No Metsa-more: Armenia's nuclear threat to the region and beyond

AYŞE BETÜL BAL @bal_betul
Published 26.07.2019 01:05
Updated 26.07.2019 11:49

HBO's five-episode drama "Chernobyl," which tells the story of the infamous nuclear accident of 1986 in Soviet Ukraine that turned the whole city into a ghost town while claiming tens of thousands of lives and causing the spread of deadly diseases throughout the entire region, has reignited a controversial debate: Should older nuclear plants be updated and renewed or closed down completely?

What caused the deadly accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant was the working style at the Soviet-era reactor, and this immediately brings to mind another reactor built in the same era – the Metsamor Nuclear Power Plant (MNPP), which is located along the Turkish- Armenian border and only 16 kilometers away from eastern Turkey's Iğdır province.

The Metsamor, which has been described by the U.S. government as "aging and dangerous" while being classified as "the oldest and least reliable" plant by the EU, has more than one reason to be described as a threat to the world: Not only was it built with old Soviet technology and knowledge like Chernobyl, but it was also built on an extremely delicate and seismically active zone.

The plant was built in a magnitude 9.0 seismic zone around Mount Ararat, and reports have frighteningly suggested that the reactor's seismic resistance was designed to withstand a maximum of magnitude 8.0 earthquakes. After the Fukushima nuclear power plant, which was built during the same time as Metsamor and Chernobyl and is one of several examples of "first-generation nuclear power plants," was shut down due to a radiation leak in 2011 as a result of a failure that occurred in the cooling system during the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, the closure of Metsamor has come to the fore once again. International organizations have been pushing the Armenian government to either shut down the center or take the necessary precautions against a possible accident.

The deadliest of the earthquakes the MNPP faced was the Spitak earthquake that took place in 1988, the epicenter of which was only 75 kilometers away from the plant. Following the earthquake, the plant was shut down for four years from 1989 to 1993. However, not only was the site reopened but its license was also extended twice, first to 2021 and then to 2026, to give the country time to build a new reactor to generate electricity. To meet its domestic electricity needs, Armenia depends heavily on this center, and according to recent data, it generates between 30% to 50% of the country's electricity, depending on the nuclear fuel available and the reactor's capacity.

The construction of a reactor with newer technology also remains open to question since the country may lack reliable technology, not to mention that it is not currently living its best times in the economic sense. All this suggests that Armenia will not voluntarily shut down its old reactor in 2021 or 2026. On top of that, the extension of the license for the old plant has also cost hundreds of million dollars, which was revealed to be financed via a Russian loan.

Another reason why the only nuclear power plant of the South Caucasian country is perceived as a worldwide threat is that it does not have any containment facilities whatsoever for radioactive disposals as radioactive waste from the outdated plant is being buried or dumped into rivers. The neighboring Azerbaijani government has repeatedly questioned and criticized the burying of the waste, which they claimed took place in Armenian-occupied Azerbaijani lands like Nagorno-Karabakh, as well as the transportation of nuclear fuel for the plant. There are some 29 radiation centers that provide raw materials to the power plant in occupied territories, according to recent data. Apart from the land dispute that has been going on for some time now between the two countries, the burying of the waste not only contributes to the overall environmental pollution from the land to the rivers, but it also attracts radioactive material smugglers who are known to sell these materials to terrorist organizations.

There are a series of reports of nuclear smuggling from Armenia, including an incident in which two Armenians were arrested in Ukraine while attempting to sell 20 kilograms of Uranium-235 on May 22, 1999. In April 2016, one of the latest reported incidents of smuggling, three Armenian and three Georgian citizens were arrested by Georgia's security forces while trying to sell $200 million worth of Uranium-238. Investigations further revealed that the suspects were former employees of the MNPP.

Uranium-235 is weapons-grade material used to make "a dirty bomb," an explosive laced with as much highly radioactive material as it can be packed with. Dirty bombs, which are reported to be one of the most easy-to-prepare explosives that could poison the area around the blast zone with an almost toxic level of radiation depending on the environmental conditions, could become an attractive tool for terrorists with accessibleresources, as analysis or reports by intelligence services have previously asserted.

Smuggling of enriched uranium or radioactive materials has attracted world's attention once more after terrorist groups like Daesh had taken control of a large amount of territory in Syria, including the area that is home to the undeclared and possibly non-working reactor which was reportedly bombed by Israel back in 2007.

The group had taken control over the destroyed Al Kibar reactor site in 2013 and then in 2014 for the second time after losing it to Syrian rebels. The site was referred to as deteriorating in terms of the security issues of the war-torn country back then, creating worldwide anxiety over whether any kind of nuclear materials would end up in the hands of the terrorists.

Today Daesh terrorists do not have control over the large amounts of territory in Syria they once had, thanks to international efforts to clear the area of terrorists, including those by Turkey – a country that targeted Daesh terrorists with two cross-border operations. But the threat of possession of radioactive materials by terrorists is still alive, making it important to consider the possible outcomes of a terrorist group possessing nuclear weapons or radioactive disposals – just as it is important to prevent them from getting their hands on the necessary materials like those that may have been smuggled from centers like the MNPP.

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