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Map showing Metsamor nuclear power plant in Armenia

The Metsamor nuclear power plant is only 20 miles (36 kilometers) from Armenia's capital and most populous city. Its location in a seismic zone has drawn renewed attention since Japan's nuclear crisis.

National Geographic

Published April 11, 2011

Lack of Containment

But the VVER 440s share one characteristic with Chernobyl that has been a continuing concern to many who live nearby: They have no containment structure.

Instead, VVER 440s rely on an "accident localization system," designed to handle small ruptures. In the event of a large rupture, the system would vent directly to the atmosphere. "They cannot cope with large primary circuit breaks," the NEI's 1997 Source Book on Soviet nuclear plants concluded. "As with most Soviet-designed plants, electricity production by the VVER-440 Model V230s came at the expense of safety."

Antonia Wenisch of the Austrian Institute of Applied Ecology in Vienna, calls Metsamor "among the most dangerous" nuclear plants still in operation. A rupture "would almost certainly immediately and massively fail the confinement," she said in an email. "From that point, there is an open reactor building, a core with no water in it, and accident progression with no mitigation at all."

Despite the upgrades to the plant, she said, "the overall safety has not improved sufficiently." She points to Armenia's own most recent report for the international convention on nuclear safety, which estimates the risk of "core damage frequency" to be nearly two incidents every 10,000 years. She said that number should be less than one. The average risk at U.S. nuclear power plants is 2 such incidents every 50,000 years, according to a report by the U.S. Electric Power Research Institute.

Over the past decade, the European Union, living in close proximity to the old Soviet plants, used leverage where it could to get some of them shuttered. Four VVER 440 units in Bulgaria and two in Slovakia were closed as a condition of those countries joining the European Union.

But four of the units remain in operation in Russia—two in the northern city of Murmansk, on the Kola Peninsula near the Barents Sea, and two at Novovoronezh, in the Voronezh region in the west (the area of last summer's devastating Russian forest fires). Metsamor is the only VVER 440, Model 230, operating outside of Russia.

(Related: "Wildfire Pictures—Russia Burns, Moscow Chokes")

Since it failed to persuade Armenia to close the plant, the EU has focused on providing aid for improving its safety, spending more than 59 million euros ($85 million) on such projects as well as for renewable energy, and regional energy cooperation efforts.

Armenia has made efforts to obtain other sources of fuel, such as a natural gas pipeline from its southern neighbor Iran, which opened in 2007. But the amount of fuel to be imported remains in question. The conduit poses potential competition to Russia, a country on which Armenia remains highly reliant, for everything from nuclear fuel to grain. A U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID)-funded study concluded that a new nuclear plant was Armenia's lowest-cost energy option.

Plans for the Future

Armenia intends to break ground on a $5 billion reactor project next year—a larger, and more advanced Russian VVER 1000. The government is going forward with a conference late this month to seek help from potential investors and engineering contractors. The planned reactor would have a containment vessel, but it would be located in the same seismic area as the current Metsamor plant.

Hakob Sanasaryan, a chemist who is chairman of the Greens Union of Armenia, says that although he believes the Metsamor reactor's old design makes it less safe than newer plants, it is the location that is his greatest concern.

Speaking by telephone through an interpreter, he said his group opposes the plan to build a new plant at a place of such high seismic hazard, within Armenia's prime agricultural region, and so close to the country's most populous city. If the government were to reconsider that project in the wake of Japan's crisis, Sanasaryan said, it would be "the only good thing that might possibly come out of these tragic events."

Sanasaryan would like to see Armenia further develop its hydroelectric resources, or more thermal energy from geothermal sources or natural gas. He also has great hope for the country's solar energy potential. "We have existing infrastructure," he says. "If it were exploited better, it could satisfy Armenia's energy needs."

But another Armenian environmentalist, Karine Danielyan, president of Armenia's Association for Sustainable Human Development, laments that there has been insufficient effort over the past 15 years to create a renewable energy base. Danielyan, a former Armenian environment minister, wrote in an email that she is keenly aware of the harm that resulted from the energy shortages during Metsamor's closure. In addition to increased mortality due to the cold, deforestation accelerated rapidly as citizens scavenged for wood to heat their homes. The sharp increase of water flow to ramp up hydroelectricity caused severe stress to the nation's largest lake, Lake Sevan, where efforts at ecological restoration are a continuing battle.

Although she calls herself "an opponent of nuclear power engineering," Danielyan said she was compelled to join the call to improve safety at Metsamor and restart the plant in 1995. Now, she says, the country faces the need to construct another nuclear plant. "Unfortunately, now Armenia has not another alternative," she says.

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