Metsamor, which is close to the Turkish border and located in a seismic zone. Metsamor Power Plant became the first nuclear power plant in the world which was reopened after being decommissioned for some time. This leads to questions about its durability.

Armenian writer Tigranyan says that nobody has so far understood why a nuclear power plant that poses a big threat for the whole region has been built in Armenia despite the rich oil and gas resources in the Caucasus.

A Nuclear Power Plant in a Seismic Region

The power plant was shut down in 1988 after the earthquake in Spitak region in Armenia, which killed 25,000 people. Although the facility became a risk for Armenia and other countries in the region, including Turkey, as it would not survive another earthquake, the second block was recommissioned in 1996.

 

Spitak earthquake (c) kpi.ua

During the construction of the Metsamor Nuclear Power Plant, Soviet scientists, despite the oppressive regime, opposed the project because it was located on a fault line. Similarly, they emphasized the risk of radioactive leakage into underground water sources. However, the Soviet bureaucracy, which was based on central planning without any consideration of the value of human life, turned a blind eye to these scientists and went on with the project. The oldest methods of power plant construction were used. Metsamor Nuclear Power Plant also poses a risk because it is located in a first-degree seismic zone: Armenia saw a major earthquake in 1988 which killed thousands of people, and the Metsamor power plant, due to significant damage, was decommissioned for a long time. However, after the war with Azerbaijan which started when Armenia occupied Azerbaijan’s lands, the government had to reopen the facility due to impoverishment and the increasing demand for energy. Thus, the Metsamor Nuclear Power Plant, which poses a disaster risk for the whole region, was recommissioned in 1995.

The facility saw major damage after the Spitak earthquake on December 7, 1988 but kept working in that condition for 3 more months. Upon the protests by the local people, it was shut down in January 1989, three months after the earthquake. The first block, which was heavily damaged, could not be repaired despite all efforts. The second block, however, was reopened in 1995 although it still bore traces of the devastating impact of the earthquake.

The power plant is located in Garni area in Armenia, which is on an active seismic line. According to Armenian National Survey for Seismic Protection, the area has a potential for earthquakes with a magnitude of 5.5 and 7.5. Although Armenian officials claim that the power plant can resist bigger earthquakes, nobody actually knows the seismic proofing of this old-technology facility, which remained closed for 6 years due to the damages of the earthquake of 1988.

How to Protect Against Nuclear Accidents?

In the event of a possible earthquake or any other major incident at the Metsamor Nuclear Power Plant, it is almost certain that Turkey and other countries in the region will be affected. However, in the event of minor accidents or radioactive leakage, the following actions must be taken:

As is well known, the impact of a nuclear incident may vary depending on the distance. Metsamor Nuclear Power Plant is located at only 16 kilometers to the Turkish border. Various formulations are used simultaneously to calculate potential consequences. Starting with the development process of the accident, the amount of radioactive material that may be released is calculated. The movement of radioactive clouds is simulated according to meteorological parameters using atmospheric distribution models. Radioactive materials may be accumulated in the air or soil depending on precipitation, wind and other weather conditions. In conclusion, the accumulation of radioactive materials and its impact on environment and human health can be calculated for the areas which are exposed to radioactive clouds.

If, at the time of the incident, the winds blow in the direction of Turkey or another highly-populated area, millions of people can be exposed to radioactive materials. In that case, people should immediately go indoors and seal their windows with nylon sheets. All ventilation systems must be turned off. Fruits or vegetables grown in the impact zone should not be eaten. All animals in pastures or rural areas should be taken indoor areas and fed with fodder. Citizens should wait for officials’ instructions to decide whether to stay indoors or to go outdoors. If the authorities become aware of the leakage within the first 6-7 hours, they should hand out iodine tablets to citizens. The risk of cancer may be reduced if absorption of radioactive ions in the thyroid gland is prevented. These are the actions that must be taken in the first few days following a disaster. Radiation levels must be measured in water and soil. Of course, these actions are only useful against minor leaks. In the event of a major accident at Metsamor which may happen after a strong earthquake, the people in the area would not have anything to do but say their last prayers.

‘Flying Atomic Bomb’

As Armenia failed to pay for the uranium it bought from Russia, the shares of Metsamor were transferred to RAO EES company in 2003 against Armenia’s $40-million debt. Armenia is in a state of war with Azerbaijan, and the railroads and highways that connect Armenia to Russia via Georgia are closed. Therefore, the nuclear fuel for Metsamor is transported from Russia to Armenia via air cargo. Aircrafts carrying uranium land in civilian airports in Armenia.

In their statements, members of the EU delegation have noted that transportation of nuclear fuel via airways is extremely concerning, and even described it as the “flying atomic bomb.” However, the Armenian officials disagree with this idea, and do not see any danger in this transportation method. They also emphasize that the responsibility for transportation of uranium completely lies with Russia.

