This tiny, earthquake-prone nation, desperate for energy after years with almost no heat or electricity, is preparing to reopen an antiquated nuclear power station that has been shut for more than six years, causing grave misgivings about safety among local and international experts.
Workers are painting, welding and inspecting around the clock to refurbish the Soviet-built reactor that was shut in early 1989 after a devastating earthquake near here the previous year and nearly three years after the Chernobyl nuclear reactor accident. Officials hope to load radioactive fuel from Russia into the reactor next month and begin producing power this summer.
The government believes that Armenia must take a calculated -- and, officials say, minor -- risk to overcome an energy blockade imposed by its hostile neighbor, Azerbaijan, that has made this enterprising nation the poorest of the 15 former Soviet republics. As many as one-third of Armenia's 3.6 million people have left, for months at a time or longer, because winters are unbearable and factories stand idle.
"A certain risk exists, but there is no other way out," said deputy parliament speaker Ara Sahakian. "Those who are against it should show some other way, so that children do not die of cold in their apartments, schools and hospitals can function, and our state does not collapse."
But critics say that reopening Metsamor, which is about 20 miles from the capital of Yerevan, is a foolhardy gamble with Armenia's future and the lives of millions of people in surrounding nations. Inadequate design, insufficiently tested materials, hurried and below-standard training, the uncertainties of reopening a mothballed plant, the ever-present possibility of earthquakes and political instability in the Caucasus region combine to make catastrophe a real possibility, they say.
"Of course, it's very, very scary," said Viktoria Ter-Nikogossian, adviser to the parliament's committee on the environment. "This nuclear plant can never be safe to run, and an accident would mean the end of Armenia."
The International Atomic Energy Agency, which has provided advice but not money, believes the start-up is premature at best, according to assistant director general Morris Rosen. The Metsamor design is "clearly deficient," he said, and because of the earthquake risk "you would never build a plant in that area, that's for sure, with what's known now."
Although Metsamor is not a Chernobyl-style plant, it resembles Chernobyl in that it lacks a containment facility that could keep radioactive substances from escaping in an accident. The design of first-generation VVER-440 plants such as Metsamor "does not meet Western safety standards," the Nuclear Energy Institute in Washington said in a recent report.
Impoverished Armenia's inability to pay for the best training and replacement parts only exacerbates those deficiencies, Rosen said. And the West has provided no financial assistance because it believes all VVER-440 plants -- of which 10 still operate in Russia, Bulgaria and Slovakia -- should be shut down.
"The situation leaves a lot to be desired," Rosen, who visited the reactor earlier this spring, said in a telephone interview from IAEA headquarters in Vienna. "We have let our concerns be known. How they evaluate our concerns is their decision."
Vast quantities of oil lie beneath the Caspian Sea, off the coast of Azerbaijan, virtually in Armenia's neighborhood. But Azerbaijan and Armenia have been at war or nearly so since both became independent late in 1991, so Azerbaijan will let no oil or gas through.
Azerbaijan's ally, Turkey, south and west of Armenia, also has enforced a blockade. Some natural gas reaches this country via a circuitous route from Turkmenistan through Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Russia and Georgia. But the Georgia pipeline is continually being blown up, presumably by ethnic Azeris living in the region, leaving Armenia stranded.
In response, Armenians recently have signed a deal with Iran to build a small pipeline to Armenia, but that will not be ready for at least two years.
They also have increased their use of hydroelectric power -- thereby endangering their largest body of water, Lake Sevan, and the underground water reserves on which hundreds of villages depend. Even so, the country can only come up with 12 percent to 15 percent of the energy it needs.
The result has been hellish winters, during which Armenians scavenge for scrap wood, denude forests and huddle in cave-like darkness. Summers are more bearable, but with no fuel to run the factories, no less impoverished. The average wage is about $10 per month.
The government turned more than two years ago to the mothballed Metsamor for relief. The plant will add 400 megawatts of daily power to the 700 or so Armenia can produce now, at a cost for fuel and refurbishment of $70 million to $80 million. To build a new plant of any kind providing that much energy would take at least five years and cost at least $400 million, said Steve V. Tashjian, an Armenian-American who just completed three years as energy minister here.
"So what do you do? Keep your people in the dark?" Tashjian asked. "It is social suicide, it is political suicide, it is economic suicide and, as far as I am concerned, it is technological suicide to have the capability to do something and not do it."
The government persuaded parliament to repeal a law that required a nationwide referendum before the plant could reopen. "We think it's a technical question, an economic question, and so we gave the state the freedom to act," deputy speaker Sahakian explained. The government pleaded unsuccessfully with Western nations, which have helped Armenia with large amounts of humanitarian aid and technical assistance in other areas, to help upgrade Metsamor, Tashjian said.
So Armenia turned to Russia for loans and expertise. The refurbishing work is Russian-designed, and when the plant reopens, about 20 Russian experts will be working here, general director Souran Azadian said.
Once the plant is running, Armenia hopes the West will accept it as an unfortunate reality and kick in some assistance. Many safety upgrades have been scheduled for after start-up, Deputy Prime Minister Vigen Chitechian said -- but without Western aid, they will take longer to implement.
"The main thing is, we realize this is a continuing process," Chitechian said, watching tractors excavate a pool for emergency cooling water, one of many new safety measures. "As long as this plant is here, we are going to keep adding and improving."
Much of the technology still looks like some 1950s view of the future. In the control room, there are no computer screens or digital displays, but hundreds of old-fashioned dials and pencils scribbling across graph paper. Tashjian acknowledged that much of the technology looks "awkward," but he cautioned against judging its reliability on that basis.
"The Soviet system does not pay much attention to appearance, but they were in space before we were," he said.
Still, the IAEA's Rosen said his experts do not think that enough testing has been done to establish how earthquake-proof the station is. They also worry that no one is sure whether the bolts inside the pressure vessel, which holds the fuel, remain strong.
Rosen said he also is concerned that the new staff will not have enough experience or training to handle any emergency. "In all likelihood, there will be some shortage of operators," he said. Chitechian, a former factory director, said Armenia realizes Metsamor will reach the end of its working life in a few years. But he said those years may provide Armenia with enough breathing room to right its economy and find other sources of energy.
"We needed to survive," he said. CAPTION: STEVE TASHJIAN CAPTION: An Armenian farmer drives a horse-drawn cart past the Metsamor nuclear power station, which was closed in 1989. Despite critics' warnings, officials plan to reopen it this summer.