Armenia’s positive lessons learned on nuclear power

February 6, 2024, 9:30AMANS Nuclear Cafe

Danagoulian

Areg Danagoulian, associate professor of nuclear science and engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, draws on his experiences growing up in Soviet-era Armenia to argue that nuclear energy is crucial to “help strengthen liberal democracies that are being unprecedently threatened” by what he calls authoritarian regimes, such as Russia and China.

Disasters both natural and man-made: In his essay “How Nuclear Power Saved Armenia,” published by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Danagoulian recalls the shutdown of Armenia’s Metsamor nuclear reactors in 1989 in the wake of fears generated by the 1986 Chernobyl accident, which “dramatically undermin[ed] public trust in nuclear power as a safe source of energy.” He asserted that “the public perception of danger from nuclear power was magnified by the outrageous lies that the Soviet leadership spread about the disaster, the obvious incompetence and irresponsibility of the Soviet nuclear designers who built and operated the Chernobyl reactor, and the poorly executed cleanup efforts, which were compounded by miscalculations and gross mistakes.”

A catastrophic earthquake in December 1988 that killed some 50,000 people in the town of Spitak further stoked fears of nuclear disaster. According to Danagoulian, Armenians worried, “Would another earthquake rip them [the Metsamor reactors] open and turn Armenia’s heartland, where half of Armenia’s population lived, into a Chernobyl-like radioactive wasteland?” Soon after, Metsamor was shuttered.

Political fallout: From there, other events unfolded. During the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, a violent conflict erupted between Armenia and neighboring Azerbaijan, and Azerbaijan shut down natural gas pipelines that led to Armenia. Next, hydroelectric power shut down when the rivers froze during the winter of 1992–1993, leading to further hardship.

The severe electricity shortages that followed these events led to an economic collapse in Armenia (with gross domestic product contracting between 50 percent and 80 percent) and a mass exodus that shrank the population by about 25 percent within a few years.

Similarly, Danagoulian observes, Germany today is struggling economically because it unwisely abandoned nuclear power while maintaining reliance on supplies of Russian natural gas, which have been disrupted by the geopolitical fallout from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Family hardships: Danagoulian, who was a teenager at the time of these events, talked some about his personal experience, recounting the hardships his family experienced during the electricity shortages that followed Metsamor’s shutdown. During the winter of 1992–1993, his family lived in an apartment building where the “water to our apartment shut off . . . and we get at most one hour of electricity each day.” He and his sister had to fetch water outside and carry the buckets up to their eleventh-floor apartment every day, while their mother squeezed in all the day’s cooking during their single hour of electricity.

Restart of Armenia’s reactor: Armenia eventually learned from its mistake, says Danagoulian, and Metsamor Unit 2 was restarted in 1995, resulting in the recovery of the country’s economy. “Almost overnight,” he said, “lights were turned on, water pumps worked again, and industries revved up to capacity. Children like my sister and I stopped their exhausting routine [of hauling buckets of water] and Armenia became a net exporter of electricity. . . . Over the 13 years that followed, Armenia’s economy grew by an unprecedented 700 percent.” These days, the country receives between 35 percent and 40 percent of its energy from nuclear power.

He argues that the dependence on fossil fuels—especially natural gas from Russia—by Western European nations—primarily Germany—reveals that European leaders have learned little to nothing from Armenia’s struggle for energy security. He asserts, “Only a full reckoning by Western countries of their overreliance on fossil fuels can put an end to the authoritarian regimes that exist only because of their hydrocarbon exports.”

Future nuclear options: In addition to making his points about the importance of keeping nuclear power plants operating and avoiding dependence on potential adversarial regimes for energy supplies, Danagoulian discusses Armenia’s interest in future expansion of its nuclear fleet.

The country’s single operating VVER-440 reactor is scheduled to permanently shut down by 2036. To replace it, the government is considering various options, including U.S.-built small modular reactors. Another option is continuing with the Russian VVER design. Both options are problematic, notes Danagoulian, because “of the lack of readiness of most SMR designs” and “Armenia is reluctant to further increase its energy dependence on Russia.”

Danagoulian concludes that the development of renewable energy and nuclear power would lead to net gains for the climate and the environment, as well as strengthen the energy security of Western nations.

Areg Danagoulian, associate professor of nuclear science and engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, draws on his experiences growing up in Soviet-era Armenia to argue that nuclear energy is crucial to “help strengthen liberal democracies that are being unprecedently threatened” by what he calls authoritarian regimes, such as Russia and China.


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