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Energy-starved Armenians risk a new Chernobyl

Stepping gingerly into a rickety, aged lift at the Metsamor nuclear power plant, mothballed in 1989 after an earthquake but now reeking ominously of fresh paint, Steve Tashjian explained what he considers a risky but unavoidable leap of faith.

"Soviet things look awkward. My God, just look at this elevator. But that does not mean they don't work," said the American-Armenian atomic energy expert and government adviser. "The Soviet system never paid much attention to appearances, but they were in space before we were."

The same logic, a mix of hard fact and less solid wishful thinking, has propelled this energy-starved, disaster-prone country to reactivate a first-generation Soviet reactor that Western governments consider unsafe and local environmentalists condemn as a potential Chernobyl.

The Metsamor plant, built around a primitive pressurised water reactor, a VVER-440, is very different from the nuclear power station that exploded in Ukraine in 1986. But when lobbying to get it reopened began three years ago, Armenia's parliament drew up a list of 18 problems. "There are certain risks, but we should realise and everyone should realise we have no other choice," said Ara Sahakian, the deputy speaker.

Even critics admit the irresistible allure of cheap, albeit possibly hazardous, power that should mean 10 hours of electricity a day instead of three. Now most power goes to factories. "Our people are so cold we cannot explain anything to them," Samuel Shahinian, the legislature's environmental committee chairman, said. "They just want to be warm."

With no coal, natural gas or oil of its own, Armenia used to import nearly all its fuel through Azerbaijan. This route is now sealed, forcing it to rely on a frequently bombed gas pipeline through Georgia and hydro-electric plants that risk turning Lake Sevan, a cherished national treasure, into a marshland.

To try to escape this trap, the government has ordered 349 fuel canisters, each about the size of a person, be lowered into Reactor No 2's core. "We will start it up in the summer," said Soren Azatian, the plant general director, peering through thick glass into a sealed reactor hall as technicians in baggy white uniforms and paper hats scrambled over equipment. "You can see that everything is ready."

But when Mr Azatian needed to get a message to his chief technician on the other side of the glass partition, his methods of communication suggested not everything is up to date: first he tried screaming, then borrowed a pen to scribble a note. Dials in the main control room are labelled with skewed bits of grubby paper.

In the absence of help from the West, which wants all such reactors shut, Armenia has had to turn to Russia for the funds, expertise, spare parts and nuclear fuel. "How would you feel if you had an atom bomb in your house you did not control?" Mr Shahinian asked. "For Armenia this is economically and politically absurd."

Some flaws that prompted Metsamor's closure have been addressed. Bulldozers are digging an emergency run-off tank. Pipes have been inspected, corridors repainted, and walls crudely reinforced with metal against earthquakes. The reactor, though, remains a product of early Soviet technology. Installed in 1979, it has no containment, and the International Atomic Energy Agency worries about wonky welding. Its location is also unchanged - 30 miles from the epicentre of the 1988 Armenian earthquake and 16 from the capital Yerevan.

Utterly transformed, how- ever, is Armenia's predicament. No longer a well-provisioned outpost of Soviet rule, it is an independent nation, blockaded by Azerbaijan and Turkey, exhausted by the Nagorny-Karabakh war and desperate to avoid another winter without heat. "You cannot let people go indefinitely without light and electricity," Mr Tashjian said. "This is social suicide, it is political suicide, it is economic suicide."

The plant's opponents also talk of suicide. "If there is an accident it will be worse than Chernobyl," said Hakob Sanasarian, leader of Armenia's tiny Green movement. "Yes, people are dying, there is no food, nothing works, transport and factories have stopped. But even in these conditions we should not restart this plant. This is self-destruction."

Four VVER-440 reactors have been shut in the former East Germany; ten are in operation in Russia, Bulgaria and Slovakia. "We cannot go back to the Middle Ages or the Stone Age. Armenia is a country where modern technology should be used," said Vigen Chitechian, vice-premier for energy and leader of the drive to get Metsamor restarted.

"Unfortunately, modern technology is always dangerous."