Yerevan has been under pressure from the United States and the European Union to shut down the Soviet-era plant ever since one of its two reactors built in the 1970s was reactivated in 1995. Armenian officials for years insisted that the reactor, which provides about 40 percent of Armenia’s electricity, is safe enough to continue to operate at least until 2016.
The government announced in 2005 that it is already making preparations for the launch of the decommissioning process. It said the costly process will be completed in time for the construction of a new reactor meeting modern safety standards. Energy Minister Armen Movsisian said last year that work on the facility will start by the beginning of 2011.
“That is not realistic,” said Ashot Martirosian, the head of the State Committee on Nuclear Safety. “The construction of a new [power-generating] unit will likely start in 2012 and, assuming that it will take six years, will end in 2018.”
Martirosian said the Armenian authorities are therefore “thinking about keeping the functioning unit operational for two or three or four more years” and will seek clearance from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN’s Vienna-based nuclear watchdog agency closely monitoring Metsamor’s operations. The authorities are ready to take additional safety measures at the plant located more than 30 kilometers west of Yerevan, he told RFE/RL.
Its safety has already been boosted with tens of millions worth of assistance provided by the U.S. and the EU. Metsamor regularly undergoes capital repairs and maintenance. Its VVER 440-V230 light-water reactor is considered by the EU to be one of the “oldest and least reliable” of 66 such facilities built in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.
It is due to replaced by a new generation of Russian-made VVER reactors which Armenian officials say meets the IAEA’s safety requirements. Armenia and Russia have recently set up a joint venture tasked with constructing the new reactor.
The Yerevan government has also approved the overall design and main technical parameters of the facility. With a projected capacity of over 1,000 megawatts, it would be more than twice as powerful as the current Metsamor reactor and leave Armenia with a massive electricity surplus.
According to Martirosian, a team of IAEA experts inspected the designated site of the reactor’s construction last week. “The mission’s preliminary report says they still need answers to some questions and a more detailed examination needs to be conducted,” the official said. “But that is not a big deal. The experts will again examine the site.”
The key question still not answered by the government is who will finance the extremely ambitious project. A U.S.-funded feasibility study conducted in 2008 estimated its total cost at a whopping $5 billion, a sum twice larger than Armenia’s state budget for this year.