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Caucasus: The Metsamor Nuclear Football

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Shortly after a senior official in the Azeri government threatened a missile attack against Armenia's power reactor at Metsamor, Baku followed with an outraged letter of complaint to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) about the plant's alleged lack of safety. And for the umpteenth time in the history of the small, aging Russian-built VVER-440, the Metsamor nuclear power plant became a political football, this time amid renewed fighting between the southern Caucasus countries of Armenia and Azerbaijan. Metsamor is not the only nuclear plant facing neighbors worried about its safety, but the prospects of physical attacks puts it in a smaller league of countries juggling opposition from neighboring countries on safety grounds as well as the threat of physical attacks. The "continued operations of Metsamor NPP would be a high risk for entire region due to potential earthquakes in the immediate area," Galib Israfilov, Azerbaijan's ambassador to the IAEA, argued in a Jul. 22 letter. "Azerbaijan remains seriously concerned with the functioning of Metsamor NPP in neighboring Armenia, as it is one of a mere handful of remaining nuclear reactors of its kind that were built without primary containment structures." Israfilov's Armenian counterpart in Vienna, Ambassador Armen Papikyan, told Energy Intelligence in an interview that the five-page Azeri letter detailing Baku's complaints with Armenia's nuclear safety infrastructure "constitutes baseless and fabricated accusations." This is "a clear case of diversion: they're trying to divert the attention of the IAEA and the international community from their threats, which amount to nuclear terrorism." The VVER-440, formally known as Armenian-2, has gone through hundreds of upgrades, in part to better withstand earthquakes but also to ensure its continued operation through 2026, although its license currently expires next May. The Metsamor safety concerns underscore the increased pressure reactor operators are under in Europe, where German politicians regularly rail against reactor operators in the Netherlands, Belgium and eastern France, while Lithuanian officials have fought hard against the Belarusian nuclear plant soon to be commissioned across the border from Vilnius (NIW May29'20; NIW Dec.6'19). But the Armenian reactor joins a select group of other plants -- including Bushehr in Iran and Barakah in Abu Dhabi -- that face not just opposition from politicians in neighboring countries on safety grounds but the prospect of physical attacks. In recent years, for instance, Barakah has not only been the object of complaints from Qatar, but has reportedly been the target of missiles lobbed from Houthi rebels in Yemen (NIW Mar.22'19; NIW Dec.8'17). An attack on Metsamor, whose 2,198 terawatt hours of output last year represented 29% of Armenia's electricity production, would be disastrous. "In case of missile attack on Metsamor NPP, all safety barriers will be lost," the Armenian Nuclear Regulatory Authority (ANRA) said in response to Energy Intelligence's questions. "Fuel which is housed in two spent fuel pools and in reactor will be melted due to loss of cooling capability. After fuel melt the large amount of fission products will be released into [the] atmosphere without any retention and consequences will be more severe and cover neighbor countries and more." Papikyan said in his interview with Energy Intelligence that the impact of a missile attack on Metsamor "would be extremely difficult to imagine" but referenced the 1986 Chernobyl disaster as "the easiest reply" (related). Chernobyl in the Caucasus? Baku has since backed off its threat of a missile attack but the specter of another Chernobyl hasn't gone away. Armenia's other hostile neighbor Turkey has cited the 1986 Ukrainian disaster in calls for Metsamor's closure. Metsamor "should be shut down," then-Turkish Energy Minister Berat Albayrak said in a September 2016 address to the IAEA General Conference. "The region and the world cannot afford another nuclear accident after Chernobyl disaster" (NIW Sep.30'16). And in one key part of Azerbaijan's letter regarding the Metsamor plant, Israfilov pointed out that the EU had classified VVER-440 Model-V230 reactors "as the 'oldest and least reliable' category of all the Soviet reactors built in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union." There was indeed a major earthquake in Armenia in December 1988, the epicenter of which was 80 kilometers (50 miles) north of Metsamor. A June 2016 EU peer review of "stress tests" of Armenia's nuclear infrastructure found that the site could see earthquakes up to magnitude 8. This was known from the beginning, said Papikyan, when Soviet planners selected the site. "Although I am not a specialist, to my knowledge in this particular area the underground base consists of a solid layer of thick basalt, which ensures that the area can remain stable in case of any major seismic incident." He also noted that Metsamor is not a V-230 reactor, the design standard for the VVER-440. "The reactors were developed with special modifications to accommodate the high seismicity of the nuclear power plant site," Papikyan continued. "The site seismicity required design improvements, not only related with the enhancement of the resistance of the structure of the plant, but also the implementation of additional safety systems. So design of structures -- in particularly in terms of supports and bracing -- is significantly different from the design of a standard VVER-440 reactor. And therefore the Armenian VVER-440 got the new model designation 'V-270.'" Both units at Metsamor were turned off after the 1988 earthquake, and while Armenian-1 was permanently shuttered Armenian-2 was restarted in 1995 after several hundred safety upgrades. Consequently, a series of ANRA decisions have allowed Armenian-2 to operate successively longer, and with plans to operate the reactor through 2026, operators have introduced ever more upgrades (NIW Apr.27'12). Armenia's Ministry of Territorial Administration and Infrastructure, which oversees the plant, told Energy Intelligence that "about" $400 million "was spent and will be spent for the last decade and in view of expenses in [the] forthcoming three years" on "safety upgrading and life extension" at Metsamor. At the moment Armenian-2 is designed to shut down safely in an earthquake with ground motion of up to 0.35 G, and upgrades would raise the tolerance level to 0.42 G, according to ANRA. The plant's dry spent fuel storage facility is designed with withstand 0.47 G of horizontal ground motion and 0.267 G of vertical ground motion. Phil Chaffee, London

Topics:
Security Risk , Nuclear, Nuclear Fuel, Nuclear
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