By Atom Markarian
The reactivation of the nuclear power station in Metsamor, which has stood idle for more than a month, has been postponed due to unexpected snags in the planned supplies of Russian nuclear fuel, President Robert Kocharian said on Tuesday.
Kocharian said Armenian and Russian energy officials are still sorting out problems related to Armenia’s payment for the fresh and past fuel deliveries. But he predicted that the ongoing negotiations will end in an agreement “in a few days.”
The Metsamor plant’s only operating reactor, which generates about 40 percent of Armenia’s electricity, was brought to a halt for regular maintenance and refueling on October 19 and was due to be relaunched this Tuesday. The delay suggests that the Russian government is seeking additional payment guarantees from Yerevan.
The Armenian Energy Ministry needs a total of about $39 million to pay for Metsamor’s partial refueling and settle its outstanding nuclear debts. The government, unable to raise those funds, agreed last September to provide a corresponding volume of electricity to RosEnergoAtom, the Russian nuclear operator. It is not clear though whether RosEnergoAtom will export it or resell it to the Armenian power grid operator.
With the refueling process requiring at least two weeks, Metsamor’s reactivation is thus highly unlikely before December 20. This will mean additional losses for the Armenian energy sector which is currently using the less cost-efficient thermal power plants as a substitute for relatively cheap nuclear energy.
Kocharian made the announcement at the annual session of the Council on Atomic Energy Security, a panel of nuclear experts from 17 different states advising the Armenian government. The council, which was set up in 1996, is headed by Adolf Bierkhoffer, a leading German nuclear scientist.
Speaking at the meeting, Kocharian said the authorities are continuing to boost Metsamor’s safety and have become even more vigilant since the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States. He said additional security measures are currently implemented at the Soviet-era nuclear facility with U.S. government assistance.
The plant’s director, Gagik Markosian, again claimed that Metsamor meets international safety standards despite occasional “deviations.” The ensued discussions were held behind closed doors.
The European Union regards Metsamor’s VVER 440-V230 reactor as one of the “oldest and least reliable” of 66 such facilities built in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. The EU has for years been pushing for its decommissioning.
Officials from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) told RFE/RL in late October that the Armenian government will set a final date for the plant’s closure after a major international inspection of its operational safety by the IAEA next year. Massoud Samiei, head of the European department at the Vienna-based global nuclear watchdog, said the government has been “very serious in taking safety measures” and has fully cooperated with the IAEA.