By Atom Markarian
The United States has serious misgivings about the Armenian government’s ambitious plans to build a new nuclear power station in place of the aging Metsamor plant, a senior State Department official said on Tuesday.
Tom Adams, who coordinates U.S. government assistance to former Soviet republics, expressed Washington’s position on the issue after attending a regular session in Yerevan of the U.S.-Armenian economic “task force.” The inter-governmental body is co-chaired by Adams and Armenian Finance and Economy Minister Vartan Khachatrian.
Armenia’s energy security was high on the agenda of the one-day meeting, with Khachatrian saying that the Armenian side discussed with its U.S. counterparts Yerevan’s intention to replace Metsamor by a more modern and powerful nuclear plant. “The ideal option in our [energy] strategy would be to launch the new facility on the day that the existing reactor will stop operating,” he told a joint news conference with Adams and John Evans, the U.S. ambassador in Yerevan.
Metsamor, which generates nearly 40 percent of Armenia’s electricity, is expected to be decommissioned by 2016. The Armenian government has refused to close it down much earlier despite pressure from the U.S. and the European Union which say the plant’s sole operating reactor is too old and unsafe. The government also insists that continued reliance on atomic power is vital for Armenia’s energy security.
But Adams noted that the mountainous country is located in a seismically active zone which poses serious safety risks. “I think our view right now is that there are probably better alternatives to a second nuclear plant [in Armenia],” he said. “Especially given the geology here, the earthquake zone, it might be better to come up with an alternative to a second nuclear power plant.”
“Right now, we are leaning against that option,” he added.
However, another, more high-ranking U.S. official, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza, appeared more supportive of the idea when he visited Yerevan in early March. Bryza noted that a “new generation of nuclear power” is one of potential ways of ensuring Armenia’s energy security. The issue featured large during his talks with senior Armenian officials.
Building a new nuclear facility would cost Armenia at least $1 billion, a sum worth its cash-strapped government’s budget for this year. The government admits it can not put the ambitious project put into practice without external financial support, saying that it is already looking for potential foreign investors.
According to Adams, Yerevan will have trouble finding such investors in the U.S. “I don’t think an American firm would be building a nuclear power plant here,” he said.
(Khachatrian, right, and Adams speaking at the news conference.)