Looking at Metsamor from a Military Perspective

Today, some countries oppose Iran’s nuclear program mainly because of the probability that Iran may one day acquire nuclear weapons. Therefore, the US and Israel openly state that they will by all means prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. However, there is one point that is ignored. Armenia may also develop an atomic bomb at the Metsamor Nuclear Power Plant.

Several terrorist groups have declared a desire to acquire nuclear material to construct a “dirty bomb.”
Image: REUTERS/Benoit Tessier

Furthermore, terrorist organizations may get their hands on enriched uranium in Armenia by raiding these facilities or using other methods.

Therefore, the nuclear power plant in Armenia poses a danger for regional and global security, particularly for Turkey and Azerbaijan, as it creates a risk of nuclear weapons in addition to disaster risks. Armenia would be the most easy-to-access source for enriched uranium for groups which plan terrorist attacks against the US.

EU Policies on Decommissioning Metsamor

When Armenia became a member to the European Commission on January 25, 2001, it accepted the precondition that the Metsamor Nuclear Power Plant will be shut down. However, despite this commitment, Armenia has not taken any action to do so. To the contrary, Armenia took steps to further increase the electricity generation capacity of the power plant on the grounds that it has problems in responding to domestic demand for electricity. The European Union agreed to grant €100 million to Armenia to address its energy problems and start infrastructure projects to solve these issues after the decommissioning of Metsamor. However, Armenia said this amount would not be enough and requested €1 billion from the EU. Brussels, after seeing insufficient action on the Armenian side, suspended the payment of €100 million.

In an interview with the Space Daily magazine on March 6, 2002, Timothy Marschall Jones, former ambassador of the UK to Yerevan said “In the event of an earthquake, the Metsamor Nuclear Power Plant will be shattered to pieces and all living things around it will die because of the resulting nuclear disaster. Armenia must fulfil its commitment and shut down the power plant.”

Paulo Adrea Trabalza, former Italian ambassador to Yerevan, also said nobody living in the region would survive an earthquake near Metsamor.

Armenia’s former president Serzh Sarkisyan said the only country supporting Armenia’s nuclear agenda was Russia, and indirectly admitted that the whole world was against the operation of this power plant. That is because, indeed, the Metsamor Nuclear Power Plant is the shared problem of all countries of the region and the whole world.

Armenian People Also Protest Metsamor

Akop Sanarasyan, the leader of the Green Movement in Armenia, says that Metsamor Nuclear Power Plant is extremely damaging for the environment. Unlike the Armenian government, which argues that the facility can remain operational for 14 years more, Sanarasyan says the power plant should not remain open for even one year more. Sanarasyan points out that Green movements in the West, environmental organizations and many experts also agree with him. Contrary to the environmental activists in the West, Sanarasyan cannot take any action to shut down the facility because of the anti-democratic atmosphere in Armenia.

Impact of Metsamor on Turkey

According to studies conducted with people who were affected by the nuclear bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, people who are exposed to radiation go through discreet stages of disease, the consequences of which often emerge 5 to 30 years later. As a matter of fact, the impact of the Chernobyl disaster on the people living in Eastern Black Sea region in Turkey were only seen 18 years after the incident. Today, nobody knows to which extent the people in the area have been exposed to the leaks at Metsamor Nuclear Power Plant.

Although there have not been any studies, the observations in the regions reveal significant loss of vegetation near the border areas, and increased birth defects in animals. The rates of cancer, birth defects and stillbirth have increased among people as well. These are clearly related to the activities at the Metsamor Nuclear Power Plant. As mentioned above, the power plant has exceeded the minimum term of 5 years after which the impact on humans can be seen. It is expected that the health problems listed above will common in the region, and the incidence rate of diseases will be increased.

The leaks are not the only damage brought by the Metsamor Nuclear Power Plant. An accident, an earthquake or an explosion may happen at any time. In that case, the eastern and southeastern parts of Turkey may be seriously affected. The city of Iğdır, which is the nearest settlement to the power plant, may be completely erased from the face of the earth. This may also mean the end of the people living in Armenia. Therefore, it is important that the people and non-governmental organizations in Armenia join the efforts to shut down this power plant.

There have not been any studies analyzing the impact of Metsamor Nuclear Power Plant across all these years. However, researchers should not wait for the government to take action. Of course, all institutions and bodies of the state should initiate necessary surveys to understand the extent of any damage. But the people living in the region also have an important role to play. They should make sure that all diseases, cancer cases, birth defects and stillbirths in their areas are reported to relevant authorities. Farmers and peasants should take photos of any changes in the vegetation, the abnormalities in newborn animals and share these with government bodies. These documents will be very important to offer evidence for the cases which will be filed at the European Court of Human Rights in the future.

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