By Armen Zakarian and Emil Danielyan
The Armenian government will set a date for shutting down the nuclear power station in Metsamor after a major international inspection of its operational safety next year, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
IAEA officials have also denied Azerbaijani allegations that radioactive waste from the facility is buried in the Armenian-occupied Azerbaijani territories around Nagorno-Karabakh.
"The government will determine a closure date based on a safety evaluation of the plant that will be performed by the IAEA next year," Massoud Samiei, head of the European department at the Vienna-based global nuclear watchdog, told RFE/RL in an interview over the weekend.
Samiei said IAEA inspectors will assess implementation of measures which they had suggested for boosting the safety of the Metsamor plant's only operating reactor. "A number of our recommendations already have been implemented, especially those concerning seismic issues. Our report next year will identify if there are measures still remaining to be implemented," he said.
The IAEA has regularly inspected Metsamor ever since its re-activation in 1995 and has so far not reported serious violations of safety standards. Samiei, who was in Yerevan to attend a UN-sponsored international seminar on nuclear security last week, said the agency has had "a great deal of understanding" with the Armenian authorities.
"They are very serious in taking safety measures. There has been no occasion of conflict between us and the authorities; they have been very cooperative," the IAEA official said.
The Armenian government has made it clear that it will scrap an earlier tentative agreement with the European Union to decommission Metsamor in 2004, citing a lack of funds to substitute for relatively cheap atomic energy which produces about 40 the country's electricity. The Energy Ministry maintains that the plant is safe enough to continue to operate for at least ten more years.
The EU's technical and financial assistance has been essential for the safe functioning of the plant. Last year alone, the European Commission, the EU executive body, allocated 10 million euros for that purpose.
Metsamor's VVER 440-V230 pressurized light water-cooled reactor was designed in the early 1970s and is thought to fall short of Western safety standards. The EU has classified it into the "oldest and least reliable" category of all 66 Soviet reactors built in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.
Bulgaria and Slovakia have respectively four and two operating VVER 440-V230s, the decommissioning of which is one of the conditions for their membership of the EU.
Both Samiei and another senior IAEA official attending the Yerevan seminar, Jozef Zlatnansky, denied Azerbaijan's claims that Armenia has illegally transported spent nuclear fuel from Metsamor to the occupied Azerbaijani lands. "All the spent fuel is kept within the territory of the plant," Samiei said. "This has been verified by IAEA inspections. We have no evidence that any radioactive material has been moved elsewhere."
According to Zlatnansky, the Azerbaijani government has raised the issue with the IAEA, but could not substantiate its allegations. "We are ready to arrange a meeting between Armenian and Azerbaijani officials to sort out the problem," he said.
Metsamor has a modern storage facility for radioactive waste, which was built four years ago by Framatome ANP, the French-German nuclear energy giant. Its multimillion-dollar construction was funded by the EU.