By Astghik Bedevian
The Armenian government’s proposal to scrap its legal monopoly on nuclear energy met with fierce resistance in parliament Tuesday, with many lawmakers suspecting that the move is a prelude to a Russian takeover of the Metsamor nuclear plant.
Ministers asked the National Assembly this week to remove a relevant clause from Armenia’s law on energy on the grounds that it prevents them from looking for private and foreign investors who would finance the construction of a new nuclear plant after Metsamor’s eventual decommissioning. Deputy Energy Minister Areg Galstian reaffirmed the government’s stated intention to press ahead with the extremely ambitious project that require cost hundreds of millions of dollars in funding.
However, deputies representing several parliament factions, including speaker Artur Baghdasarian, fear that this is only a smokescreen for Metsamor’s formal sale to Russia’s state-run energy giants. One of them, Unified Energy Systems (UES), already assumed the plant’s financial management in 2003 in return for repaying its debts to Russian suppliers of nuclear fuel.
“When you find a company willing to invest $1 billion in a new nuclear plant the National Assembly of the Republic of Armenia will be ready to gather and consider the matter,” an irritated Baghdasarian told Galstian during the debate.
“We can’t push this through hastily. We have one nuclear plant and it is extremely important for our nation, economy and energy. Should we change the law so that tomorrow some offshore companies can get hold of it?” he added in a thinly veiled reference to the controversial takeover of Armenia’s power distribution network by an obscure UES subsidiary.
“This would create a temptation for different countries to exert pressure on us,” deputy speaker Tigran Torosian said, apparently hinting at Russia.
Galstian tried in vain to dispel such concerns, assuring lawmakers that his government simply wants to pave the way for negotiations with foreign “states that have the technology to participate in the project.”
“Mr. Galstian, who bans you from negotiating?” Baghdasarian snapped, interrupting the government official. “You can negotiate as soon as you get an offer.”
Also rejecting the proposed abolition of the legal provision giving the Armenian government the exclusive right to own domestic nuclear facilities were representatives of the parliament’s opposition minority and the People’s Deputy group of independents. “Who will let us build a new nuclear plant in the first place?” argued Vahram Baghdasarian, the People’s Deputy secretary.
The European Union and the United States have long been pushing for Metsamor’s closure, saying that its sole operating reactor is inherently unsafe and located in a seismically active area. They are highly unlikely to support the idea of building a new Armenian nuclear plant in the future.
The National Assembly is scheduled to vote on the government’s proposal on Wednesday. Of all the parliament factions only the Republican Party (HHK) of Prime Minister Andranik Markarian seems to have tacitly back it so far. The HHK faction, though the largest in parliament, controls less than 50 seats in the 131-member legislature.