By Atom Markarian
The Armenian government has told Western donors that it will not decommission the Metsamor nuclear power station in the near future unless they help raise more than $1 billion for building alternative low-cost power generating facilities, officials revealed on Monday.
The explicit message was delivered to the donors by Prime Minister Andranik Markarian at last week's UN-sponsored Earth Summit in Johannesburg, South Africa, according to Finance Minister Vartan Khachatrian and other top officials. They said Markarian laid out his government's ambitious plan to create alternatives sources of power that would make up for the loss of cheap nuclear energy.
"We can close Metsamor as soon as we have alternative energy sources," Khachatrian told reporters. "Otherwise, it is impossible to talk about its closure. At least for now."
The United States and the European Union member countries believe that Metsamor, which is the only nuclear plant in the region, is not safe enough because of its Soviet design and location in an earthquake zone. They have long been pushing for its closure. The previous Armenian leadership, bowing to the Western pressure, had promised the EU in the late 1990s to close the plant by 2004.
However, various-level officials from the current administration have made it clear over the past two years that Yerevan is not prepared to meet the deadline. Apart from pointing to the lack of other energy sources, they insist that Metsamor's Soviet-made reactor does not pose a serious threat to environment and can safely function for at least ten more years.
Metsamor accounts for approximately 40 percent of Armenia's annual electricity production. Another 40 percent is generated by thermal power stations. Hydro-electric plants provide the remaining 20 percent. Analysts believe that the main reason why the government is reluctant to close the plant is that the cost of nuclear energy is substantially lower than that of thermal power.
In a weekend interview with RFE/RL, Metsamor director Gagik Markosian acknowledged that the thermal plants will entirely meet Armenia's energy needs if they operate at their full capacity. But in that case, Markosian argued, the cash-strapped country would have to drastically increase its electricity fees, which most Armenians say are already disproportionately high. Only the hydro plants are close to Metsamor in terms of their cost-effectiveness, he said.
Not surprisingly, the government plan unveiled by Markarian in Johannesburg regards hydro power as the only viable alternative to atomic energy. In Khachatrian's words, Metsamor's replacement will require the construction of "between 10 and 20" hydro plants across the country with a total cost ranging from $1.2 billion to $1.5 billion. He said the government hopes that the donors will provide the funding or help it find private investors abroad interested in the Armenian energy sector.
The Metsamor plant, meanwhile, is due to shut down by October 1 for regular maintenance and partial refueling.