By Atom Markarian
The Armenian government is starting preparations for the closure of the nuclear power station at Metsamor demanded by the West and hopes to complete what promises to be a very costly process before 2016, officials said on Thursday.
“We are already beginning that preparatory work because it will take time,” said Deputy Energy Minister Areg Galstian. “If we make a decision and announce it, the decommissioning process will take five years.”
According to Galstian, Metsamor’s sole reactor was designed to be safe enough to operate at least until 2016. But Yerevan is “doing everything” to shut it down before that time.
The remarks are the first official indication of an approximate time frame for Metsamor’s closure. The Armenian authorities are facing growing pressure from the United States and especially the European Union that believe Soviet-era facility does not meet modern safety standards and should be closed as early as possible.
The decommissioning process itself will cost hundreds of millions of dollars which the cash-strapped Armenian government hopes to raise from Western donors. Galstian said its first phase alone will require $44 million worth of expenditures.
Part of that money will go to pay for the construction of a new storage site for nuclear waste from Metsamor. The first waste storage site, built in 2000 by the French company Framatome, is already full.
Yerevan has said all along that it will not close Metsamor, which meets nearly 40 percent of Armenia’s energy needs, before finding an alternative source of relatively cheap electricity. That source, according to Galstian, is a gas pipeline from Iran which is currently under construction as well as three new hydro-electric power stations that are due to be built within the next decade.
The future pipeline is therefore a key component of a 20-year energy sector development plan that was approved by the government on Thursday and unveiled by Galstian at a news conference. The pipeline is scheduled to go into service by 2007. Work on its 42-kilometer Armenian section got underway last November and is financed by a $34 million loan provided by the Iranian government.
Armenia currently imports natural gas only from Russia. It is expected that Iranian gas will be shipped through the pipeline to the incomplete Fifth Unit of Armenia’s largest thermal power plant located in the town of Hrazdan. Both Iranian and Russian companies have offered to invest in and manage the huge facility.
Galstian denied that the Armenian government is under strong Russian pressure to turn down the Iranians. “We will choose the proposal which is more economically attractive to Armenia,” he said.
A senior Russian government official said earlier this week that Yerevan and Moscow have agreed to “put an end to the issue” by next fall.