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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Armenia's Energy Crisis

Air Date: Week of

Reese Erlich reports from Armenia on the country's search for solutions to its growing energy crisis. Regional conflicts have drastically curtailed Armenia's gas and oil supplies, increasing pressure on a hydrodam that is draining the capital's main water reserve. To meet Armenia's energy demands, the government may reopen a controversial nuclear power plant that was closed after a 1988 earthquake.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth, I'm Steve Curwood.

Winter is bearing down on the people of the former Soviet republic of Armenia, and in the capital city of Yerevan, the electricity is on for just one hour a day. The fledgling country's supplies of natural gas and fuel oil have been largely cut off by war with neighboring Azerbaijan and other regional conflicts. And that's left the energy-starved country facing some terrible environmental choices. The Armenian government can continue to sacrifice a major source of drinking water in order to generate electricity from hydropower, or it can restart an old-style nuclear power plant closed after a devastating earthquake in 1988. We sent reporter Reese Erlich to Yerevan for this report.

(Sound of passing car)

ERLICH: A flatbed truck holding a massive tank sits by the side of the road. That's what passes for a gas station in Armenia these days, because the regular distribution system has broken down. Gas costs this driver the equivalent of $8 per gallon, nearly two months' salary for a blue-collar worker. The pipelines and rail cars carrying petroleum and natural gas must pass through neighboring Georgia, where they are frequently blown up as a result of that country's civil war. The lack of supplies has led to serious problems in generating electricity. The government is desperate to find reliable energy sources. So last year it increased the use of hydroelectric power from nearby Lake Sevan.

(Sound of water rushing through dam)

ERLICH: Water rushes through six different power stations here in what deputy manager Nelly Meheran describes as a highly efficient system

MEHERAN (translated from Armenian): It was a hydroelectric plant built in 1956. Those turbines were made in Germany.

ERLICH: But these efficient hydroelectric plants may cause a major disaster. The government decision to increase electrical output means Lake Sevan is being drained faster than nature can replenish it. The capital city of Yerevan depends on the lake for drinking water, and the lake has gone down over 30 inches since January. No one knows exactly when, but if water continues to be drained, Lake Sevan will become a marshy swamp.

MEHERAN (translated from Armenian): The water from Sevan is going down and there's no drinking water, in the end there will be no drinking water.

ERLICH: Nelly Meheran, like government officials, sees only one way out of the crisis.

MEHERAN: The only hope is the atomic electric plant, which must be opened.

ERLICH: Re-starting that nuclear power plant is no less controversial. George Ter Stepanian is an environmentalist and retired geology professor. He opposed building the atomic plant back in the 1970s, because of its proximity to earthquake faults. He helped get the plant closed after Armenia's disastrous 1988 earthquake and is not convinced it's safe today.

TER STEPANIAN: This decision may be fatal for our country. We are a small country, with no place to evacuate the people. It is impossible to use this station in this dangerous place.

ERLICH: The Armenian government maintains that the plant had operated safely for ten years, and is earthquake-safe today. Steve Tashyan is deputy prime minister responsible for energy issues.

TASHYAN: The plant is designed to withstand the postulated earthquake in the region. In the last four years has the plant been shut down, there have been additional restraints put into the plant to make it more resistive to seismic activity.

ERLICH: But environmentalists say the government doesn't have the technical expertise to make the plant earthquake-safe. The Armenian power station is an outdated Soviet model. Critics say it wouldn't be allowed to operate anywhere else in the world. Hakob Sanasarian is a member of Parliament and president of the Greens Union of Armenia. He says there's another danger - the lack of a containment dome makes the plant an easy target for terrorist attack.

SANASARIAN (translated): In a situation where there is nothing stable, and there is war, and there is an opportunity of diversion, like terrorists, this is even more, makes it more dangerous operating atomic plants.

ERLICH: Environmentalist Sanasarian says rather than turning on the reactors, Armenia should seriously explore alternative sources of energy such as wind and solar power. Deputy prime minister Tashyan agrees these should be developed, but says they won't be sufficient.

TASHYAN: We have an aggressive program for renewable and alternative energy resources, specifically in solar and wind. As you know, those are long-term processes, and their value is incremental in terms of capacity. We have erected our first wind turbine, a 125 kilowatt for an experimental basis. We have our first solar system, installed again for an experimental basis. But to bring this whole thing to full mature fruitation it would take at least a couple of years and at best it can provide about 5 percent of the energy needs of Armenia. In itself it cannot be the solution.

(Sound of turbines)

ERLICH: Back at the Lake Sevan hydroelectric station, deputy manager Nelly Meheran and her fellow engineers continue to debate the merits of opening the atomic plant.

(Sound of male and female voices in Armenian)

ERLICH: The Armenia government says the nuclear power plant was found safe by three outside groups, including the International Atomic Energy Agency. But it has shelved plans to reopen the plant this winter, a tacit admission of continuing safety concerns. In the meantime, the hydroelectric plants continue to drain Lake Sevan. Even that power, however, won't give the country enough electricity for the coming winter. For now, Armenians pin their hopes on resumption of oil and natural gas supplies shipped through Georgia. Leaders of Russia, Armenia, and Georgia, meeting in Moscow in mid-October, agreed to protect the transport lines. The civil war in Georgia, however, makes implementation of that accord uncertain. Armenia faces a hard winter. The prospects for next year are even more difficult as the country must decide whether to drain the lake providing the capital's drinking water or risk a possible nuclear disaster. For Living on Earth, I'm Reese Erlich in Yerevan, Armenia.



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