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Metsamor has been described as one of the world’s most dangerous nuclear power plants because of its location in an earthquake zone.

It sits just 35km (22 miles) from Armenia’s bustling capital, Yerevan, with distant views of snowy Mount Ararat across the border in Turkey.

The plant was constructed around the same time as Chernobyl in the 1970s. At the time the Metsamor reactor provided energy for the growing needs of a vast Soviet Union, which once had ambitious plans to generate 60% of its electricity from nuclear power by 2000.

But in 1988 everything changed; the 6.8 magnitude Spitak earthquake devastated Armenia, killing around 25,000 people. The nuclear power plant was swiftly closed down because of safety concerns over an unreliable electricity supply to power the plant’s systems. Many of the plant’s workers returned home to Poland, Ukraine and Russia.

Thirty years on, Metsamor plant and its future remain a divisive topic in Armenia. One of its reactors was restarted in 1995 and now generates 40% of Armenia’s energy needs. Its critics argue the site remains extremely vulnerable to earthquakes due to its location in an area of seismic activity. Its supporters, however, including government officials, argue it was deliberately originally built on a stable basalt block and insist further modifications, such as improved fire doors, have been made to make it even safer.

In its heyday the shops were well-stocked and rumours about the high quality of the butter reached Yerevan

Yet whilst the squabbling continues, life goes on for those who live and work nearby in the town of the same name built just outside the plant.

This model Soviet city, or atomograd, was purpose-built to entice skilled workers from across the USSR, from the Baltics to Kazakhstan. It was planned for 36,000 residents with an artificial lake, sports facilities, and a cultural centre. In its heyday the shops were well-stocked and rumours about the high quality of the butter reached Yerevan.

When the quake struck construction in the city ground to a halt and the lake was empty. Two months later Moscow decided the plant had to close. Disruption to the energy supply from sabotage in the various breakaway regions of the Caucasus meant it was no longer possible to run the plant safely. Those citizens who stayed on in Metsamor found themselves in a half-built city with few employment opportunities.

Metsamor's iconic cooling towers (Credit: Getty Images)

But the population didn’t remain static. The same year as the earthquake locals were joined by refugees fleeing Azerbaijan due to conflict in the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh territory. In the first year of the conflict over 450 people were housed in Metsamor’s vacant dormitories. Those people settled down and now live in homes they have built themselves, on the site where the proposed third housing district of the atomograd would have been located.

The Armenian government faced a crisis after the plant was shuttered and it was forced to ration the whole country’s energy supply to just one hour-per-day. That was until the decision was made in 1993 to relaunch the newest of the plant’s two units and bring in rigorous safety tests. This reactor is operational but due to be refurbished.

“The design of our VVR-type reactors is rather old. For instance, they do not have concrete containment domes to contain possible explosion debris,” says Ara Marjanyan, a national expert on energy at the United Nations Development Programme but adds that the reactor  withstood the devastating Spitak earthquake and claims it is among one of the first nuclear plants in the world "to pass post-Fukushima stress tests.”

The community has adapted the city to their own needs relocating its centre (Credit: Katharina Roters)

 

Today Metsamor has a population of over 10,000 people with lots of children. In the apartment blocks 5km from the cooling towers, the people balance their worries over energy scarcity against the potential threat posed by the plant. “The black years of electricity shortages are so strong in people’s minds,” says Katharina Roters, a photographer who has documented the city, “that they cannot consider life without the plant.” From 1991-1994 the country suffered an energy crisis where at times the population was left with no electricity at all. 

The black years of electricity shortages are so strong in people’s minds that they cannot consider life without the plant

Today the city is in a need of repairs, with leaking roofs and bits of old radiator cut up to make benches. With no heating supply resourceful locals deemed the radiators to be more useful as building materials. Despite this, the sports hall is often bustling with excited children playing football beneath the leaking roof.

So why do they stay? Roters found mixed attitudes towards the nuclear power plant. “The families that no longer work at the plant tended to be frustrated about the economic situation in Armenia, whereas those who still worked at the plant were much more positive.”

The plant requires a much smaller staff to maintain the single unit, and only 900 of the town's population are employed by the plant (Credit: Getty Images)

Some still feel deeply nostalgic about the once-privileged status of their atomograd. “For the older generation who lived through the Soviet-era the city feels like a safe home,” says Hamlet Melkumyan, an anthropologist who has studied Metsamor. “There is a sense of community and mutual trust. People will leave their house keys with neighbours when they are away.”

This sense of pride is exactly what architect Martin Mikaelyan had in mind with his ambitious, idiosyncratic plan for the model town. It was considered an honour to have been chosen as the republic to host the plant, and there is still that sense of national pride in Metsamor. When I visited in March the roof of the sports hall was leaking and shoushabands (homemade covered balconies) jutted out over the courtyards. Though ill-maintained the locals have adapted Mikaelyan’s city to their own needs, relocated its centre, and parked cars on the once-pedestrianised walkways.

Monthly rents are low, between $30 and $60 for a 95sq/m flat, but people are certainly not stuck there against their will, there is a close-knit community.

“Every day people gather outside after work, and discuss the news,” says Van Sedrakyan, who works at the plant and runs Metsamor’s Facebook page. “Our children have places to play, but we prefer that they spend their time studying. I have two girls and I hope they will stay and work in Metsamor because it is our homeland.”

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