It is an accident waiting to happen.
A nuclear accident, which could turn out to be more devastating than that of Chernobyl or even Fukushima.
And that potential nuclear disaster is being kindled by geopolitical stratagem and economic gambits.
The Metsamor nuclear plant in Armenia — located just 16 kilometers from the Turkish border, as well as being perilously close to Iran, Georgia and the Azerbaijani enclave of Nakhchivan — has been called the most dangerous nuclear power station on Earth.
Metsamor, which became operational in 1976, was supposed to have a lifespan of 30 years, that is, until 2006.
But today, it is still in operation, and, after a $200 million Band-Aid repair by Russian engineers in 2009, it was deemed fit by the International Atomic Energy Agency to keep running through 2016.
Yerevan says that it will continue to operate Metsamor through 2026.
Built on a seismic fault, Metsamor was officially shut down in 1988 after an earthquake in Armenia’s second-largest city Gyumri — just 77 kilometers from the nuclear plant — demolished the region, killing 25,000 people and leaving half a million homeless.
But in 1994, power-strapped Armenia became desperate for electricity after tensions between Yerevan and Baku escalated over Armenia’s occupation of the Azeri Nagorno-Karabakh enclave and Azerbaijan refused to allow oil and gas from Russia and Turkmenistan to pass through it soil to reach its archenemy.
Against the recommendations of nuclear specialists around the world, Armenia decided to reopen the Metsamor plant to supply its national energy demands.
It is worth noting that the plant’s reopening constituted the first time in history that a shuttered nuclear facility has been restarted.
The decision was strongly condemned by most of the international community and, in particular, by Turkey, Iran, Georgia and Azerbaijan.
This year, a new nuclear plant was supposed to be opened in Armenia to replace the aging Metsamor facility.
However, due to national budget cuts and the shortage of international support, not only is the new not operational, its construction has not even begun.
At the heart of the problem with building the new plant is a lack of funding.
The new plant would cost about $5 billion, which represents twice Armenia’s budget for all of 2009, the year the government committed to the second plant.
Armenia, one of the poorest countries in the former Soviet Union and a political lapdog of Moscow, had counted on Russia (which built the Metsamor plant in the first place, using technologies based on Chernobyl) to pay for half of the new plant, and had courted France (home to one of the world’s largest nuclear power industries) to help finance the remaining $2.5 billion.
But while Russia had originally agreed to pay its end and France was tentatively on board for the financing, both sides reneged on their commitments when the 2008 global financial meltdown made money scarce.
With the plunge in international oil prices, Moscow has continued to distance itself from the Metsamor controversy.
During a roundtable discussion at the V International Humanitarian Forum in Baku late last month, Yaroslav Shtrombakh, deputy director of the Kurchatov Nuclear Energy Institute in Moscow, was confronted on Russia’s refusal to help replace the Metsamor plant.
Shtrombakh’s answer was abrupt and defensive: “We sold Armenia the plant and now it is Armenia’s problem,” he said. “We have no obligation to fix the problem of it having been built on a seismic fault because we are no longer involved in its operations.”
(Apparently, Shtrombakh hasn’t heard of corporate responsibility or Samsung’s Note 7 debacle.)
But a faulty nuclear plant built in an earthquake-prone zone is a lot more dangerous than a defective cellphone that might burst into flames.
One of the biggest concerns with the Metsamor plant is that is has no containment building, a steel or concrete shell that would prevent radiation from escaping in case of an accident.
Consequently, should a rupture occur in the reactor’s skin, radiation would have to be vented into the air to prevent a pressure build-up that could trigger a meltdown or explosion.
The longer a nuclear plant operates, the thinner its reactor skin becomes, and the thinner the reactor skin, the more likely it is to suffer a rupture.
According to the Vienna-based Austrian Institute of Applied Ecology, a rupture at the Metsamor plant would constitute “an open reactor building, a core with no water in it (to cool the reactor) and accident progression with no possible mitigation.”
For now, Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan is playing the waiting game, gambling the safety of his people — and those of other nations — in order to meet his country’s energy needs.
But the current Armenian plant is a clear and present danger to the region and the world, and it must be closed down before another level-seven nuclear disaster makes Metsamor a global household word.
Thérèse Margolis can be reached at [email protected]