Metsamor Nuclear Power Plant. Armenia’s Sword of Damocles

Posted on July. 25. 2020

“While many technological measures
 can be taken to secure safety at nuclear
 power plant, such measures on their
own cannot cover great risks”.
Naoto Kan

Z. S. Andrew Demirdjian, Ph.D.

 A week ago, I was having a casual conversation about the Azerbaijan’s military aggression against the Armenian people living in the Tavush province with my house sitter in Yerevan. Despite the fact that she takes care of a nice apartment with modern amenities in the center of the city, she said she was in a quandary whether to stay in Yerevan or move to another place farther from Metsamor Nuclear Power Plant (M-NPP) . Her perceived dangerous predicament was based on the official threat by Azerbaijan that they would blow up the M-NPP. Psychologically speaking, she was in a situation from which extrication was difficult especially a frightening one. My house sitter’s plight most likely is shared by many people living in Armenia. Armenians around the world should know and appreciate the valid fear gripping their brothers and sisters in our Homeland and it is high time that they ought to do something about it.

            Utterly unprovoked, Azerbaijan began on July 12, 2020 its military offensive against Armenia’s Tavush province. It is considered the worst shelling since the so-called “4-Day War” in April of 2016. The resolute enemy is attempting to destroy military positions as well as targeting civilian populations of Armenia’s border villages and towns along the line of demarcation of the two countries. The aim is to force Armenia into compliance for the return of Artsakh by resorting to fear tactics.

Credit: Gettyimages.
Steam rises from the cooling towers of M-NPP station among vineyards in Armenia. This is one of the last old operating Soviet reactors built without containment vessels. What is more, its location in a seismic zone has drawn renewed attention since Japan’s major earthquake combined with tsunami national crisis. On March 11, 2011 Tohokku earthquake and tsunami was a magnitude of 9.0-9.1 undersea, which sent a sober message to those countries with nuclear power plants to assess their dangerous situations. Armenia was one of them but, unfortunately, this mega disaster did not deter them from slowly phasing out their own perilous plants.

            TASS reported on July 17, 2020 that Vagif Dargyahly, the Press Service Head of the Azerbaijani Military Department has unabashedly declared the following warning: “The Armenian side should not forget that the new missile systems that are in the arsenal of our army make it possible to launch high-precision strikes at the Metsamor nuclear power plant, which could lead to a great catastrophe for Armenia.” Indeed, it would unleash an irreparable loss of many innocent civilians of the population of Armenia. Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan succinctly characterized the threat by stating: “Azerbaijan’s announcement of striking Metsamor Nuclear Power Plant is [a] crime against humanity.”

            Some might consider the threat to be idle or patented barking. However, the consequence of being true is too costly to ignore it. Therefore, three projects should be undertaken on the double: One is to report the threat as a terrorist act to the international authorities to condemn Azerbaijan for its criminal intent and to warn them of its dire consequences–especially, that Armenia may retaliate in self-defense to establish a long and a wide buffer zone deep into the Azerbaijani territory. The second one is to find ways and means for additional fortification of the M-NPP facility against military attacks. The third one is to mobilize the Armenian nation to save itself from being a sitting duck to Azerbaijan’s wayward and uncivilized acts of aggression.

            In this article, I shall only address the third project of mitigating and eventually saving Armenia from this eminent danger by beginning to decommission the M-NPP for the safety and security of the nation and for the people’s peace of mind, especially of that of my house sitter in Yerevan.

            As you are aware by now, the matter became terribly serious when, within a few days of the aggression, Azerbaijan began to threaten to blow up the M-NPP.  The M-NPP, also known as the Armenian Nuclear Power Plant, is the only nuclear power plant in the South Caucasus, located 36 kilometers west of the Armenian capital city of Yerevan. The vast majority of the Diaspora is not alive to the danger; they are not even aware of its existence; it is only 16 miles from the Turkish border; it is within a striking distance of the Azerbaijani forces. Armenia seems truly a babe in the woods or an easy target for the Azeri known cruelties.

            The ominous threat of a military strike over the plant is like the sword of Damocles, a closely impending disaster for all Armenians. This time, it would be a “nuclear genocide” of the race by those perpetrators who did not hesitate to try to annihilate the entire Armenian nation during the 1915-1923 Genocide of the 20th century and again during the Karabakh liberation war of the 1990s.

            Those of us who choose to adopt a wild animal as pet such as a tiger cub, would run the risk of being attacked by it when it grows up. In the early 1970s, while the other countries in the South Caucasus refused to have a nuclear plant built within the confines of their territories during the Soviet era, Armenia acquiesced for a nuclear power plant in the middle of its densely populated tiny country. Our leaders back then had failed to foresee its obvious future implications. They put themselves at the mercy of their adversaries by exposing Armenia’s soft belly for anyone to threaten to slice it when conflicts arise.

            Apart from its economic benefits, from the perspective of safety and security, we cannot have the sword of Damocles hanging over Armenia’s head.    

