Armenian City Chooses
Radiation Over Hunger
METSAMOR (AFP) - Syoma speaks for many here when he says he is terrified of the European Union's plan to close the nearby nuclear power plant, the single source of livelihood for this impoverished Armenian city.
More than 30 percent of the town's workforce are employed at the Metsamor power station, Armenia's only nuclear power facility and the country's largest source of electricity.
"We are more afraid of dying of hunger than we are of radiation," said the unemployed 50-year-old former factory head. "The life of this town is one with the station."
Syoma and many of the town's 12,000 other residents say that they fear for their future if the EU and the Armenian government follow through on plans to decommission the plant.
"I have just enough to cover my debts and a little left over," said Armen, a 34-year-old engineer who earns around 50,000 drams ($90) a month from the station.
Over 50 percent of the town's working-age adults are unemployed, and only those families that are fortunate to have a member on the station's payroll say that they are managing to get by.
"Most of my customers are buying on credit," said Irina, who runs a small grocery store for the town's residents. "I know that they cannot pay me, but if I don't give them credit, they will starve."
"My next-door neighbors haven't had power for four or five months, because they can't pay their bills," she added, not missing the irony that they live next to the country's single largest electrical producer.
City officials say that 620 families receive aid from the government, and the rest are left to fend for themselves. Some 2,000 individuals have sold their apartments and left the town in the past months.
Most people say they manage to survive by doing the occasional odd job, growing their own food, or relying on money sent by relatives working in Russia.
But the situation has grown worse in the past months, residents say, with the Russian economic crisis dealing a blow to the local economy and cutting off the cash shipments from the north.
EU officials have set a deadline of the end of 2004 for closing the plant, which produces around one quarter of the country's electrical output, as part of its program to eliminate Soviet-era nuclear stations.
Safety concerns were raised and the plant was shut down after a massive earthquake measuring more than seven points on the Richter scale destroyed two Armenian cities in 1988.
But authorities were forced to restart one of Metsamor's reactors in 1995, after neighboring Azerbaijan and Turkey imposed a crippling energy blockade on Armenia over the war in Nagorno Karabakh.
At the moment, negotiations between the EU and Armenian government are deadlocked over the details of how the plant will be taken out of operation and who will pay for it, officials say.
According to some estimates, more than $350 million will be needed to close the station and switch over to alternative sources of energy like hydro- and thermal power.
Actual costs could prove to be much higher, however, as Armenia will be forced to upgrade its antiquated power grid and build pipelines from Russia or Iran to provide fuel.
Another alternative is to build a completely new nuclear power station, at a cost of some $2 billion, according to some sources.
"Closing the plant is the sorest question right now," said Aram Gevorgyan, head of the department of atomic energy. "The EU says to stop production in 2004, but we still haven't solved question of how to replace the lost energy."
"There is simply no money," added Gevorgyan, who said that the original plan for the station allowed for a 30-year life cycle until 2010. Officials also assure that the station is safe and could withstand a major earthquake.
But western officials say that the onus for financing the project rests with the Armenian government, which must provide a stable economic environment in order to attract investors.
The high cost of decommissioning the station is not lost on the residents of Metsamor, who doubt the government would take the political risk of closing the plant without providing any financial guarantees.
"They won't close the station until all problems have been solved," said the town's mayor, Meruzhan Kharutian. "That's not just economics, but politics too."