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The operating room of the Metsamor Nuclear Power Plant in Armenia.

Operators check functions inside the control room of Armenia's Metsamor Nuclear Power Plant in this 2005 photograph. Armenia has decided to keep the facility operating until at least 2019, when a new reactor is due to come on line.

Photograph by Justyna Mielnikiewicz, Getty Images

Josie Garthwaite

For National Geographic News

Published May 8, 2012

While Japan is now trying to run its economy without nuclear energy for the first time since 1970, the post-Fukushima world's continued dependence on atomic power is probably best illustrated on the other side of Asia.

Armenia is vowing to keep its one nuclear reactor running, despite international pressure to close the 32-year-old Soviet-designed plant, which sits in a broad seismic zone that stretches from Turkey to the Arabian Sea. One of the world's last remaining nuclear reactors without a primary containment structure, Metsamor is now slated to continue operating for as long as four years beyond its original 2016 retirement date. Armenia has postponed shutdown until a delayed new reactor comes online, no earlier than 2019 or 2020.

(Related: "Is Armenia's Nuclear Plant the World's Most Dangerous?")

The April decision comes at a pivotal time for nuclear energy. Some nations are backing away from nuclear power in the wake of last year's earthquake-and-tsunami-triggered Fukushima Daiichi accident. Nowhere is that more apparent than in Japan itself, where a series of local decisions led to the shutdown, as of this past weekend, of all 54 reactors, once the source of one-third of the nation's power. Germany and Switzerland have set timetables for phasing out their nuclear plants. And France, which derives 80 percent of its electricity from nuclear power, has elected a new president, Socialist Francois Hollande, who favors reduced nuclear dependence and closure of the nation's oldest reactor, Fessenheim, located in a seismic zone on the Rhine River.

(Related: "Pictures: Top Ten Nuclear Nations' Quake Hazard")

(Related: "One Year After Fukushima, Japan Faces Shortage of Energy, Trust")

But nuclear energy provided 13 percent of the world's electricity in 2010, and that amount of power cannot be replaced quickly or cheaply. In Bulgaria, where licenses for two Soviet-designed reactors at the Kozloduy plant are set to expire in 2017 and 2019, 20-year extensions are under review. The United States, world leader in nuclear generation, also leads the world in coaxing more life out of nuclear reactors, having approved 20-year extensions for as many as 71 licenses. In Armenia, there is strong political will to build a new nuclear reactor, but the financing and construction of new state-of-the-art facilities here and elsewhere is slow. The obvious choice, in many nations, is to keep the old plants running.

(Related: World Electricity Mix Interactive)

Chris Earls, director of safety-focused regulation for the Nuclear Energy Institute, which represents the U.S. nuclear industry, sums up the advantages succinctly:

"Once plants are built and operating, they're a very cheap source of reliable power."

Unique Reliance

Perhaps no country relies more heavily on a single reactor, in a more tenuous situation, than the former Soviet state of Armenia in West Asia. Supplying more than 40 percent of the country's electricity, the Metsamor reactor stands in a region prone to earthquakes, close to farmland and population centers. The landlocked nation's energy alternatives are limited by blockades and tense relations on its borders with Azerbaijan and Turkey. Metsamor is just 20 miles (36 kilometers) from the Armenian capital, Yerevan, and 10 miles (16 kilometers) from the Turkish border.

Metsamor is one of just 16 nuclear plants still operating in the world that were built without a primary containment structure, all of them Soviet-designed. The pressurized-water reactor has undergone hundreds of safety upgrades since the devastating 6.8-magnitude Spitak earthquake in 1988 killed 25,000 Armenians and left 500,000 homeless. Some 60 miles (100 kilometers) from the epicenter, Metsamor's two reactors were undamaged. But one reactor was closed for 6.5 years, while a slightly older sister reactor was never restarted and is now being decommissioned.

Safety improvements have not quelled all concern about Metsamor, however, and Armenia has faced international pressure—and collected aid from the United States and Europe—to close the Metsamor plant by 2016. After Armenia reneged on a deal to close the plant in 2004, an EU representative called the plant "a danger to the entire region," not only because of the high seismic risk but also because nuclear fuel was flown to the landlocked country's civilian airport, rather than being delivered by sea or rail. In 2006, Armenia adopted an action plan with the European Union in which it agreed to set an early closure date and "deal with the consequences of an early closure," in part by developing hydropower, energy efficiency, and renewable energy resources.

Pressure to retire the Metsamor reactor before 2016 has only intensified in the year since the earthquake and tsunami that triggered the crisis at Fukushima in Japan. Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan has insisted that the Metsamor reactor is safe, and that it must continue operating until a new reactor starts up.

The estimated $5 billion construction project, a joint venture with Russia, was supposed to begin this year, but it has taken longer than anticipated to raise financing. It wasn't until early this year that Russia agreed to finance 50 percent of the project.

The decisions that Armenia and other nations now face on nuclear power are a simple function of the age of most of the 436 nuclear power reactors now operating in the world. In the United States, which only this year licensed construction of its first new nuclear power plant in 30 years, nuclear plants were typically licensed (and designed) for 40 years. The Soviet plants were generally designed for 30 years.

(Related: "Nuclear Generation Capacity Drops in 2011")

Aging plants are not inherently dangerous, Earls said. "It's good practice to make things better over time. But it doesn't make sense to retire an older plant before its time just because there's a new widget out there that might make things better," he said. In general, he added, "We should not assume that just because a plant is older, it's not safe. It is, if it's maintained properly."

(Related: "Ten Oldest U.S. Nuclear Plants-Post-Japan Risks")

The United States, which generates more nuclear energy than any other country and relies on it for 20 percent of its power, has never rejected a nuclear license renewal application outright. According to Earls, as many as 15 more applications are under review, and 17 additional plants intend to submit applications. "Over the next two to three years, there's going to be a huge bow wave of plants entering this extended period of operation," he said. And the industry is already looking ahead to a second extension of those licenses to keep the reactors operating past 2029.

Stress Tests

Proper maintenance and monitoring, with a view to the long term, is key. The decision to tack a few years onto the Metsamor reactor's lifetime at this late stage could itself be cause for concern. "I would be interested to know the mindset of the people who are operating the plant," Earls said. If operators think, "We're going to be shut down next year. We can safely maintain to that point," he said, some of the maintenance and improvements that would be necessary to extend the life of the plant may fall by the wayside.

In an effort to ensure safety and security, Armenia agreed last June (along with six other countries that neighbor the EU) to conduct "stress tests" at the Metsamor plant and submit to a transparent peer-review process similar to those planned for nuclear reactors throughout Europe.

Documented in public reports with a common structure for apples-to-apples comparison, the tests are meant to help regulators reassess risk and safety margins in extreme (and, pre-Fukushima, largely unexpected) scenarios caused by natural disasters or human action.

Switzerland and Ukraine are the only non-EU countries that have been fully integrated into the stress test and peer-review process. According to a European Commission spokesperson, Armenia is currently receiving assistance from the EU to carry out stress tests at Metsamor, and a national report could be ready by the end of this year or early 2013.

As with many nuclear projects, the stress tests have taken longer than anticipated. Last week, EU Energy Commissioner Günther Oettinger told reporters the European Commission will issue a final report on the results no earlier than the fall, rather than next month, as previously scheduled. Multinational inspection teams had visited only 38 of 147 reactors in the EU as of March 2012. But in this case, Oettinger said in a statement, it is not time that is of the essence. "EU citizens have the right to know and understand how safe the nuclear power plants are they live close to. Soundness is more important than timing."

This story is part of a special series that explores energy issues. For more, visit The Great Energy Challenge.

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