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Armenia Considers Reviving Old Reactor Shut by Earthquake


THE glass panels are long gone from the aluminum door frames at the entrance to Armenia's nuclear power station.

Inside the reactor building, paint peels from the walls and the stairwell is dark. The doors of the elevator to the control room are permanently open on the third floor, the button to summon it long since pried off. Ice lies frozen in sheets on the hallway floor leading to the control center.

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Inside the control room, where a couple of distracted men sit, a few panels that monitor the cooling system for the uranium-packed fuel rods are lit. On other panels, only square holes remain where gauges used to be.

The Medzamor nuclear power station's twin reactors have been shut down since a powerful earthquake rumbled through Armenia in December 1988. An initial shutdown to study the quake's impact on the reactors was extended in response to strong public opposition to restarting them. Closing the plant was one of the key demands of the Armenian nationalist movement that took power in 1989 and subsequently passed a law requiring a referendum to reopen the plant.

But Armenia is in the midst of an energy crisis, a product of the economic blockade from neighboring Azerbaijan, with whom Armenia is locked in a five-year conflict over the status of the Armenian-populated enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh. The blockade, combined with the cutting of railway lines through civil-war-torn Georgia, their other Transcaucasus neighbor, leaves the citizens of this former Soviet republic virtually without electricity.

Now the Armenian government of President Levon Ter-Petrosyan is preparing to ask parliament to permit reopening of the plant, according to Energy Minister Steve Tashjian, an American-Armenian with 20 years of experience at the Southern California Edison power company.

Some observers have suggested this is a ploy, using the threat of a nuclear accident at the dilapidated facility to force Armenia's neighbors to lift the blockade. Most recently, Armenian officials triggered alarm within the region by announcing that the energy crisis threatened to cut off power to the cooling system for the nuclear fuel and radioactive waste stored at the plant.

Armenian officials deny any attempt at nuclear blackmail.

The government has issued inconsistent statements on the possible timing of a reopening. The plant can be partially reopened "by next winter," says Ruben Shugarian, the president's press secretary and ambassador-designate to the United States.

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But Energy Minister Tashjian dismisses the prospects for a quick restart as "baseless." It will take 1 1/2 to two years to reopen the plant at a cost of $100 million, he says, citing a study done by the French nuclear energy agency Framatome.

But reopening is strongly opposed both within and outside the government.

"If we open the plant as it is now, all Armenia would be in danger," says Gagik Mkrtchian, an official of the Dashnaktsutyun, the strongest opposition party. Even with repairs, safety is not guaranteed, he says. "If there is no way out, it would be better to build a new plant."

Environment Minister Karine Danielian cites a long list of serious safety problems. She is among three senior government officials, including the health minister and the head of the Seismic Safety Agency, who oppose reopening the plant.

Still, faced with a populace that is cutting down vast tracts of trees to burn for heat, even a dedicated environmentalist such as Ms. Danielian is at a loss. "Whatever we decide, we shall come to an ecological crisis," she says. "I am not such an ecologist that I would want to preserve Armenia without Armenians. If the parliament, after considering the danger of the death of the nation, decides to open the plant, I will not oppose it."

Danielian charges that the plant does not have sufficient backup safety systems. For example, world standards require at least three independent sources of power for cooling systems, but the Armenian plant has only two and they are inter-connected.

One of the most controversial issues is the ability of the plant to sustain another major earthquake. Plant officials say the reactor building itself can withstand a quake of the maximum magnitude expected, although other parts of the complex cannot. But these Soviet PWR-440 reactors are built without a concrete dome to contain the radiation emissions in case of an accident. According to both Danielian and plant director Mihran Vardanyan, it is impossible to add such a dome. The flaws of this generation

of Soviet nuclear plants were already evident before the earthquake, Mr. Vardanyan concedes.

These problems are compounded by four years of neglect and steadily declining funding. Some parts of the system, including those involved in producing steam for the generators, are no longer operable. The pipes and valves have not been tested for four years. At least a quarter of the work force, including the Russian nuclear engineers who helped operate the reactor, are gone.

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