Armenians observe Kansas nuclear disaster drill

Friday, October 3, 2008

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) -- Armenian officials hoping to learn how best to respond to a nuclear plant accident watched a drill in Kansas on Thursday.

The Armenians said they will use what the learn when they test their own response capabilities in December, though they expressed confidence that their nuclear power plant was safe and reliable.

"The power plant survived the earthquake in 1988," said Maj. Gen. Aram Tananyan, deputy director of the Armenian Rescue Service, after watching the exercise. "What we have seen is very interesting to us."

Thursday's exercise at the Wolf Creek Nuclear Generating Station in northeast Kansas, the state's only nuclear reactor, was one of up to eight such drills the plant conducts each year. During each drill, agencies that would respond to a nuclear disaster are presented with a situation and determine what they should do.

Tananyan spent two months in Chernobyl following the 1986 explosion of the Ukrainian nuclear power plant. He told Kansas nuclear officials and emergency responders that efforts then were hampered by a lack of technology and communication to determine the scope of the accident and respond.

"This is a big program," he said of the Kansas response. But he noted that "during a real disaster you will need a lot more, especially with local government."

Representatives from Armenia's ministry of defense, ministry of health, its power plant and nuclear regulatory agency also observed the exercise. The Kansas National Guard and Armenia have worked together since 2003.

Maj. Gen. Tod Bunting, adjutant general for Kansas, said the state has provided Armenia with information on agriculture and democratic processes, as well as how to respond to a disaster.

In 2007, the Armenians approved a plan to dismantle a Soviet-era nuclear plant near the capital of Yerevan over concerns about its safety. That plant supplies nearly half the country's electricity.

Tananyan said the plant has been certified to operate through 2010 and that could be extended. No timetable has been set for replacing the plant. The plant has been upgraded through the help of grants from the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Armenia also gets power from hydroelectric generation and would like to develop wind energy, he said.

The U.S. has an interest in nuclear safety in the region, which has been prone to unrest since the end of the Cold War.

Earlier this year, the U.S. and Armenia signed a cooperation agreement to prevent the smuggling of nuclear and radioactive material through the country from former Soviet republics. The agreement established a 28-step program to increase Armenia's ability to prevent, detect and respond to attempts at smuggling dangerous nuclear materials.

In June 2003, authorities in neighboring Georgia arrested an individual trying to smuggle six ounces of highly enriched uranium into Armenia. Such trafficking surged as the Soviet Union broke apart in the early 1990s.

Col. Melson Karapetyan, a member of the ministry of defense, said equipment from the U.S. helps Armenia monitor the borders for radiological materials.

"Every radiological material is registered," he said. "There is no real threat of these incidents. We cooperate with everyone in the region."

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