To spare its 3 million citizens another heatless winter, Armenia is on the verge of restarting an old-model Russian atomic reactor that was mothballed in 1989 by Soviet regulators as unsafe for this earthquake-wracked region.
“We have come to the moment of putting the reactor into operation,” said Vanik Nersessian, a senior official of Armenia’s Energy Ministry. “We expect to achieve this within the next few days.”
His declaration - confirmed by two other ranking Armenian officials - amounted to a rejection of pleas over the last six months from the United States that the reactor should never be recommissioned on grounds that it was of an obsolete, unsafe design.
Despite searing memories of the 1988 earthquake that killed 55,000 people in northwest Armenia, the government’s decision is likely to be popular. After three energy-starved winters largely caused by hostile neighbors blockading pipelines and rail transport, Armenians typically view the nuclear plant as a huge but necessary risk.
“All that remains for the people is to hope it will be okay.’ said Gayaneh Arakelian, 32, an editor of the news service Noyan Tapan. “But it will be with danger in their hearts because no one can stop an earthquake.”
Balancing that distant fear is today’s reality: Armenians can count on electricity and running water for only an hour or two a day, but the schedules are never predictable. Some apartment dwellers must carry water up 18 stories of darkened stairwells.
The Metzamor Nuclear Station, 18 miles east of this capital, is situated in an agricultural valley overlooked by the snow-capped Mt. Ararat, just across the border in Turkey.
An earthquake in 1840 caused major damage in the exact area of the nuclear power station, according to records of Armenia’s Seismic Protection Survey office. However, since 1840 there has not been a major earthquake in the immediate vicinity of the nuclear plant.