Nuclear Power, Energy Security and The World’s Most Dangerous Power Plant

Armen Danielian, MSc Energy Systems, University of Oxford

Almost nine years have passed since the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, which resulted in a shutdown of the Japanese nuclear power generation and had a profound impact on the public perception of nuclear power worldwide. The most visible of its effects is probably Germany’s decision to shut down its own nuclear power plants, promising to phase them out by 2022. Yet aside from the purely technical questions surrounding the safety and resilience of nuclear facilities, the Fukushima incident raised another important issue. To illustrate it, we shall travel from East Asia to the region of South Caucasus, on the borders of the former Soviet Union. 

Metsamor NPP is located in the west of the Republic of Armenia, just a few dozen kilometres away from the closed border with Turkey. (CREDIT: AFP/Getty Images)

Armenia is a small, landlocked country, lacking in fossil fuels and with a population barely reaching 3 million. However, its past membership of the Soviet Union resulted in it having a nuclear power plant before any of its neighbours did, including the much larger economies of Iran and Turkey. Built in the mid-70s, Metsamor Nuclear Power Plant (NPP) is one of the older operational nuclear facilities in the world, and provides the country with over 30% of its electricity consumption. Relatively soon after the earthquake in Japan, in April of 2011, National Geographic called it potentially “the world’s most dangerous”, due to its age, design, and geographical location – in one of the Earth’s more active seismic zones. In fact, after a devastating earthquake in 1988, the power plant was shut down for precautionary reasons, with only half of it being restarted later in 1995. At the same time, it was the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, with the following ethnic war against the neighbouring Azerbaijan that demonstrated the need for a reliable power generation, and the role that Metsamor NPP plays in the independent Armenia.

Today, the country still has roughly half of its borders closed due to the poor relationship with two of its neighbours, and receives much of its primary energy supply in the form of natural gas from either Russia (through Georgia) in the north or Iran in the south. The nuclear power plant continues to play a key role in the country’s energy security, despite the potential risk that it presents in case of a natural disaster. The issue of its decommissioning has been a part of all bilateral agreements between Armenian government and the European Union since 2006, yet the lack of leverage on the side of EU and general Russian support for continuing operation have contributed to decommissioning being postponed time and time again

Armenia’s poor relationship with neighbours Turkey and Azerbaijan has resulted in a long-lasting blockade, as well as the country being excluded from regional energy developments. (CREDIT: European Dialogue)

While the operational part of the power plant is upgraded from time to time, its eventual decommissioning will be a topic in the new decade, although there are hopes to extend its lifetime even further. At the same time, the high capital investments and construction time required for a new NPP raise serious questions about Armenia’s energy security in coming decades. The country has remained excluded from the regional energy trade development (such as the Baku-Tbilisi- Ceyhan pipeline, shown on the map), and its current supply routes from Russia and Iran can hardly be considered as reliable in the long-term. While much of the public opinion on nuclear power in the world has been shaped by the incidents of Chernobyl and Fukushima, Armenia’s experience has been shaped by the memory of the tough years of the 90s, when the country was barely recovering from the earthquake and the complete collapse of the centralised Soviet structure while undergoing a war with Azerbaijan. This has led to the bizarre situation where a country with a much higher likelihood of a nuclear incident being resistant to a shift away from nuclear power, whilst the much safer operations in Germany have been willingly closed down. 

Though Armenia’s case is a particularly challenging one, with a rare combination of a high probability of both a natural disaster and a military conflict, it demonstrates that the role of nuclear power will not be limited to that of a player in energy transitions. Energy security is of as much, if not greater, concern for many countries as clean energy is, and the potential shift away from fossil fuels places further constraints on the viable long-term options. Indeed, the interest in energy security of individual nations may prove to be a larger factor behind political decision-making than the more general, shared concern over the global climate. Whether Natural Geographic was correct in its judgement of Armenian NPP will hopefully remain without a definitive answer, but whatever risks the current, or future, nuclear facilities in the region present will have to be weighed against the security and benefits they provide in face of potential blockades and disruptions in energy supply. In energy economics, as in nuclear engineering, perfect solutions are rare: trade-offs have to be made.