            As long as Mount Ararat remains in captivity, so long as Artsakh maintains its independence and sovereignty, Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Armenia will stay as eternal enemies and engage in a war of attrition.

            According to the legend, to lie under the sword of Damocles, hanging by a single horse hair, means to be in a position or situation of eminent danger of destruction. Armenia should opt to get out of that highly precarious position.

            To say that M-NPP is Armenia’s Achilles heel is no exaggeration by all counts. It would only take another ruthless officer of the Azerbaijani armed forces, such as cruel Ramil Safarov, to send a drone to drop a bomb on the nuclear facility to create the apocalyptic disaster for the Armenian people. Anyone with any modicum of elasticity of the mind, with any power of macabre imagination, would not have foreseen  an Army officer of Azerbaijan like Safarov would take an ax and chop a sleeping Armenian solider into pieces?! And later, this criminal was hailed as a hero by his own head of state. Well, it happened and it may very well happen again. So, let us get our act together and work diligently to eliminate this specter of danger from hovering over our heads.

            The swing of the social pendulum from Soviet way of thinking to an independent, sovereign way of life would find many adherents of the idea of decommissioning the M-NPP. Based on an extensive study, here is my stepwise approach to dismantling M-NPP without creating an energy shortage crisis for Armenia and yet protecting the facility from any wanton act of cruelty:

            Step One: Armenia and its vast Diaspora should establish a not-for-profit organization for such a Herculean project of dismantling M-NPP facilities. While Armenia has many experts in the nuclear sciences, so does the Diaspora. We do do have dedicated volunteer experts working on this project to cut the prohibitive costs of decommissioning a nuclear plant. When Armenia asks for help, the experts in the Diaspora would rise to the occasion and try to help the Homeland get rid of such a potentially deadly sleeping monster.

            Step Two: Stop all renovation plans to modernize the M-NPP facilities, which would lengthen or later complicate the process of decommissioning.  Facing an incessant enemy who prefers “tanks to talks” day in and day out, it is only wise to think of covering one’s national security weaknesses by foregoing some of the cheap sources of energy, which may prove to be deadly to the entire population of the country. Either we keep our selves vulnerable to the enemy by keeping M-NPP for the sake of cheap energy or bite the bullet and get rid of it for the sake of national safety and security.  Any blue-blooded patriot would opt for the ultimate security of the people.

          Step Three: Before we embark on the time-consuming and costly project of dismantling the M-NPP facilities, Armenia needs to find an alternative source of energy, even though the plant supplied approximately 40 percent of Armenia’s electricity in 2015. The rest is sold to Georgia and Iran. One way would be hydroelectric generation; another way would be solar energy or wind turbines. For example, we can also harness Arpa River or another high volume, rapidly moving river by damming it to produce electricity. When the time comes, we shall conduct feasibility studies to determine viable alternative sources of energy.

          Step Four: Since decommissioning the M-NPP will take many years, and since Armenia is facing a belligerent and bellicose Azerbaijan and its big brother Turkey, temporary protection measures should be taken. For example, one way would be to encase the facilities with thick concrete wrap around for protection from aerial and land attacks.

          Step Five: Choose a dismantling method, which would cost Armenia less time, less money, less safety problems, and without any major disruption in the use of electricity by the Armenian society. When the decision is made to close a nuclear power plant permanently, the facility must be decommissioned by safely removing it from service and reducing most residual radioactivity to a level that permits release of the property as being safe. Decommissioning rules involving cleanup of radioactively contaminated plant system and its structures, and removal of the radioactive fuel must be followed. These requirements are established to protect workers and the public during the entire decommissioning process.

          For decommissioning, there are three accepted strategies to choose from: DECON (decontaminate), SAFSTOR (store safely), and ENTOMB (bury or encase completely). Let us briefly introduce each one.

          Under DECON, (also referred to as Immediate Dismantling), soon after the nuclear facility closes, equipment, structures, and portions of the facility that contain radioactive contaminants are removed or decontaminated to a level that permits release of the property as safe. Although the operation stops immediately, the safe disposal of radiation takes many, many years.

          Under SAFSTOR, also referred to as “Deferred Dismantling,” a nuclear facility is maintained and monitored in a condition that allows the radioactivity to decay. Afterwards, the power plant is dismantled and the property is decontaminated.

          Under ENTOMB, radioactive contaminants are permanently encased on site in structurally dependable or sound material such as concrete. The plant is maintained and monitored until the radioactivity decays to a level permitting restricted release of the property. While the facility may stand some enemy attacks, it may succumb to a severe earthquake registering very high on the Richter scale.

          It is noteworthy to state that many also choose to adopt a combination of the first two choices (DECON and SAFSTOR). The combined strategies will allow some portions of the facility to be dismantled or decontaminated while the other parts of the facility are left in SAFSTOR. The decision may be based on factors besides radioactive decay, such as on the availability of waste disposal sites and the circumstances that allow following this strategy.

