PIONEER OF THE SOVIET ATOMIC POWER ENGINEERING

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Опубликовано в библиотеке: 2021-10-14
Источник: Science in Russia, №6, 2012, C.54-62

by Viktor SIDORENKO, Corresponding Member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, National Research Center "Kurchatov Institute" (Moscow)

 

The Instrumentation Laboratory of the USSR Academy of Sciences I joined as a senior laboratory assistant in 1952, and Kurchatov, as is known, died in 1960. Eight years are a little and much time-not much, but a good deal. The character of mutual interrelations was determined by a range of problems he handled, mode style of behavior, form of cooperation with the institute staff members and attention to the young workers. Sometimes trivial matters were of importance. My surname happened to be familiar to many people because of the play "The Ardent Heart" by famous Russian playwright Alexander Ostrovsky. When seeing me, a young engineer, after work in the alley of our institute, Kurchatov used to shout cheerfully from afar: "Sidorenko, show me how many laws we have. How shall we judge: by law or by conscience?"

 

Igor Kurchatov. 1950s.

 
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The work on a design of a water-moderated water-cooled reactor for an atomic power station started in 1955, at the customary rate for that time, in which I was actively involved as a member of the team of Sergei Skvortsov, Cand. Sc. (Tech.). At the same time, I was entrusted with several crucial missions from Kurchatov. The first was rather unusual. The Beard (Kurchatov's nickname given by his immediate colleagues for his long beard) gave it to me on the eve of the 1st Geneva Conference on Peaceful Use of Atomic Energy (1955). The preparations for it were painstaking. As a rehearsal, Kurchatov even organized a special session of the USSR Academy of Sciences on this subject. According to the procedure established by organizers of the Geneva Conference all reports were sent in good time to the member-countries. Among them was also our report on the test loop reactor MR put into operation in 1952. The American report on a similar subject was devoted to MTR--water-moderated fuel plate reactor (1954). As regards the core structure it looked more attractive as it allowed obtaining of higher parameters of neutron flux. Our graphite-moderated reactor MR looked rather old-fashioned. Georgi Kruzhilin, a well-known specialist in thermal and nuclear power engineering, Corresponding Member of the USSR Academy of Sciences was to present the Soviet report at the conference.

 

Kurchatov asked me to his office and formulated the task in his habitual manner: "You have read both reports and see advantages of the American reactor. It is necessary to reveal and emphasize the advantages of our design to present it properly. These 'old sand-pipers' are not able to do anything properly. Sit down and write an abstract of oral presentation of our report for the conference." (It is pertinent to note here that "the old sandpiper" Kruzhilin was 43 at that time.) I seems to me that I managed the task. As the main advantage of our design, and, in particular, choice of graphite as a moderator, we mentioned essentially more favorable conditions for placement of loop channels with different heat carriers in the reactor core for testing of experimental fuel elements.

 

By the way, Kurchatov deciphered the abbreviation MR as "M... Sobbings" (M means an improper word in this phrase) or simply "Sobbings". Probably it was connected with the failures of the start-up period and unsuccessful results of fuel element tests on research loops. He usually inquired about work on the reactor in the following way: "What about Sobbings?".

 

Another mission referred to 1956. It was in a fully Kurchatov style of communication with young workers. It was a time of preparations for the 20th Congress of the USSR Communist Party. On the basis of all studies, discussions and previous decisions related to the development of the atomic power engineering and selection of reactor plants for atomic power stations, Kurchatov joined the preparation of the corresponding section of the 20th Congress Directives by laying down of the basic parameters of the construction program of powerful atomic electric power stations and pilot reactors in the sixth five-year plan (1955-1960). Actually it was a question of the first program of atomic power engineering to attach the industrial ministries to its realization. My mission was to determine its outlines and sizes of introduced capacities with breakdown by types of electric power stations and pilot power plants. At that time it was

 
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planned to produce 2-2.5 mln kW of electric power at the expense of atomic energy. Besides, it was planned also to construct five atomic power stations with the start of their commissioning at the end of 1958. I remember my visits to Kurchatov in Barvikha (Moscow Region), where we elaborated details of future documents on a bench near his house.

