YEREVAN (EurasiaNet)–It is not just railways, energy and telecommunications that unite Russian and Armenian business interests. This summer, a controversial joint project to mine uranium is expected to break ground; a prospect that some Armenian environmentalists warn could turn Armenia into "an environmental disaster zone."
The project, launched in February 2008, means fuel for Armenia’s nuclear power plant and for export. Details about financing are sketchy, although Armenia and Russia were originally said to be equal partners in the venture. Russia’s atomic energy agency, Rosatom, has claimed that it will put in "several million dollars" for research up until 2010. But the joint enterprise handling the project did not elaborate.
Exploration began last fall in the southern region of Syunik, known for its metal ore riches. The project has so far relied primarily on Soviet-era data. Rosatom Senior Director Sergei Kirienko projected in 2008 that the sites could contain "up to 60,000 tons" of uranium ore.
Academician and geochemist Sergei Grigorian, who oversees the geological survey of the Syunik uranium deposits, told EurasiaNet it is still too soon to speak about exact figures concerning the deposits. The work, though, he affirmed, "is on the right track."
"I personally suspended exploration work [at this same location] during the Soviet era, because I believed the exploitation of uranium mines [in Armenia] was senseless since there were larger deposits in other Soviet republics," said Grigorian. "But today, when uranium costs up to $300 per kilogram, exploitation of the [Armenian] deposits will bring benefits, if the ore is used carefully."
The director of the joint company set up to oversee the project, the Armenian-Russian Mining Company, adds that for the next two years the focus will be on geological surveys alone.
"We can’t tell the exact amount of available deposits, but the extraction will cover quite a large territory in both the northern and the southern regions of Syunik," said director Mkrtich Kirakosian. The start of underground survey work, originally expected for this spring, "might be somewhat delayed" some months as the project waits for government authorization for the work, he added.
Despite the lack of specifics, environmentalists are already issuing dire warnings. Syunik already is home to the copper mining works of Kapan and Kajaran. Inga Zarafian, chairman of the non-governmental organization Ecolur, said that opening a uranium mine in the area would greatly increase the ecological hazards.
Traces of heavy metals such as mercury and arsenic have already been found in the hair of children living near what is expected to be the uranium project’s primary mining site, Lernadzor, some three kilometers away from Kajaran. Surveys by the Armenian National Academy of Science’s Ecosphere Research Center show that ground radiation in the area exceeds the permitted level by more than three and a half times; ground contamination by heavy metals is several times higher than allowed.
Given the risks, public discussions on the mining project are a must, Zafarian affirms. "Talking about this tomorrow may be too late," Zarafian said.
"The territories are already environmentally endangered,” he said. “Now, they are going to exploit uranium mines there. Imagine what’s going happen to the place!"
Lernadzor village head Stepan Poghosian says that locals are worried about the health risks once actual mining begins. "Everybody knows what uranium is. People don’t want to live in a place that may cause diseases in their children," Poghosian said. "The exploitation of uranium is not rain, a mudslide or hail, things that villagers can handle."
Both experts involved in the survey work and the Ministry of Environmental Protection insist that the project involves no hazards, and that mining operations will be "transparent."
The uranium deposits are mostly hidden within the ground’s crust and will be extracted via tunneling, said survey overseer Grigorian, who seconds the call for a public hearing on the matter. "The mining might be dangerous if it were, say, in the basin of Lake Sevan, but there is no such danger because Syunik is a mountainous region," said Grigorian. "Maybe a very small area is threatened there, at the entrance to the tunnel, but the rest of the work will be done underground. So, the population’s fears of radiation are groundless."
Armenian-Russian Mining Company Director Kirakosian echoes that line. "It’s too soon to talk about environmental problems because, so far, it’s just about the survey," he said, adding that all work follows existing legislation and "observes all environmental requiremen’s."
Environmentalist Hakob Sanasarian, chairman of the Greens’ Union of Armenia, counters that uranium prospecting at the Syunik site was stopped for a good reason during the Soviet era. The suspension “was not a decision that just happened," Sanasarian said. Grigorian, who worked on the site in Soviet times, however, maintains that the work stopped only because other sites had larger deposits. "The environmental hazards threaten to cause genetic modifications in humans, as well as cancer, and other defects. Nature will have its revenge one day," Sanasarian said.
Meanwhile, local residents say they are left in a quandary about whether to go or to stay. "I don’t know what is going to happen," said Lernadzor’s Petrosian. "We have lived here our whole lives."