06 June 2004

The EU and Armenia's Nuclear Power Plant

The Argus has a fascinating post on the EU's efforts to shut down Armenia's Chernobyl-style nuclear power plant. (In addition to reactor design problems, Armenia is in a region prone to major earthquakes.)
The EU, true to form, dealt with the problem in the only way it knows how – it threw money at it. It agreed an aid package for which, in return, the Armenian government had to work to close the plant before the end of its lifespan in 2016. An alternative source of energy is available – the EU money was meant to go towards funding a gas pipeline from Iran. The trouble is, Armenia doesn’t seem to want to/doesn’t seem able to set a date.

So why isn’t Armenia playing ball? Why won’t it set a date and relieve the EU of its money? Basically, because the Iranians are not a particularly reliable partner for a country that has massive energy security issues. Armenia is a primarily Christian country; Iran isn’t. Although Iran supported Armenia in its war with Islamic Azerbaijan, the Armenian government remains suspicious that Iran’s friendship is one of convenience, and may not last into the long term. What if Iran were to shift its allegiance in any future conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan? What if a future conflict in Iran were to cut off supplies? With no nuclear power, Armenia would find itself in dire straits. Already fearing that Azerbaijani oil-wealth will embolden it in Nagorno-Karabakh, Armenia must secure its future energy supplies. Without them, its position relative to Azerbaijan will only get weaker.

The EU thinks that by withdrawing the aid money it is going to be able to effectively bully Armenia into making a decision. Once it realizes that 100 million Euros are slipping out of its grasp, Armenia will back down. After all, it will have to close the Metsamor plant sometime – it might as well get paid for doing so. But I think it underestimates how important this issue is to Armenia. It simply cannot do without a reliable energy supply and is so desperate it may well consider extending the plant's lifespan to ensure it....

Already 25% of Armenia’s electricity comes from hydro power, and there is plenty of scope for expanding that – in fact new plants are already being built. The EU itself is over-reliant on imported energy and taking steps to diversify its supply. It would be a shame if it didn't apply the lessons it has learnt to other countries in a similar position.

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