 

Skvortsov recollected later on his meeting with Igor Golovin, then the first deputy director of the institute, and said: "It looks improper when Kurchatov entrusts Sidorenko with important missions, while the latter is only an engineer. Submit your recommendation, and we shall promote him to the position of chief engineer."

 

I still vividly remember my impressions related to the time of preparations for the 2nd Geneva Conference of 1958. Among others, I had to make a report too. At some moment Kurchatov found out that the authors were disrupting the planned terms of presentation of their reports. He invited the reporters from the institute to "the forester's hut" (the house built on his request near his "work", where he, his wife and brother lived in the autumn of 1946 before the start-up of the reactor F-1), where we took seats in chairs along the perimeter of a room on the first floor.

 

Kurchatov came in, made sure that everybody was present and at once started asking by turns (to my mind, the radiochemist Grigory Yakovlev was the first whom he began "to educate"): "What on earth do you...!" (only at most 10 percent of that utterance could be regarded as literary expressions). "And you, young man (referring to me), are doing the same?!" Then he ended the meeting looking at us cheerfully: "Well, what about my civilized speech? Now you may go and have a rest..."

 

As a result, the work was completed in 3 days. If we dare say that responsibility for an entrusted work is one of the main characteristic features of our generation of atomic scientists, it also is a result of this speech, of practical communication with such Man.

 

I called my essay "Pioneer of Soviet Power Engineering". In my opinion, it fully conforms to the real development of events and Kurchatov's role in them.

 

Awareness of the fact that uranium fission energy should be used for peaceful purposes was natural for the scientists and specialists engaged in the creation of an atomic bomb. Back in 1945, the organization of "research works on peaceful use of intra-atomic energy" was included in the agenda of the Technical Council of the Special Commission under the State Defense Committee (later on under the USSR Council of People's Commissars and from 1946 the First Main Directorate under the USSR Council of Ministers). The Technical Council was entrusted with this mission on October 26, 1945, by decision of the Special Committee signed by its chairman Lavrenty Beria and with reference to the proposals of Academician Pyotr Kapitsa.

 

In his letter of December 18, 1945, to the deputy chairman of the State Defense Committee and supervisor of the atomic project Vyacheslav Molotov, Kapitsa stressed that "use of atomic energy is primarily intended for peaceful cultural purposes, where it has to revolutionize power engineering and a number of other key fields of technology", and later on "power engineering will change over to atomic energy, and it is quite possible that the problem of coal, turf, etc. combustion in furnaces will be treated as barbarism, and it will be prohibited".

 
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Kurchatov was a member of the Special Committee and the Technical Council of the Committee with Boris Vannikov as its chairman, but actually, as director of Laboratory No. 2, he became a "brain center" and the main moving force of all works on using of atomic energy. Only after the first Soviet atomic bomb was tested in 1949, he was appointed chairman of the Scientific and Technical Council of the First Main Directorate under the USSR Council of Ministers.

 

In 1946, the studies of "use of uranium boilers for electric power generation" were suggested to be included in the list of research works for institutes of the USSR Academy of Sciences among other subjects "related to studies of atomic core and use of nuclear reactions".

 

Kurchatov's first official documented missions to Laboratory No. 2 on the possibility of application of a water-moderated graphite reactor as a source of energy date from 1946.

 

At the meeting of STC FMD on March 24, 1947, it was decided (with account of analysis of foreign research, first of all, American) "to set about to research and preparatory design works on use of energy of nuclear reactions for power plants bearing in mind timely preparation for work buildup in this direction (as applied to aircraft, ships, electric power stations and locomotives). To request the Special Committee to entrust with general scientific management of these projects STC members--I. Kurchatov, A. Alikhanov and N. Semyonov, whose immediate task is development, together with the head of leading design and construction groups, of coordinating technical assignments for power plants."

