GHAPAN, Armenia (Eurasianet)–A protest movement against a planned Russian-Armenian uranium mine in southern Armenia appears to be picking up steam, with
discussions underway with three political parties about a partnership.
The mine, a 50-50 joint venture between Armenia and Russia, will be located in the mineral-rich region of Syunik, already the home to two copper and molybdenum mining operations.
Soviet-era studies indicated that Armenia could contain up to approximately 60,000 tons of uranium. With uranium prices at roughly $97 per kilogram, that means the Syunik mine could create considerable revenue for Armenian state coffers.
Yerevan plans to export the uranium to Russia, where it would be enriched for nuclear fuel to be used in Armenia’s nuclear power plant. Exploration work in the field is already underway. Deputy Minister of Energy and Natural Resources Areg Galstian stated at a late October conference on Armenian-Russian energy cooperation.
The Armenian-Russian Mining Company holds a five-year permit for exploration of uranium ore in Syunik. Company data indicates that exploration is taking place in southern and northern Syunik.
But local residents, including inhabitants of the nearby regional capital, Kapan, and the mining town of Kajaran fear the consequences. Expressing concern about chances for a spike in cancer rates and genetic mutations once uranium mining starts, the head of the Greens’ Union of Armenia, Hakob Sanasarian, called the project “a disaster for both the local and the national population.”
The director of a local Karabakh War veterans’ rights group agreed. “If they start mining uranium, we will fight using all possible methods,” Khoren Harutiunian declared. “We will even block the roads.”
Discussions are being held with three prominent political parties about an alliance to block the mine, Harutiunian said. He declined to identify the parties involved in the discussions.
The anti-mine movement also plans to start a letter-writing campaign to government officials this week; some 2,000 Kapan residents have already joined the protest, they claim.
Geochemist Sergei Grigorian, a member of the National Academy of Sciences who is overseeing the geological survey of the Syunik uranium deposits for the Armenian-Russian Mining Company, called the outcry misplaced.
“[T]his is … caused by some misunderstanding because what we do now is safe,” Grigorian said. “The mining work should be organized so that they will not cause any environmental problems.”
The Soviet-era figures about Armenia’s estimated uranium deposits could be 10 times higher than what exists in reality — a situation that could impact the Company’s plans for Syunik, he continued. Nonetheless, he underlined, Armenia requires fuel for its nuclear power plant and must secure its own supplies.
“[W]hat if we can no longer get uranium from Russia?” Grigorian asked. “We need to have some culture of mining. … We cannot just sit and starve.”
If the project proceeds on schedule, work on the surface of the mine site will start in 2010, and holes will be drilled to reach the uranium ore deposits, he said. But environmentalists question Grigorian’s assurances on the environment. “It’s up to an international independent expert group to decide whether [the uranium mining] is safe or not,” affirmed Inga Zarafian, chairperson of the non-governmental organization EcoLur.
Grigorian stresses that public discussions have been held to explain to some 1,000 local community members how the mine will operate and safety standards maintained.
The head of the Lernadzor community administration, however, contends that public discussions are not enough. “How can I support such activities if all this results in is people wanting to leave the village?” asked Stepan Petrosian. “I don’t know even whether I should finish building my house or not. Will my grandchildren ever live here?”
For now, that question remains unanswered, but the fear about the mines hangs on. One activist pledged: “We will fight till the end.”