Agence France Presse
March 15, 2011 Tuesday 3:40 PM GMT

Earthquake-prone Armenia insisted Tuesday that its Soviet-era nuclear
power station was safe after environmentalists said the disaster in
Japan underscored the risk of catastrophe at home.

The Metsamor nuclear plant, only 30 kilometres (20 miles) from the
capital Yerevan and close to the border with Turkey, is located
in a seismic zone hit by a massive earthquake in 1988 that killed
25,000 people.

An official at the emergency situations ministry told a news conference
in the capital that the plant was built to withstand an earthquake
as powerful as the one that caused massive devastation in Japan.

"It was well understood in the Soviet Union that Armenia is located
in a seismically active zone," said the official, Zaven Khlgatian.

"This is why all the special features of the country were taken into
consideration," he said.

The European Union has in the past pleaded with Yerevan to shut down
the Metsamor reactor, citing safety concerns.

But the head of the Armenian State Committee on Nuclear Safety
Regulation, Ashot Martirosian, said the plant was not damaged by the
1988 quake and that safety had been significantly improved since then.

"Calculations show that the nuclear power plant is sufficienly robust
to withstand a similar quake," Martirosian told AFP.

He said that the cooling system at the Armenian reactor was also
different from the one in Japan, ruling out an identical accident.

"A recurrence of the Japanese scenario is theoretically impossible
at our plant," he said.

But local environmentalists expressed fears that another major quake
in Armenia could pose serious dangers.

"It is a fiction that the Armenian nuclear power plant can withstand
a nine-point earthquake or an even stronger one," Hakob Sanasarian,
the head of the Greens' Union, told AFP.

"I have seen no scientific justifications for such statements. So
the plant represents a real threat," he said.

"Questions asked by Armenian ecologists about the plant's condition
and its safety remain unanswered," said Inga Zafarian, leader of the
environmental group Ecolur.

"One cannot say unequivocally and with confidence that our plant is
safe and that it can withstand strong quakes," she said.

The plant was closed for five years after the 1988 quake until energy
shortages caused the authorities to reopen it, despite objections
from Europe and the United States.

Concerned over the reactor's high-risk location and ageing facilities,
the European Union in 2004 offered to provide 100 million euros
(139 million dollars) in compensatory aid if Yerevan agreed to shut
it down permanently.

But instead the authorities are planning to start building a new
reactor unit at Metsamor that will extend its life further.

Armenia insists that the landlocked and resource-poor country, which
relies on the power station for around 40 percent of its electricity
needs, has no alternative.

Suffering from an economic blockade imposed by neighbours Turkey
and Azerbaijan over its support for ethnic Armenian separatists in
the conflict over the breakaway region of Nagorny Karabakh, Armenia
also uses the plant to generate much-needed revenues from electricity

But environmentalists have called on the government to drop the plan
for a new reactor, saying that the risk of a nuclear accident so
close to the capital is too high.

From: A. Papazian