 

In 1948-1949, the project developments of different power plants were accomplished, and in the second half of 1949 the test results were analyzed with regard to a helium-cooled graphite reactor (Sharik, Institute of Physical Problems of the USSR Academy of Sciences), a beryllium-moderated and helium-cooled reactor (Laboratory "V" in Obninsk, 105 km from Moscow, today the Institute of Physics and Power Engineering named after A. Leipunsky) and a water-moderated graphite reactor (Instrumentation Laboratory of the USSR Academy of Sciences). At the same time the laboratory was engaged in the development of the compact research reactor Malyutka equipped with the so-called "experimental sections" designed for studies of structural elements for new types of gas- and water-cooled (for power plants) and also liquid-metal-cooled (for reproduction and fast neutron processes) reactors.

 

The STC FMD resolution signed by the deputy chairman Kurchatov read: "To consider it necessary to develop the experimental plant Malyutka as a facility providing possibility to study, in the short run and at low expenses, new types of high-intensity neutron field reactors, reactors for fast-neutron breeding plants and also studies of units for conventional instrumentation in the shortest period of time."

 

The follow-up work on this project resulted in a research reactor MR, which was of great importance in the development of power-generating units.

 

By the end of 1949, the laboratory summed up the results and defined promising lines of utilizing nuclear power plants for ships, aviation, atomic power stations and reactors using exhaust heat for electric power generation.

 

As applied to atomic power stations, the prominent place in the research work was occupied by problems of nuclear plant efficiency, cost of nuclear fuel, necessity of

 
стр. 57

 

using of uranium 238 and thorium 232 as nuclear fuel, accumulation of a new nuclear fuel in the reactor and its recovery by way of a chemico-metailurgical cycle.

 

It was decided to bring to the forefront development of "a design of atomic engine for ships (as applied to submarines) in three versions (water-, gas- and liquid-metal-cooled) of 10,000 kW shaft horse-power". On November 18, 1949, the Special Committee set a mission to Kurchatov (in cooperation with Alexandrov, Dollezhal, Bochvar, Zavenyagin and Pervukhin) to consider possible trends of research. The proposals were submitted already on January 27, 1950.

 

The main ideas of Kurchatov's notes dealt with "using of atomic power stations for production of only ample quantity of electrical power for national economy (i.e. not dual-purpose reactors producing associated electric power.--Auth.), for example, instead of construction of conventional coal-fired electric power stations". Among the main problems Kurchatov singled out an economic factor, i.e. the cost of kilowatt-hour. He noted: "... Even given cheap uranium in unlimited quantities, the cost of kilowatt-hour of a nuclear steam power station cannot be probably reduced by more than 20 percent as compared with an average cost of kilowatt-hour of coal-fired power stations. Thus, a nuclear steam power station will be at a disadvantage in efficiency in relation to big hydroelectric stations, producing electric power 2-3 times cheaper than average coal-fired power stations."

 
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Therefore, at that time Kurchatov believed that atomic power stations "can be used mainly concurrently with coal-fired power stations especially in regions with expensive foreign coal and are still inexpedient in regions with cheap electric power".

 

In his notes Kurchatov turned attention to a number of factors making atomic power stations "indispensable in national economy". They "can be constructed in any distant region without its own fuel as uranium delivery to any distance has no limitations." Besides, "substantial stocks of power in the form of uranium can be accumulated and stored indefinitely while a stock of 2,000 t of uranium (on burning out of 1 t of uranium 10 kg of uranium) is required for an uninterrupted operation of electric power stations of 10 mln kW capacity during a year instead of a perishable stock of 100 mln t of coal." Moreover, "it becomes possible to construct powerful (some hundreds of thousands of kW) underground standby electric power stations. Such atomic power stations do not need continuous delivery of coal, coal storages, chimneys, etc. on the surface." He also noted that if needed atomic power stations could be partially reorganized for production of plutonium suitable for defense purposes on condition of some reduction of electric power production.

