By Shakeh Avoyan
The nuclear power station at Metsamor was unexpectedly brought to a halt on Friday following what Armenian officials said was an emergency caused by unstable electricity supplies from neighboring Iran. The stoppage coincided with a sharp reduction in daily supplies of Russian natural gas -- an equally important source of energy for Armenia.
The Metsamor director, Gagik Markosian, told RFE/RL that the plant’s automated safety system cut off supplies of nuclear-generated energy to the national power grid and stopped its reactor after detecting dangerous voltage fluctuations on a powerline leading to Iran.
“The circuit frequency was down for a fairly long time and the atomic plant was automatically disconnected from the network,” Markosian said. “Its reactor was halted by our protection system. No safety standards were violated in the process.”
The Armenian Energy Ministry confirmed this version of events. A ministry spokeswoman said the voltage fluctuations caused power outages in some parts of the country.
Armenia and Iran have engaged in a seasonal swap of energy for the past several years. The Iranians deliver their surplus power in winter months and get back a corresponding amount of Armenian electricity during the summer.
According to Markosian, Metsamor’s Soviet-era reactor, which provides about 40 percent of electricity generated in Armenia, was already running low on fuel and would have ground to a halt by April 15 anyway. “It is technically and economically not expedient to relaunch it before refueling,” he said.
Markosian would not say when the Armenian government expects to receive a fresh batch of nuclear fuel from Russia. “Negotiations are still going on,” he said. “If all goes well we will resume our work this summer.”
Metsamor needs $40 million to pay for the new shipment and repay its debts to Russian nuclear operators for past fuel deliveries. The Armenian and Russian government are expected to sign an agreement soon granting the Russians ownership of six Armenian hydro-electric plants and control of Metsamor’s finances.
The Metsamor stoppage is compounded by an unexpected decrease in Russian gas imports. Officials at the ArmRosGazprom gas distributor told RFE/RL that that Russia’s ITERA gas exporter cut its daily supplies to Georgia and Armenia by half on Thursday. A spokeswoman for the company, Shushan Sardarian, blamed the drastic decrease on disagreements between ITERA and Gazprom, its de facto parent company. She said the Russians have promised the Armenian side to restore the normal volume of gas deliveries “in one or two days.”
The Armenian government repaid its remaining debts to ITERA late last year and, according to Sardarian, has not incurred any fresh ones since then.
The Energy Ministry, meanwhile, assured that it will not have to resort to power rationing as a result of the latest emergency. Officials there said Armenia's mountain rivers, swollen by heavy snow and rain in the last two months, allow the hydro-electric plants to offset the deficit.