The story of a city in the shadow of an old Soviet Union nuclear reactor

The city is 35 kilometers from the bustling capital of Armenia, Yerevan. Metsamor is a stone's throw from snowy Mount Ararat, across from the Turkish border.

Meanwhile, the nuclear power plant at Metsamor was built simultaneously with Chernobyl, in the 1970s.

Chernobyl, a power plant in the city of Pripyat, Ukraine, exploded in 1986 and is considered the biggest nuclear tragedy because it affected the lives of tens of thousands of Soviet citizens and its surroundings.

The nuclear plant at Metsamor met the Soviet Union's growing energy needs. At that time, the Soviets had ambitious plans to meet 60% of their country's electricity needs from nuclear power.

Everything changed in 1988, when a magnitude 6.8 earthquake rocked Spitak, devastated Armenia and killed an estimated 25,000 people.

The plant was immediately closed for security reasons. As a result, many workers returned to their hometowns in Poland, Ukraine and Russia.

Thirty years later, the existence and future of the Metsamor nuclear reactor is still a controversial topic in Armenia. One of the plant's reactors was turned on in 1995 and now covers 40% of the country's electricity needs.

Critics believe that the nuclear power plants and reactors are still very vulnerable to earthquakes. The reason is that the location is busy with seismic activity.

By contrast, proponents of the plant, including government officials, say Metsamor was built on blocks of stable basalt rock. They said further modifications had also been made at the nuclear site, including the installation of fire doors.

But amidst the ongoing bickering, the lives of the people who live and work in Metsamor continue to roll on.

The city was built to attract workers from all over the Soviet Union, from the Baltics to Kazakhstan. Metsamor is designed to accommodate 36 thousand residents, complete with an artificial lake, sports facilities and a cultural center.

At the peak of its heyday, the shops in Metsamor had a complete supply of basic necessities. News of Metsamor's high-quality butter also reached Yerevan.

When the earthquake occurred, the city's construction stopped and the lake became empty. Two months later, the Soviet government decided to shut down the nuclear power plant.

Disruption of the energy supply due to the destruction of the system in a number of Caucasian regions means that it is no longer possible for the plant to operate safely. The people who live in Metsamor end up living in a semi-finished town with few job opportunities.

However, the population of the city of Metsamor has actually increased. In the same year as the earthquake, refugees started arriving from Azerbaijan who had fled the conflict in the mountainous region of Nagorno-Karabakh.

In the first year of the conflict, more than 450 people lived in the empty Metsamor hostel. They eventually settled down and now live in houses they built themselves.

The settlement stands on land that was planned to become the third residential complex of Atomograd.

The Armenian government faces a crisis after the Metsamor nuclear plant is shut down. They are forced to share the available energy equally for each region, a maximum of one hour per day.

This was valid until a new decision was taken in 1993. The Armenian government revived the two reactor units located at Metsamor, following strict trials. The reactor is working but needs some updating.

"Our VVR reactor design is rather old. For example, we don't have cement containment domes to contain the blast debris," said Ara Marjanyan, an energy expert at the United Nations Development Program (UNDP).

Even so, Marjanyan said the generator had proven to survive the devastating earthquake in Spitak. The site is also said to be one of the few nuclear power plants that passed the pressure test after the Fukushima tragedy in Japan in 2011.

Currently, Metsamor is home to around 10,000 residents, including children. In an apartment complex 5 kilometers from a nuclear cooling tower, local residents weigh fears over the scarcity of energy sources and the potential for a nuclear disaster.

"Those dark years when there was no electricity left a deep impression on people's minds," said Katharina Roters, a photographer who has documented life at Mestamor for many years.

"They can't imagine life without the power plant," Roters said. From 1991 to 1994, Armenia suffered from an energy crisis. At that time, the people of that country did not have a source of electricity at all.

Currently the town of Metsamor is in need of repairs, especially the roofs of the housing which are leaking and the many former engine radiators which need to be cut out to be converted into seats.


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