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Exclusive Interview: Major Threat from Armenia: Metsamor Nuclear Power Plant

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Metsamor Nuclear Power Plant, located within the borders of Armenia and 16 km away from Turkey, poses a serious threat not only for Turkey but also for all the countries in the region.
The power plant in question also poses high risks for the environment. Despite its expiration date, the power plant is still operated by Armenia. The Yerevan administration, on the other side, has ignored criticisms directed at it about the power plant. In this context, Mehmet Akif Ersoy University Faculty Member Assoc. Dr Esma Özdaşlı’s views are presented to your attention to deeply analyzing historical, legal, political and environmental dimensions of the given topic by Ankara Center for Crisis and Policy Studies (ANKASAM).

Metsamor Nuclear Power Plant, which continues to be used despite its expiration date, poses a major threat primarily to Turkey and Azerbaijan; then for Russia, Georgia, Iran and Kazakhstan. Why does Armenia proceed to the utilization of power plant despite this situation?

Metsamor Nuclear Power Plant, which has been shown as the most dangerous and unsafe nuclear power plant in the world by many international organizations that are experts in the field, has had many serious accidents since its construction. Especially after the Spitak earthquake with a magnitude of 6.9 that occurred in 1988, the security threat caused and possible by Metsamor became much clearer. Although the plant is located at a distance of approximately 100 km from Spitak, the reactor was badly damaged and was shut down in 1989 on the grounds of “seismic vulnerability”. In fact, the uranium in the first reactor was left unprotected within the reactor. Although leading intellectuals and environmental volunteers of Armenia at that time stated that the Metsamor Nuclear Power Plant was a great threat to both human health and the natural environment, Metsamor-2 was reactivated for economic reasons within the framework of the agreement signed with Russia in 1994 without taking any security precautions.

The risks arising from Metsamor are not limited to this. Metsamor Nuclear Power Plant, which was built with the oldest Russian technology like Chernobyl and is shown as the most dangerous power plant remaining from the Soviet era, also lacks many safeties and technical equipment such as being on the Mount Ararat fault line, the inadequacy of the water used for cooling the reactor and the absence of a protection basin to preserve its nuclear fuel. Essentially, the biggest problem with the Metsamor Nuclear Power Plant is that there is some deficiency in announcing this threat to the world. Let’s assume that such a killing power plant is in the middle of Europe and it threatens European countries in the first degree. Which European country do you think would accept this?

Certainly, if the power plant, which is such a great source of danger, was in Europe, at least the whole world would be aware of it and it would be putting pressure on the relevant state. However, when it comes to Armenia and the countries affected by this power plant are Azerbaijan and Turkey, the double standard of the Westerners immediately comes insight. Western countries, which do not impose any sanctions on Armenia in this regard, only criticize Armenia, the spoiled child of the Caucasus, with hoarse voices.

At this point, can we say that Turkey and Azerbaijan have a great responsibility for the aforementioned issue?

Absolutely! Turkey and Azerbaijan have fallen to great responsibilities. As Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev has stated, since “one nation cannot have two diasporas”, the lobbying activities of Turkey and Azerbaijan in the international arena should be carried out jointly, and the cooperation between the two countries should be activated immediately and very effectively on the issue of Metsamor. Not only at the level of states; with stable public diplomacy, the attention of the international public and environmental organizations should be directed to the danger caused or may be caused by the Metsamor Nuclear Power Plant. This lobbying activity shows that the threat is not only valid for Turkey and Azerbaijan, but any accident that may occur at the power plant will also affect all surrounding states, as in the Chernobyl example; even, since the wastewater used in the cooling of the reactor is transported to the Caspian Sea through the Aras River, it should be put forward that Metsamor poses a serious risk for all the countries bordering the Caspian. In this process, come into with the environmental organizations in countries that may be affected by the hazards originating from Metsamor may also contribute to more effective pressure. Metsamor has the same technology as Chernobyl and the accident that occurred in Chernobyl is not only for Ukraine; the fact that it also damages the surrounding countries in a wide area will facilitate the understanding of the countries of the region of the threat that an accident that may occur in Metsamor.

The effects of the nuclear accident that occurred in Chernobyl in 1986, which caused the death of nearly 40 thousand people and the injury of thousands, continues in many countries, including Turkey. Therefore, a nuclear accident to occur in any country is not only harm the power plant owner state; it will also affect the surrounding countries that cannot provide any economic benefit from the power plant. Scientific researches show that the side effects of nuclear power plants on humans and the environment occur between 5 and 30 years. Still, according to researches, the effect of Chernobyl on the Eastern Black Sea was clearly seen approximately 20 years later. For this reason, although the damage caused by Metsamor to Iğdır and its surroundings is not clear, it has been observed that negative developments such as the increase in cancer cases, drying of the vegetation, decrease in productivity, and the increase in the rate of birth of disabled animals in the vicinity of the border cause serious concerns to the people of the region. Similarly, the spillage of the wastewater used in the cooling of the reactor into the Aras River also raises the public’s concerns.