 

Kurchatov stressed: "Construction and studies of atomic power stations shall lead to technological development and utilization of new methods of electric power production (gas turbines, increased heat conversion efficiency) and substantial cheapening of atomic energy." More specifically, he singled out the following three major tasks: "improvement of uranium recovery to a degree providing burning of 5-20 kg of uranium from 11 of uranium (increase of depth of production, loss reduction in the course of processing, increase in the breeding degree of an active substance); rise of the useful temperature of a boiler process to a degree allowing steam generation for turbines under normal parameters (400-500 °C under pressure of 30-100 atm); increase in survivability of atomic reactor under the indicated temperatures and pressures (increase of the service life of technological paths and fuel elements without their replacement 1-3 years)."

 

Thus, Kurchatov concluded that construction of atomic power stations "is expedient, and at present it is necessary to set about studying the ways of overcoming the existing technical difficulties, primarily improvement of the production process".

 

In line with the set priorities (development of compact reactors for marine power plants), preparations started at Laboratory "V" in 1950 for construction of a V-10 plant, on which two types of helium-cooled reactors were to be tested by turns: the graphite-moderated reactor (plant "Sh" developed at the Institute for Physical Problems of the USSR Academy of Sciences) and the beryllium-moderated reactor (plant "VT" developed by Laboratory "V"). Later on they were added by the graphite water-cooled plant "VM" developed by Laboratory No. 2 and the Moscow Research Institute of Chemical Engineering.

 

On May 16, 1950, Stalin signed a regulation of the USSR Council of Ministers on construction at Laboratory "V" of a pilot power plant of 5,000 kW steam turbine capacity with three enriched-uranium 235 reactors (two uranium-graphite water- and gas-cooled reactors and one uranium-beryllium gas-cooled or liquid metal reactor) and its commissioning in 1951.

 

The actual work on the projects (including reorientation of the uranium-beryllium reactor to cooling by lead-bismuth alloy) and the enriched uranium potential brought about a decision on construction primarily of the water-cooled plant "AM", which was reported to Beria by Kurchatov and a member of the Special Committee Zavenyagin, who supervised the operating cycle of nuclear fuel: "The AM plant (water-cooled) has an advantage, which presupposes that it can utilize, more than other plants, experience of a conventional boiler practice, and a coolant's low temperature --300 °C rules out a number of difficulties of a design nature; general relative simplicity of the plant facilitates and cheapens its construction."

 

This is what predetermined future development of events.

 

The construction of the electric power station equipped with the reactor AM was completed in 1954, and it thus became the first atomic power station connected to the power supply system and received the title of the First Atomic Power Station in the world. Steam supply to the turbine was accompanied with Kurchatov's joking congratulation: "Enjoy your bath!" Today June 26, 1954, is considered the birthday of atomic power engineering.

 

Kurchatov passed over scientific management of water-cooled graphite power reactors to Laboratory "V" and concentrated his institute's research work on moderated and light-water-cooled reactors, first for ships and vessels and then for atomic power stations and research plants.

 

By 1955, the technical assignment was developed and drawn up for the first water-cooled power reactor (WER as Russian abbreviation) for atomic power station. It is characteristic that in his report made in Harwell (Great Britain) in April of 1956 and dealing with the general trends and plans for development of atomic power engineering in the Soviet Union Kurchatov dwelt on the specific features and particulars of physics of neutron-moderated light-water reactors. He noted: "For the past years these problems were a major preoccupation of scientists of my institute. Water-moderated reactors will combine a high breeding ratio with simplicity and compactness of a reactor design. In our opinion, they are promising for a large-scale atomic power engineering of the near future." Besides, he named the following 25 researchers engaged in

 
стр. 59

 

studies of WER physics: Feinberg, Drozdov, Goryunov, Stolyarov, Nikolsky, Katkov, Antsiferov, Burkov, Mukh-in, Komissarov, Tarabanko, Levina, Osmachkin, Novikov, Saulyev, Mostovoy, Pevzner, Spivak, Yerozalimsky, Kutikov, Kunegin, Nemirovsky, Dorofeev, Lavrenchik and Dobrynin. No doubt that Kurchatov worked personally with each of them.

