By Javid Alisgandarli*
What would happen if radical and extremist terrorist organizations such as ISIS, Al-Qaeda or the PKK were to gain access to the nuclear and radioactive materials required to create nuclear bombs and chemical weapons? This question has been worrying the international community and world leaders for over a decade. According to the head of UN Atomic watchdog, “Nuclear Terrorism has become an alarming possibility and countries are not doing enough to prevent it”. But what are the chances of this happening, and where can terrorists access highly enriched uranium, plutonium or other radioactive materials needed for the building of a nuclear bomb? This threat is imminent, and in most instances its seriousness is underestimated as post-Soviet nuclear facilities functioning beyond their lifespan and having poor security and safety controls pose a significant risk in this regard.
One of these facilities is Armenia’s Metsamor nuclear power plant, listed by the European Union and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) as one of the five most dangerous nuclear facilities in the world. Built in the 1970’s, Metsamor is located about 35 kilometers west of the capital Yerevan and 20 km from Iğdır (Turkey). According to the IAEA, nuclear power stations should be situated at least 90 km away from human settlements. Moreover, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe has also expressed numerous concerns over Metsamor NPP’s location in a seismically active zone; the plant is a source of serious danger for the whole Caucasus region.
After the 1988 Spitak earthquake, the authorities decided to shut down the plant, proof that the Armenian authorities recognized the risks posed by Metsamor power plant in the event of a natural disaster. However, due to domestic energy shortages the Armenian government decided to re-open the plant in 1993. The Unit 2 reactor was brought back into operation on October 26, 1995. Metsamor thus became the only nuclear reactor in the world to be re-opened after being shut down. The ongoing operation of this nuclear facility represents major security and ecological threats to the region, especially Turkey (given its proximity to the Iğdır region), Georgia, and Azerbaijan.
In addition, according to the Austrian Institute of Applied Ecology, Metsamor is one of the most dangerous nuclear power plants in Europe. Furthermore, considering Armenia’s weak financial position it is clear that the Armenian government would be unable to cope with the fallout from an accident. It is also argued that the existence of such a nuclear facility possesses not only environmental and safety challenges to the region, but also to the rest of the world, given the rise of nuclear smuggling and illegal distribution of radioactive materials via Armenia.
There is some evidence of the leakage of radioactive elements, which are known to be highly dangerous to human health. The Iğdır plain, Ardahan, Kars and Erzurum are all vulnerable to radiation effects from the Metsamor plant. Residents in Iğdır claim they see the effects of radiation on the vegetables and fruits that they are growing. Additionally, the Armenian plant operators allow water used to cool to nuclear power plant to flow back into the Arpachay and Aras rivers. This causes irreversible damage to the environment and pollutes the rivers. According to the Agriculture Office in Iğdır, the number of animals born with physical defects has increased over recent years. Alongside this, rising cancer rates have been identified as one of the most dangerous effects of the Metsamor Nuclear Power Plant. Azerbaijani officials have repeatedly issued warnings concerning pollution of the transboundary rivers, particularly the Araz River, as a result of nuclear waste from the Metsamor NPP and other materials.
Like Ukraine’s notorious Chernobyl plant, Metsamor does not have a containment vessel, i.e. a layer of protection around the nuclear fuel designed to trap most of the radiation released during a nuclear reaction. The reactor vessel is also designed to withstand high pressures. This deficiency is an ongoing cause for concern for many who reside within the vicinity. Since 2003 Armenian chemist and environmentalist Jacob Sanasaryan has repeatedly proclaimed that Metsamor fails to meet international nuclear safety standards and has long exceeded its lifespan.
In April 2016, three Armenian citizens were detained after they were caught trying to sell $200 million worth of uranium-238. Further investigation revealed that all three were employees of the Metsamor power plant. This gave rise to many questions among international observers: “Was it stolen or was it given over to the three by the Armenian nuclear agency for a share of the $200 million the material was expected to bring in on the black-market?” The most alarming aspect of this operation was that the smugglers had been trying to sell the highly enriched uranium – a crucial component of a nuclear bomb – to the undercover police masquerading as representatives of Middle Eastern terrorist organizations.
According to Armine Sahakyan, an Armenian-based human rights activist, arrests of Armenians illegally crossing the Georgian border to sell nuclear materials have significantly increased in the past few years. There have been number of Armenian-led nuclear smuggling attempts in Ukraine in recent years (Beregovo, 1999), Georgia (Samskhe-Javakheti, 2001; Sadakhli-Bagratashen, 2003/2004/2009/2014; Sarpi, 2007; Tbilisi, 2000/2010); and Armenia (Meghri, 2003).
These instances show that operating a power plant in a conflict-prone region against the backdrop of weak governance, poverty and numerous socio-political problems leave the door open for nuclear smugglers, which constitutes a global security threat. Emblematic of this issue, Garic Dadayan has been arrested on the Georgian border for nuclear smuggling and illegal transportation of radioactive materials a number of times, and his early release has raised doubts among many observers. The fact that all the smugglers were arrested on Georgian territory or trying to pass through it gives rise to numerous questions: How was it possible to safely transport radioactive materials on this scale through Armenia without being noticed by the police? There is likelihood that the Armenian authorities – or at least corrupt officers – were involved at some stage in this process.
The prospect of highly enriched uranium and other nuclear and radioactive materials reaching the hands of terrorist organizations is deeply alarming, not only for the South Caucasus region but also for the world at large, given that the terrorists interested in obtaining these materials are often targeting Europe and the West in their acts of violence. The international community should not be silent in the face of this threat. No government should be able to take unilateral decisions regarding the operation of such a dangerous facility. This plant is essentially a ticking time bomb located at the heart of the Caucasus.
*Javid Alisgandarli is a foreign policy analyst for the Baku-based Center for Strategic Studies (SAM) and lecturer at Baku State University.