By Christian Lowe
YEREVAN, (AFP) - Armenia's ageing Metzamor nuclear power station sits on top of an earthquake zone and, says the European Union (EU), its biggest critic, is a disaster waiting to happen.
But for this tiny republic perched high in the Caucasus mountains, closing down the station is not so easy: without the electricity it generates, officials here say, the lights will go out all over the country.
The disagreement is likely to come to a head in the coming months as the EU's 2004 deadline for decommissioning the reactor looms and Armenia shows no sign of being ready, or even wanting, to comply.
Armenia signed an agreement with the EU back in April 1996 to close Metzamor by 2004, said Timothy Marschall Jones, British ambassador to Armenia and currently the EU's ranking representative in the country.
"We want Armenia to respect its commitments," he said. "There remains a catastrophic risk associated with the plant. ...If a suitably large earthquake hit (the station) in the right way then it could fall apart."
Not so, say Armenian energy officials. Deputy Energy Minister Areg Galstian said the station has been specially designed to be earthquake resistant. That was proven in the devastating 1988 earthquake which hit the nearby city of Spitak, he said. "During the Spitak earthquake the block survived, there were no problems, it continued to work."
Ultimately, though, the issue for Armenians is not whether Metzamor is safe -- they have accepted that it will have to close sooner or later. For them, the question is how will they manage without a nuclear power station which generates 40 percent of the country's electricity.
After the Spitak quake, the government bowed to popular concerns about safety and closed both Metzamor's reactors. But in 1995 they switched one of the reactors back on in response to public fury about power shortages.
Galstian shudders at the memory. "We had only three to four hours of electricity a day and industry was falling apart," he said. "By 1995, we had to decide: do we want to live or die."
Of course, none of it is that simple. As Ambassador Jones points out and Galstian admits, Armenia does have an alternative source of power: gas.
Armenia already generates 40 percent of its electricity from gas-powered fire stations and has the capacity -- with investment in refurbishing gas power stations -- to fill the gap left by Metzamor's closure. The catch for Armenia, which has no fossil fuels of its own and is under economic blockade from its neighbors Azerbaijan and Turkey, is that all the gas has to be imported via a pipeline from Russia.
Fine, when it works. But the pipeline snakes through tough neighborhoods like Chechnya and Georgia, where ethnic Azeris have in the past sabotaged it out of historic hatred for Armenia. In contrast, one plane from Moscow to Yerevan can bring enough fuel rods to keep Metzamor working for six months.
Galstian said: "We are ready to close the atomic energy station in 2004 but we will do it if we have alternative, safe energy sources."
"If we close it in 2004 then we will cover only 20 percent of electricity needs (from hydro-electric power) and the rest we will have to generate with gas from Russia and that is not good for our energy security."
A gas pipeline from Armenia's neighbor to the south, Iran, is held up as the solution. But is has been on the drawing board for years and a date for the start of construction has not been set. The real problem, western observers say privately, is not energy security but a lack of will on the part of Armenia's rulers.
Hakob Sanasarian, President of the Greens' Union of Armenia, agrees. "If they wanted to they could do something by 2004. Most of the time they just talk and talk and that is where it ends."
In the meantime, Armenia's energy officials hint at a desire to build a brand new nuclear power station to replace Metzamor.
"It would be better to have a new nuclear block because who wants to have an old one," mused Galstian. But he quickly back-tracked. "Of course, we are not raising that question."