Despite all the risks it carries, it was announced that the power plant, which was planned to be maintained with an agreement signed with Russia in 2015, would be extended for another 11 years. While it is obvious that Russia will be adversely affected in a possible explosion; why did Moscow accept such an agreement?

According to the agreement between Russia and Armenia regarding Metsamor, the Russian company “Rosatom” will be responsible for the general repair and equipment replacement of the nuclear power plant, as well as carry out maintenance and personnel training. Therefore, cooperation with Armenia on Metsamor provides economic income to Russia and increases Armenia’s dependence on Russia. Considering that the power plant meets 40% of the energy that Armenia needs, the influence which Russia will establish in Armenia only through Metsamor can be understood more clearly.

It is known that the nuclear power plant was damaged in the earthquake in 1988 and became active again in 1995. Even if there is no risk of explosion, it is clear that the power plant causes pollution in the region and an increase in cancer cases. Have any concrete measures been taken regarding the damages of the power plant during the Soviet Union and the present time?

In fact, before the collapse of the Soviet Union, especially since the 1980s, reactions began to rise in the society regarding the environmental and health problems caused by the power plant. In fact, on March 31, 1986, hundreds of people, in a letter sent to Mikhail Gorbachev, the leader of the Soviet Union, demanded that the power plant be closed down, stating that Metsamor was causing many problems even before it completed its exposure time. It is clearly stated in the aforementioned letter that the radiation and contaminants from Metsamor caused thousands of Soviet citizens to die “slowly”, and that the accidents so far caused hundreds of people to struggle with various diseases. It was also frankly emphasized in the letter that almost half of the baby births in Yerevan city and the nuclear power plant region resulted in “stillbirth” and it was stated that the power plant should be shut down immediately. In addition, prominent intellectuals and leaders of the independence movement in the independence process of Armenia made attempts to close the power plant after the 1988 Spitak earthquake.

Despite all these scientific data and warnings, neither the Soviet administration nor the rulers of the country after the independence of Armenia made any attempts to permanently close the power plant. Besides after the Spitak earthquake, the power plant was temporarily closed, and at that time, the Soviet administration avoided taking any decision that Metsamor could not be opened again. After such a disaster in which more than 20,000 people lost their lives, the power plant was also severely damaged and even the risk of radioactive leakage emerged. However, even in this atmosphere, a decision on “permanent closure” could not be taken. This reveals the fact that the Soviet administrators and subsequently those who govern Armenia ignore human and environmental values and prevent us from making optimistic forecasts for the future. It should not be forgotten that despite all the advanced technology, radiation leakage occurred at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant, which had an accident after an earthquake in Japan in 2011.

Why does Armenia ignore the criticisms of Metsamor and the pressures to shut down it?

The clearest and simplest answer to this question is economic expectations. As stated before, the fact that Armenia, which could not get rid of the economic issues since its independence in 1991, provides 40% of its energy from Metsamor, is the most important reason for ignoring the criticisms against the power plant despite all the risks. Indeed, by insisting on operating the power plant, Armenia violates the principle of pacta sund servanda in international relations. Because, according to an agreement between Armenia and the European Union (EU) in 1999, it was decided to close the power plant until 2004. In 2001, Armenia became a member of the Council of Europe; agreed that it would close the plant by 2004.

Armenia has struggled with serious economic problems since its independence in 1991 and these problems continue. The increased military expenditures due to the occupation of Azerbaijani lands caused the economy to deteriorate gradually and this situation brought with it more dependence on Russia. After the occupation of Kelbajar in April 1993, the already corrupted Armenian economy became more problematic due to the embargo imposed by Turkey and Azerbaijan. In this process, the inflation rate increased rapidly and the value of the Armenian currency decreased. These hitches also caused the Yerevan administration to use Metsamor as a trump card.

As you mentioned, Metsamor meets about 40% of Armenia’s energy needs. Under these circumstances, how will the closure of the nuclear power plant in question affect Armenia?

The Armenian economy is heavily dependent on Russia. Being poor in terms of underground wealth and geopolitical difficulties caused by the lack of access to the sea can be considered among the most significant obstacles to the development of the Armenian economy. On the other hand, the occupation, which continued for about 30 years, created a serious economic burden for Armenia and increased the country’s economic dependency on Russia. Considering that Armenia is foreign-dependent in terms of energy, the closure of Metsamor will create a serious economic burden. For this reason, Armenia keeps the power plant open despite all manner of dangerousness.

About 400 experts from Belarus, Russia, Slovakia, Ukraine, Croatia, Czechia and other countries will participate in the maintenance work of the Metsamor Nuclear Power Plant, and the power plant will remain closed for 141 days. It is stated that after the modernization, it will be possible to operate the power plant until 2036. First of all, the power plant, which was first opened in 1976, was closed in the 1980s due to the deaths it caused; however, it was reactivated in 1995 when Armenia experienced an energy crisis. Do you think it is possible to modernize the power plant completely, considering that it is a quite old structure and operating entirely due to the energy crisis?

