Sunday, January 22, 2006

Armenian Zeolites and Nuclear Power.

Zeolites are listed among Armenia's more important mineral resources, and it is estimated that the country contains around 500 million tonnes of them. Armenia is a small, land-locked territory, fenced-in by Turkey to the west, Georgia to the north, Iran at the south and, most contentiously there lies an eastern frontier with Azerbaijan. The two countries have been at war over the disputed territory of Nagorno Karabakh (which means "Mountainous Black Garden", in description of its mountain landscape and the fertility of its soil), and while a ceasefire was declared about a decade ago, an uneasy peace remains. Nagorno Karabakh is situated in Azerbaijan, but is mainly populated by Armenians, and this has caused territorial angst between the two nations. Armenia has little indigenous fuel resources, and it is accordingly dependent on external supplies to meet its energy requirements. Azerbaijan is abundant in oil and gas from the Caspian Sea regions where its capital and main port Baku is located, but since the advent of the Karabakh conflict, it no longer supplies any fuel into Armenia. Gas pipelines exist from Georgia, but since these are regularly blown-up by various factions the supply is unstable. The border with Turkey also remains closed, ostensibly awaiting a final acknowledgement and resolution of the facts of the Armenian genocide. The southern border with Iran permits traffic between the two countries - one having signed-up to Christianity and the other, Islam.
The major provider of electricity in Armenia is the nuclear power plant (NPP) located on the edge of the town Metsamor, and about half way between the capital Yerevan and the Turkish border, which remains guarded on the Armenian side by Russian soldiers, against the backdrop of Mount Ararat - a huge double mountain whose main summit reaches beyond an altitude of 16,000 feet. Metsamor is contentious, in part because the NPP is located on an earthquake fault line. Consequently, neighboring countries - even as far away as Austria - have each voiced their concerns as to the safety of keeping the Armenian NPP operational. Efforts have been made by the European Union to persuade the Armenian government on this matter in the form of both a carrot and a stick: the latter is that the EU is withholding 120 million Euros in aid until the NPP is closed, but this is sweetened by the promise of an additional 100 million Euros to assist the Armenians in developing renewable sources of energy.
The enriched uranium fuel for the NPP is flown in to Metsamor from Russia, and although a nominal charge for this appears on paper at around $20 million, the Russians and Armenians seem to settle-up according to a kind of barter system, where e.g. Armenian craftsmen cut diamonds for the Russians in return for nuclear fuel. To simply close Metsamor is not a practical proposition. When a severe earthquake did strike northern Armenia in 1988, with the loss of more than 25,000 lives amid widespread devastation, it was decided to suspend operation of both reactors at Metsamor. The result of this action was an ecological calamity. The main fresh-water lake in Armenia, Lake Sevan, was substantially drained to provide hydro-electric power, in the absence of nuclear. Then the winter of 1994/95 fell particularly hard, and so the forests were devastated - chopped down for firewood. Such was the extent of the ecological impact that even some environmentalists called for the reactivation of the NPP, and in early 1995 one of the reactors was started up again to generate 40% of the entire nation's electricity, as it still does.
Since the break-up of the former U.S.S.R., Armenia has suffered financially. There is a statistic that half of all Armenians live on less than $2 a day, and a good measure of this downturn is the loss of trade within the former state collective. The population of Armenia currently stands at less than 3 million, since almost a million and a half have left the country since 1990, for better paid jobs in the West and in Moscow. It is usual that these emigres send money home to support the family that remains there.
Undoubtedly, the Metsamor NPP will close, eventually - as all nuclear power plants must, including those currently operating in the U.K., by 2050. Beyond a certain age an NPP is no longer safe to run, but the precise age of retirement depends on prevailing circumstances, both economic and political, if the two can ever be considered entirely separately. Indeed, the date to close Metsamor has been inched forward by varying increments at separate stages during the best part of the past twenty years. While the plant does continue to operate, the nuclear waste that it inevitably produces must be contained as securely as possible. As I have already noted, Armenia has deposits of zeolites weighing in to a reserve estimated at 500 million tonnes - materials which are pivotal to the safe management of nuclear waste, and hence are central in ensuring the safety of Metsamor during the remainder of its lifetime, and probably afterwards, once the plant is finally decommissioned.
It is a peculiar property of zeolites that they show a marked preference to absorb "heavy metal" cations over the lighter cations they contain naturally. Therefore, radioactive products of nuclear fission such as caesium-134 and 137 (Cs+) and strontium-90 (Sr2+) are readily ion-exchanged into naturally occurring zeolites, particularly clinoptilolite which comprises the majority of Armenian "Tuff" - the principal zeolitic mineral - by displacing the calcium (Ca2+) cations it contains in its native state as mined from the earth. Zeolites mined from the Noyemberyan region are particularly rich in calcium and are hence appropriate for application in sieving-out radionuclides from the dump-waters of nuclear power plants, thereby protecting the environment from radioactive contamination. As a post-dated strategy, a total of 500,000 tonnes of zeolites (some from Armenia) were used abortively in cleaning up inadvertently released radioactive contamination after the Chernobyl "accident" in 1986. I was working in "Russia" (then "Leningrad" now "St. Petersburg") in the weeks following, and was advised by a Russian Health Physicist: "Don't eat green. Eat meat!" I followed her advice and so presumably avoided ingesting contaminated vegetables, but instead survived on the flesh of animals who had either been killed before the incident, or had been fed zeolites in an effort to keep the radioactive cations out of their meat, patting it out benignly instead. I am now a vegetarian.
In conclusion, what will prevail post Metsamor? As a country with few options, how will Armenia provide for its fuel, and can it keep the lights on in the absence of nuclear power and without causing further ecological detriment? In part the prognosis is promising. A deal has been struck with Iran to build a 2.6 MW wind farm in northern Armenia. Admittedly, this falls shy of the 360 MW that Metsamor is presently outputting, but it's a start. The Armenian government reckons that to close Metsamor and substitute its output entirely from renewables would cost around $1 billion, which is rather more than the $0.1 billion the EU have on offer, but there are other aid packages potentially in the pipeline if they do go "non-nuclear". There are also plans to expand electricity production by hydro-electric power in a combined power/irrigation project that will involve diverting some of the rivers that flow into Lake Sevan. A further arrangement will bring natural gas into Armenia from Turkmenistan which has large gas reserves, and due to the Azerbaijani blockade this will have to be brought in via Iran, but a new road is being constructed for this purpose and in order to facilitate other commercial exchanges between Armenia and Iran. While this all sounds optimistic, there are renewed echoes of war emanating from Azerbaijan over the Nagorno Krabakh dispute - given their geography, perhaps the Azerbaijanis are feeling left out of the game.

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