Russian atom goes far south

Written by The Frontier Post

Sergey Savchuk

The other day, within the framework of the Russian Day of Small Power Nuclear Plants (ASMM), the structural subdivision of Rosatom Overseas and representatives of the Republic of Armenia signed a memorandum of cooperation. The document implies the study of the possibilities of building several Russian low-power nuclear reactors on the territory of Armenia.
The history of the only nuclear power plant in the republic in Metsamor fully reflects the history of Armenia both as part of the Soviet Union and in the period of subsequent independence. If we talk about the current day, then here the old station is not just an industrial facility, but the key to a stable future. But first things first.
By the end of the 60s of the last century in the Armenian SSR, where the center was rapidly industrializing, there was a clear energy shortage. Various options for solving the problem were considered, but after modeling and calculating the provision of generation based on natural gas and coal, it was decided to dwell on the idea of building a nuclear power plant. The process went quickly, the relevant ministry received its first task in the summer of 1967, and already in August 1969 the Council of Ministers of the USSR approved the project for the construction of the first stage of the Armenian NPP with two VVER-440 power units. As it turned out a little later, the first stage was the last.
Soviet specialists were well aware of the complexity of the project, primarily due to the potentially threa-tening seismicity of the re-gion, and therefore more than fifty design and rese-arch organizations, including ” Uralmash”, “Izhora Plants”, “ZIO-Podolsk” and many others. The first reactor started up in 1976, and the second one in 1980, both of which were equip-ped with advanced safety technologies, for example, ground hydraulic shock absorbers under the nuclear power plant buildings. But everything was ruined by a purely human factor.
In December 1988, a terrible earthquake occurred in Spitak, which practically wiped the city off the face of the earth, more than twenty thousand people died, tens of thousands were left without shelter, light and drinking water. In the Metsamor area, instruments recorded tremors of magnitude 6.2 on the Richter scale, and although the nuclear power plant was designed to withstand an earthquake of up to 9.5 magnitude, many plant workers fled in panic from their jobs. The Armenian nuclear power plant survived the natural disaster and remained fully operational, but under the pressure of public opinion, supplemented by radiophobia caused by the recent Chernobyl accident, the Council of Ministers decided to stop the station. Both power units were stopped, and the construction of two new ones was frozen.
And then a new time came. Specifically in Armenia, the situation with energy supply has become so difficult that in the early nineties it was a common occurrence when electricity was supplied to the population for only one hour a day. Yerevan, having no other alternatives, returned to the idea of restarting the nuclear power plant, but it suddenly turned out that the vessel of one of the reactors had been sawn apart, allegedly for flaw detection, and it was not possible to restore its integrity. As a result, various equipment at the first power unit was finally sawn up and handed over for scrap. However, in the 90s it was common for any post-Soviet republic.
However, as a result of a technical audit conducted by the IAEA, the fact was confirmed that the second reactor, after six and a half years of inactivity, remained fully operational and meets all current safety requirements. In 1995, the only VVER-440 that remained in service was returned to service, and even with a planned reduction in the nominal load to 92 percent, the old man manages to produce nearly 40 percent of Armenia’s entire electricity.
This situation has survived to this day, although it should be noted here that over the past thirty years, the collective West has tried with all its might to persuade Yerevan to close its only source of energy. In foreign media, the Armen-ian nuclear power plant is invariably portrayed as an old and dangerous Soviet technology, and the nuclear town of Metsamor itself as a depressing place from which the population is fleeing.
To complete the picture, we add one more fact. In 2019, an official meeting of the government of Armenia and representatives of the NATO bloc took place, and the number one issue on the agenda was the closure of the long-suffering nuclear power plant, and no one even concealed that this demand was aimed at weakening Russian influence in the region. A separate party in this game was played by the Azerbaijan-Turkey tandem. In the summer of 2020, the speaker of the Ministry of Defense of Azerbaijan directly said that in the event of an escalation of the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, Baku reserves the right to strike at key Armenian infrastructure facilities, including Metsamor. As we know, the conflict in Karabakh nevertheless broke out, but, fortunately, it did not come to a man-made atomic catastrophe.
The year is 2022, and A-rmenia, in addition to political and territorial problems, is once again plunging deeper into the energy crisis. The Russian corporation Rosatom, which en-sures the full life cycle of the Armenian NPP, has extended the life of a single reactor until 2026, but all interested parties are well aware that the life of VVE-R-440 is not infinite and Armenia may lose 40 percent of its generation in the coming years. Having rec-eived no coherent proposals from the United States and the European Union, Armenia turned to Russia, which, undoubtedly, was facilitated by the successful completion of the project in the Belarusian Astravets.
Information on the expansion of Armenian nuclear capacities is still scarce. It is known that the construction of new low-power reactors is planned at the site of the same Metsamor, which is completely logical, because it has proven its relative seismic immunity. It is also reported that it is planned to use the Russian RITM-200N reactors with an electric power of 55 and a thermal power of 175 megawatts as the main working unit. The choice is very unusual, given that the water-water RHYTHM with uranium dioxide as fuel was originally developed and used as the main power plant on icebreakers and combat submarines. For example, they are already on the icebreakers of project 22220 “Arktika” and “Siberia”, and the successful construction of the floating nuclear power plant “Akademik Lomonosov”
We suspect that the choice of the power plant is not at all accidental. First, small reactors are relatively cheap, economical, environmentally safe and built in a shorter time. Secondly, (and this, we think, is the main reason Armenia was guided by), with such a decision, a gradual increase in generation capacities is possible. If we are allowed a free analogy, it is like going to the market. The buyer can take some of the goods of interest for testing without spending extra money (which small Armenia objectively does not have) to make sure of the quality of the purchased service.
The construction of a pair of RITM-200N, where the index “H” means “ground”, will make it possible to increase nuclear generation for more than half of the entire national energy balance for relatively little money. In case of successful implementation, in five years it will be possible to safely plan the decommissioning of VVER-440 without the danger of a collapse of the power system and a return to the dark 90s. We must not forget about the purely economic side.
Armenia, although it does not have a common border with Russia, occupies a key geographical position. The issue of building an energy bridge to the Middle East has been raised for many years. The project involves the formation of a highway along the route Russia-Georgia-Armenia-Iran. The Islamic Republic, which has been under strict US sanctions for a year, is experiencing severe energy hunger. As of 2020, with its own installed production capacity of 54 gigawatts, Tehran neededat least 12 gigawatts of imports. Iran has long been implementing the “gas in exchange for electricity” program, offering three cubic meters of natural gas for each delivered kilowatt. This is used, for example, by Azerbaijan, which has already installed four direct current inserts on the border and continuously sends electricity to its neighbors.
The prospects of this direction were also confirmed at the recent meeting of the presidents of Russia and Iran. Ibrahim Raisi in Moscow, among other things, proposed to increase efforts to organize energy bridges Russia-Georgia-Armenia-Iran and Russia-Azerbaijan-Iran, moreover, a proposal was made to synchronize the energy systems of all countries along the proposed route.
As you can see, Russian nuclear technologies are not only an element of geopolitical influence and a guarantee of peace, but also a very good source of foreign exchange earnings for the state budget.

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