The power plant was built with the oldest Russian technology like Chernobyl and works without modern security and technical equipment. Just like Chernobyl, there is no protection basin to protect its nuclear fuel. This situation increases the danger in case of an earthquake due to the lack of a closed concrete dome to prevent the leakage of radioactive material in a possible accident. Even at the time, the power plant was built, Soviet scientists stated that the design of the power plant was erroneous, however, construction continued. Morris Rosen, Deputy General Manager of Atomic Energy Agency at that time, who examined Metsamor in 1995, also indicated that the architectural design of Metsamor was inaccurate. Therefore, it is not possible to eliminate the architectural and equipment deficiencies of Metsamor, which was built with first-generation Russian technology.

As you know, Antonia Wenisch of the Austrian Institute of Applied Ecology in Vienna, in an article published in National Geographic, described Metsamor as one of the most dangerous nuclear power plants in operation. Considering the efforts to promote green technology today, how can Armenia and Russia’s insistence on Metsamor be explained?

The International Atomic Energy Agency and the EU declared that Metsamor is the most dangerous nuclear power plant in the world. Armenia is a fragile country with an energy-dependent economy. It does not seem possible in the short term to abandon Metsamor, which provides nearly half of its energy, and turn to green technology. Aside from the economic pressure of such a change on Armenia, it is not thought that the Armenian political elites will show a volition in this direction.

What do you think about the allegations that Armenia is selling radioactive waste from Metsamor to Georgia?

In fact, there have been such allegations against Armenia for a long time. There were even arguments that nuclear waste from Metsamor during the occupation period was buried in Karabakh. After the Second Karabakh War, which started on September 27, 2020, and in a short time like 44 days, Azerbaijan liberated its lands from occupation, Azerbaijan quickly started reconstruction activities in the region and started momentous works to eliminate the damage caused by the Armenians to the environment. As the work progresses, it will become clear whether the Armenians buried nuclear waste in Karabakh. We should add that the radiation rates in the region were high in the measurements made by Azerbaijan during the occupation period.

Armenian officials claim that the Soviet-designed Metsamor Nuclear Power Plant from the 1970s can withstand earthquakes up to 8-9 according to the Richter scale. The EU, on the other side, states that the risk of accidents and earthquakes at the plant is very high. What are your thoughts regarding this matter?

While Armenians make such claims; they cannot explain why the power plant was so affected by the 1988 earthquake in Spitak, which is 100 km away from Metsamor. The fact that the power plant was closed 3 months after this earthquake shows that the Soviet administrators were seriously worried at that time. This issue should also be kept in mind: The Garni region, where Metsamor is located, is situated on the Mount Ararat fault line, and it is thorny to predict in advance how a natural disaster, such as an earthquake, which cannot be predicted when and to what extent, will affect Metsamor. As it is known, there are 2 reactors at the Metsamor Nuclear Power Plant. There is no earthquake resistance system in the 1st reactor. The second reactor is known to be earthquake resistant at scale 8.

What is the approach of the West, which is highly sensitive about climate security for a power plant that has such jeopardize?

Western states have been warning Armenia that the power plant is not secured since 1995 when the power plant started operating again. However, these warnings are rather weak considering the dangers that the power plant causes and may cause. Of course, the West’s stance that protects Armenia is effective in this ambivalent attitude. In my opinion, the fact that they are not exposed to the threats originating from Metsamor in the first degree is also effective in not taking more deterrent measures against Armenia. Nevertheless, Western countries, which are distant from Metsamor and the threats it causes, for now, ignore that the radiation emitted from the power plant will have a negative effect on the ecological balance of the whole world in the long run.  It should not be forgotten that the radiation emanating from the power plant operating with the open chimney system spreads depending on the weather conditions.

Can Turkey and the countries in the region file an international lawsuit because of the risks power plants entails? What steps can be taken to mobilize international law and international organizations on this issue, which has a security dimension?

The weak enforcement power of international law regarding the closure of power plants that pose a risk of the accident made it difficult for the countries of the region to exert serious pressure. For this reason, especially the countries of the region have to put more pressure on the international arena to close Metsamor, which has the same technology as Chernobyl, that is caused the death of more than 40,000 people and the disability of thousands.

What do you want to say as of last words?

As a result, the existence of Metsamor, which has all kinds of features that should not be in the standards related to nuclear power plants, poses a serious threat to Azerbaijan, Iran and the whole region, especially Turkey, which is 16 km away from the power plant. It is prominent that Turkey, which is the country that will be most affected by a possible accident, informs both its public and international public opinion more about this threat. At this point, joint action with Azerbaijan will facilitate the establishment of more serious pressure against Armenia.

Özge ELETEK
Özge Eletek 1999 yılında İzmir’de doğdu. İlk ve orta öğretim hayatını İzmir’de tamamlayan Eletek, 2017 yılında Ankara Hacı Bayram Veli Üniversitesi Uluslararası İlişkiler Bölümü’nü kazandı. Çeşitli düşünce kuruluşlarında birçok konferans ve seminere katılan Eletek, Ankara Kriz ve Siyaset Araştırmaları Merkezi’ndeki stajını sürdürmektedir.