The City Where Death Hovers All the Time, People Live in the Shadow of Fear

Metsmore was once named the world's most dangerous nuclear power plant because it is built in an earthquake-sensitive area. It is located just 35 kilometers (22 mi) from Yerevan, the capital of Armenia. From here one can see the snow-covered Mount Ararat across the border of Turkey.

This nuclear power plant was built in the 1970s along with Chernobyl. In those days, the Metsmore reactor met the growing energy needs of the huge Soviet Union. By 2000, the Soviet Union had targeted to make 60 per cent of its electricity needed by nuclear power, but in 1988 everything changed. A 6.8 magnitude earthquake caused havoc in Armenia. About 25,000 people died in the earthquake. The nuclear power plant had to be shut down for safety reasons, as the power supply was being interrupted in the plant's system. Many workers working at the Metsmore reactor returned to their homes in Poland, Ukraine and Russia.

30 years later, the Metsmore plant and its future are still a subject of discussion in Armenia. People's opinion is divided on this. A reactor here was restarted in 1995, from which 40 percent of Armenia's requirement is electricity. Critics say that this nuclear reactor is still very dangerous because in the area where it is built, there is a geological stir. On the other side are its supporters, including government officials. He says the reactor was originally built on the rocks of the permanent basalt block. There have also been some changes later, making it more secure than before. Amidst this controversy, the lives of the Metsmore Nuclear Plant and the people living in the city are going away.

The city of Metsmore is named after the nuclear reactor itself. This city of the Soviet Union was established as a model city. It was called Atomograd. Trained workers from the entire Soviet Union from the Baltic to Kazakhstan were brought here. There were plans to settle 36,000 residents here. An artificial lake, sports facilities and a cultural center were built for them. In the early days the shops here were full of goods. In those days even in Yerevan, there was a discussion that the best quality butter is available in Metsmore. Construction work was stopped in the city when an earthquake occurred. The lake was emptied.

Two months later, the Soviet Union government decided that the nuclear power plant should be shut down. Disruption in power supply due to sabotage in the Caucasus region meant that it was no longer possible to run the plant safely. People living in half-baked Metsmore found that the city had little employment opportunities for them. Even then the population of the city could not remain stable. The year the earthquake struck, the same year, refugees started coming to Metsmore due to conflict in the disputed Nagorno Korabagh area of ​​Azerbaijan. In the first year of the conflict, more than 450 refugees settled in the outskirts of Metsmore. Now they have built their homes. They are living in a place where there was a plan to build a third housing district in Atmograd.

The Armenia government faced a massive power crisis when the nuclear power plant was shut down. Rationing of power supply had to be done in the entire country. People were provided electricity for only one hour a day. In 1993, it was decided to reopen one of the two units of the plant. Safety standards were remodeled. The reactor is still operating today, but is in need of renovation. Ara Marjanian, an energy expert at the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), says, 'The design of the VVR type reactor is very old. For example, it does not have a concrete structure preventing debris from spreading when a possible explosion occurs. ' But he also points out that this reactor suffered the devastating earthquake of Spitak in 1988 and is one of the few reactors in the world that passed the first pressure test since the Fukushima accident.

Today, Metsmore has a population of about 10,000 people, including a large number of children. People living in apartments built about five kilometres from the reactor's cooling tower balance the lack of electricity and the potential danger of the plant. Photographer Catharina Roters says that the memory of the dark years of the power problem is still so fresh in people's minds that they cannot even think of life without this plant. Between 1991 and 1994, Armenia faced a severe power problem. Many times people had to live without electricity.

Today this city needs repair. The roofs here are dripping. The old radiator is cut and bench is made. Yet the sports hall is often full of children. They play football under a dripping roof. The rotors found that people's attitudes towards the nuclear reactor are mixed. They say that families who no longer work in the plant are disappointed about Armenia's economic condition. But those who still work in the plant are much more positive. Some people still feel proud that their city of Atmograd was once a special place.

Anthropologist Hamlet Melkmyan, who studies in Metsmore, says that the older generation of people who have also seen the city of the Soviet Union, consider it a safe house. There is a sense of community and mutual trust here. When people go out, they give the keys of the house to the neighbor. This sense of pride was also on the mind of architect Martin Miquelin when he was planning this ambitious city. It was an honor for him to be selected for this job. Metsmore still has that sense of national pride. The roof of the sports hall was dripping when I visited there in March. People had extended the balcony of their houses and covered it.

The city is not well maintained, but the local people have adapted it accordingly. Motorways that once were built for walking are now parked there. Monthly rent is low here - between $ 30 and $ 60 for a 95-square-meter flat, but people do not live here without their will. The community here is mixed with each other. Van Sedraken, who works at the nuclear plant, also runs Metsmore's Facebook page. He says that everyday people meet outside after work and discuss the news. Our children have a lot of room to play, but we want them to spend their time in studies. I have two daughters I want them to live and work in Metsmore as this is our motherland.