Metsamor was a model Soviet city, or atomograd, purpose-built in the 1970s to entice skilled workers to work in the nuclear power plant. The plant was constructed around the same time as Chernobyl in the 1970s. The first reactor was put into operation in December 1976, followed by the second reactor in January 1980. 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. While Moscow proposed the RBMK (“high-power channel-type reactor”), academician Andranik Petrosyants insisted in the installation of only the VVER-400 type reactor. Driving by its ambitious plans, Moscow was most likely more interested in the power than in its safety.
USSR’s first nuclear accident
While everything looked fine, the Metsamor Nuclear Power Plant could have been Soviet Union’s first nuclear disaster. The nation miraculously escaped from the misfortune in 1982, when a fire broke out at the Metsamor Nuclear Power Plant on 15 October, 1982. The fire had broken out in two places independently of each other: in the cable tunnels of the second reactor and at the pumping station of the automatic fire extinguishing system located 400 meters away. Because the latter fire, all efforts to launch the automatic fire extinguishing system were unsuccessful. The nuclear power plant was shut down as the fire spread very quickly and almost unhindered through the numerous high-voltage cable insulators inside the cable tunnel and the threat of a terrible catastrophe became a reality.
Within hours after the accident, the situation worsened. The efforts of firefighters and operational staff were unsuccessful. New fires appeared and both small and large explosions could be heard throughout the plant. After about 2½ hours, the control of the reactor was completely lost and the station lost both external and internal energy supplies. The cooling system failed, and a dangerous accumulation of hydrogen was recorded. Due to the damaged protection systems, any control became impossible, but the nuclear reaction inside continued. The temperature in the reactor was rising, which could lead to an explosion.
In the meantime, about 110 firefighters from units in Yerevan and the surrounding areas were arriving at the scene of the fire. Fire extinguishing work lasted seven hours and the firefighters were forced to break down walls to get closer to the fires. The fire brought the reactor to a standstill for atleast three days, since the generators, turbines, the transformer, pumps of the mechanical department and crucial cable lines were destroyed, with a total damage amounted to about 1 million Soviet rubles. Russian specialists from the task force from the Kola Peninsula of Russia arrived, when it became necessary to investigate the causes of the accident and launch the second reactor. It is however unknown what their roles were during the fires, sinces Armenian and Russian sources conflicts about their deployment. At the end, the Nuclear power plant was saved and the firefighters prevented a explosion of the reactor.
After the fires at Metsamor Nuclear Power Plant, the media were silent about the incident and it was kept secret from the general public. It was the first challenge of its kind for the USSR and the authorities realized only after the Chernobyl disaster how the accident at the Metsamor Nuclear Power Plant could have ended. While the seven initial firefighters were later awarded with the title of Hero of the USSR, all seven by the time had died from radiation exposure.
While everything looked like normal after the accident, it changed quickly when on 7 December, 1988, a 6.8-magnitude earthquake struck Armenia, killing around 25,000 people and leaving 500,000 homeless. About 100 kilometers from the epicenter, Metsamor survived according to Armenian officials and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) the shakings without any damage. The devastating earthquake heightened concerns about the seismic hazard to the facility and the nuclear power plant was closed down by the Soviet government. Many of the plant’s workers returned home to Poland, Ukraine and Russia.