          However, when a situation arises, such as Armenia is finding itself against a warring neighbor, ENTOMB strategy would give the country some protection by encasing the plant facilities with thick concrete. The ENTOMB fortification is considered good against earthquakes and missile attacks. This kind of strategy is less time consuming, less expensive, and immediately meets the exigencies of the situation with the enemy that has a long track record of committing cruel acts which astonish humanity.

          On the average, decommissioning can be completed within 60 years of the plant ceasing operations. A time beyond that would be considered only when necessary to protect the public health and safety. To fully decommission M-NPP, the facility must be decontaminated and the site returned to “Greenfield” status (i.e., meaning the site is safe for reuse for recreation, housing, farming, or industrial use).

          The government of Armenia must safely dispose of any onsite nuclear waste and remove carefully or contain any radioactive material, including nuclear fuel as well as irradiated equipment and buildings.

          Step Six: Establish an M-NPP Dismantling Fund to bank roll such a costly project. The Diaspora should form a special fund and organize fund raising efforts on a regular basis. The government of Armenia should also levy a small tax to contribute financially toward the realization of Armenia being nuclear-free of perilous reactors. The cost of decommissioning a nuclear power plant runs from millions and millions to one billion dollars.

          Step Seven: Do the dismantling secretly and keep the plant stacks intact from the outside. So, when the enemy strikes it, we would have evidence, we would have the Trojan horse to catch Azerbaijan red-handed, to hold them responsible for their inhumane act against humanity to be condemned by the international community. We would then have a good reason to occupy (or rather liberate) our Utik province from Azerbaijan for the sake of establishing a buffer zone.

          Step Eight: Establish a timeline to complete such a crucial project.  It takes anywhere from 20 to 100 years to complete the decommissioning and for getting rid of the nuclear waste of the power plant. Armenia is geographically small; we do not have the luxury of vast stretches of desert to bury nuclear waste that is still active.  Incidentally, Armenia should stop permitting Russia to dump its waste or decayed radioactive material in Armenia. To achieve complete success, Armenia will have to reach “Greenfield” stage in dismantling, namely rendering the environment conducive to living and agriculture by humans as well as animals. With the help of the Diaspora, it would most likely take 40 long years to completely get rid of the looming danger of M-NPP.

          Decommissioning nuclear reactors is a long-term and costly process. Since 2013, six commercial nuclear reactors in the United States have shut down; additionally, eight reactors have announced plans to retire by 2025. The world trend is to get rid of this paradoxical source of energy which benefits and also destroys humanity and the environment. The retirement process for nuclear power plants involves disposing of nuclear waste and decontaminating equipment and facilities to reduce residual radioactivity, making the process much more expensive and time consuming than retiring other non-nuclear power plants.

          As you well know, in modern era of technology-based warfare, conventional combat seems like an anachronism. Rules of engagement are from a distance such as by robots, missiles, and drones. Military manufactures like Boston Dynamics in the United States are specializing in unmanned machinery to minimize the human casualties in war.        Despite the bravery of the Armenian soldiers, they are not facing an ordinary situation –not your grandpa’s warfare. Equipped with unmanned arms to strike from a distance, it neutralizes the bravery of the solider factor in an armed conflict.

          If we lose the war to the enemy gradually just as we had three villages destroyed and a strategic hill in the middle of 800 hectares of land occupied by Azerbaijan during the 4-Day War, our soldiers should not be blamed. The lion’s share of responsibility falls on our shoulders to equip them with modern weaponry and to safeguard our Armenian population from the disaster of a blown up nuclear power plant.

          In sum, Armenians are living in the shadow of a potentially disastrous power plant.  In addition to Azerbaijan’s threats of blowing it up, earthquakes pose danger to M-NPP.  To become a hero, it would only take one crazy, heartless Azeri solider to drop a bomb on our nuclear facilities and create hell for Armenia.  Thus, we should get organized to solve our nuclear vulnerability without wasting any time.  Armenia is lucky to have only one nuclear power plant to get rid of compared to the United States, which must still dismantle 98 facilities. The specter of the sword of Damocles falling on the head of Armenia’s future generations would become at last history. 

          We owe it to our next generations –an Armenia that is clean, an Armenia that is beautiful, and an Armenia that is strong, and most importantly, an Armenia that is safe to live in and thrive. And yes, to alleviate the fear of the consequences of a deadly nuclear power plant blown up, my house sitter in Yerevan would have peaceful nights to sleep.

One response to “Metsamor Nuclear Power Plant. Armenia’s Sword of Damocles”

  1. Richard says:

    I think its time to slowly move away the population one hundred miles away from the atomic nuclear plant. Yerevan should have a special area of exit and a shelter for the population to save themselves. The shelters would be all the way up in Lori and down to Goris and meghri.The government better think to build shelters for the population as soon as possible Even in case of just a war.

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