The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) began a two-week inspection of the nuclear power station at Metsamor on Monday amid renewed domestic and international concerns about its safety fueled by the recent nuclear disaster in Japan.
Armenia’s Ministry of Energy and Natural Resource said a team of IAEA experts from nine countries will closely examine Metsamor’s reactor and other facilities and assess their operational safety in a special report.
It said the inspection will be conducted under the Vienna-based nuclear watchdog’s Operational Safety Review Team (OSART) program, which is designed to help countries guard against nuclear emergencies.
The Armenian government solicited the OSART mission at Metsamor about two months ago, citing the need to learn lessons from the grave accidents at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.
Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian said last week that the government expects the IAEA team to identify “the strong and weak sides of our atomic plant.” “We are ready for that inspection,” he told reporters.
The Soviet-built Metsamor plant, which meets about 40 percent of Armenia’s energy needs, has long prompted concerns from local environment protection groups and Western governments. The Fukushima disaster has cast a fresh spotlight on its safety, with senior European Union officials discussing the matter with Armenian leaders during recent visits to Yerevan.
Armenian environmentalists argue that like Japan, Armenia is situated in a seismically active region prone to powerful earthquakes. They say that alone makes its closure imperative.
Armenian government officials and nuclear experts dismiss such concerns. They say that Metsamor’s reactor cooling system is different from Fukushima’s and that the facility is reliable enough to withstand a powerful earthquake. Another argument advanced by them is that the plant has undergone numerous safety upgrades since one of its two reactors was reactivated in 1995.
“The safety of the plant’s exploitation is at a high level today,” the Ministry of Energy and Natural Resources insisted in a May 6 statement. “The results of safety monitoring periodically conducted by other international teams also testify to that.”
The Armenian government has no Metsamor-related concerns despite initiating the IAEA inspection, it said.
The government also made clear recently that it will press ahead with an ambitious project to build a new and more powerful nuclear plant in place of the aging facility located over 30 kilometers west of Yerevan. Armenian officials have said in the past that its construction will start by 2012 and probably end in 2017, in time for the planned decommissioning of the Metsamor reactor.
However, the head of Armenia’s State Committee on Nuclear Safety, Ashot Martirosian, told RFE/RL’s Armenian service last August that the construction could be delayed by several years, suggesting that the reactor, which went into service in 1980, will function longer than planned.
Whether the government is ready to delay the decommissioning even after the Fukushima accident remains to be seen. The outcome of the OSART evaluation may well have a significant impact on its intentions.