 

In May of 1955, the scientific staff of the industry headed by A. Zavenyagin, Ye. Slavsky and Igor Kurchatov worked out recommendations for further development of power reactor engineering and specified four types of reactors: KS--heavy-water moderated and gas-cooled natural uranium reactor, WER--water-moderated, water-cooled and pressurized, slightly enriched-uranium reactor, AMB--by type of slightly enriched-uranium reactor of the First Atomic Power Station, EG--graphite-moderated gas-cooled natural uranium reactor. They were taken as a basis for Directives of the 20th Congress of the CPSU for the section of atomic energy for the sixth five-year plan and were a subject of Kurchatov's speech. The resolution of March 16, 1956, made provision for construction and commissioning in 1956-1960 of Beloyarsk atomic power station (APS) of 400 MW capacity with two AMB reactors in Ural, Ural APS (400 MW capacity, with two KS reactors), Moscow nuclear thermal electric power station in Khovrino (400 MW, with two WER reactors), later on transferred to a construction site in the Voronezh Region, and Leningrad nuclear TEPS (200 MW, with one WER reactor).

 

Besides, Zavenyagin set a task to construct in Melekess (Ulyanovsk Region), for experimental development of the systems, the following pilot reactors of 50 MW capacity each: fast neutron reactor BN-50 boiling water reactor BK-50, homogeneous thorium and uranium reactor TG-50 and graphite sodium-cooled reactor GN-50. Only the first two of them were constructed at different times.

 

Academician of the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences Alexander Leipunsky (Laboratory "V") was appointed research supervisor of fast neutron reactors, Academician Abram Alikhanov (Heating Engineering Laboratory of the USSR Academy of Sciences, later the Institute of Theoretical and Experimental Physics) was in charge of heavy-water and homogeneous reactors, and Academician Anatoly Alexandrov (Instrumentation Laboratory of the USSR Academy of Sciences) headed WER and VK-50 reactors.

 

Of course, the hypnotic action of the work pace in relation of nuclear weaponry affected such optimistic planning. The actual potentialities of the industry forced to constantly correct terms of the construction. Already in October of 1956 the sixth five-year plan was amended, and on April 4, 1957, the level of advent of APS capacities in 1960 was determined as 1,300 MW instead of the planned 2,175 MW.

 

With the help of the country leadership Kurchatov put forth great efforts to organize all industrial spheres, which were closely connected with the set plans. At the same time, work was under way on improvement of the projects and increase of the WER block capacity. Already in 1958, the problem was raised concerning development, as applied to the Leningrad APS, of a WER-M reactor of a doubled capacity (400 MW).

 

In 1959, Kurchatov had to make great efforts when the USSR State Planning Committee submitted a proposal to the government for reduction of the number of reac-

 
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tors from two to one to be constructed at Novovorone-zhskaya and Beloyarskaya APS and also for termination of construction of Leningradskaya APS, postponement of construction of reactors at Novovoronezhskaya APS for two years and then for its liquidation at all. In the long run, Kurchatov managed to defend the station, which he and Alexandrov considered "a pilot production plant, opening the way to a major branch of atomic power engineering, i.e. water-moderated reactors".

 

The commissioning of the first reactor of the Novovoronezhskaya APS took place in 1964 after Kurchatov's death (1960). This station became a testing ground for development of all generations of water-moderated reactors, namely, the first block of 210 MW capacity, the second--365 MW, the third and the fourth--440 MW each and the fifth--1,000 MW. The institute researchers came up to expectations of their director. The water-moderated reactor represents really a major trend in nuclear power plants: by 2012 in the Soviet Union and then in Russia and also in a number of foreign countries app. 70 such power blocks of 70 to 1,000 MW unit capacity were connected to the power-generating system. The WER reactors were of paramount importance at the key stages of formation and development of national atomic power engineering. Construction of the first reactor blocks of the Novovoronezhskaya APS confirmed technical feasibility of reliable industrial energy sources based on nuclear fuel. The first generation of

 
стр. 61

 

commercial reactors WER of 440 MW capacity displayed economic competitiveness of APS. The second generation of these reactors (440 and 1,000 MW) constructed according to new safety requirements in line with international standards created a technical basis for a steady world market presence of reactor technologies. In the critical situation after the Chernobyl accident of 1986, WER blocks showed their safety and provided stability of the industry.

 

As a pioneer of atomic power engineering in the USSR, Kurchatov had enormous influence on its further evolution. At the same time, in the last years of his life he ardently got down to handling problems of peaceful uses of nuclear fusion energy.

 

In conclusion it is appropriate to draw up an overall picture of the industry development in our country from its onset to the end of the 20th century.

 

The first steps, directions of activities and scientific-technical basis of civil atomic power engineering were based practically entirely on the foundation laid for creation of nuclear weaponry and then a nuclear fleet, i.e. for military purposes. This potential led to demonstration of possibilities of use of the nuclear fission process for the welfare of the people and then also for development of reliable and competitive energy sources.

 

The technological advance stimulated naturally a large-scale development of this trend of power engineering promoted in many ways by regional conditions of economic feasibility and dependence on conventional energy sources. In the long run, there started rapid application of nuclear fuel in the fuel and energy balance of many industrial countries including the Soviet Union.

 

However, today one can state that the build-up of the new energy-generating technology left behind objective global energy demands. It ignored the existing economic and technological opportunities for an efficient growth of power engineering based on organic fuels. The established opinion in the nuclear community that atomic power engineering achieved "maturity" proved to be somewhat premature. Naturally, cautious attitude of the society to it, which originated with the advent of nuclear weaponry, passed quickly into its denial after serious accidents at atomic power stations. The Chernobyl accident became a decisive factor in this change. As a result, a dramatic drop took place in the growth of atomic power engineering in the world. In the Soviet Union and then in Russia it manifested itself in the most tragic way.

 

Nevertheless, the new energy-generating technology did not stagnate but passed into a "balanced development" phase. Such state corresponded to a more balanced use of different types of fuel taking into account regional opportunities and economic feasibility. The center of gravity of atomic power engineering started moving to the regions of Asia and Far East.

 

Today demand is growing for new process solutions providing reduction of accidental radiation risk of nuclear energy sources and consequences of their operation. Change in public opinion in favor of the build-up of nuclear fuel in the energy and fuel balance has to be based on demonstration of a real "maturity" and safety of this technology.

 

The transition period is accompanied with extreme judgments in assessment of developed nuclear technologies and principles necessary for a next stage and also in "requirements" to nuclear energy sources and a fuel cycle at a turning point in history. Besides, some specialists are inclined to declare a whole spectrum of atomic power engineering trends erroneous, which originated at the time of solution of defense tasks, and they even call to start from scratch, subordinating technical solutions to requirements of solely "peaceful" development. Such approach seems to be too one-sided. Nuclear energy sources are to be improved necessarily in respect of the "internally safe" structures, demonstrated, for example, by nuclear heating stations, modular gas-cooled reactors, and search for new solutions.

 

The concept "continuity of development" incorporating different components of technological policy becomes principally important in this process. First of all, it is an immediate technological continuity directed at a maximal efficiency of the accumulated means and potential (which is rather important in the crisis conditions of economy). Then, continuity of the process of new studies and their realization when the new is being created along with improvement of the already mastered. And finally, sequential development of scientific-technical and technological concepts in view of growing safety requirements specifying dynamics of public opinion and diversity of application of nuclear energy sources.

 

We need hardly ask what position Kurchatov would hold in respect of atomic power engineering and how he would work on it in the past decades. History has no subjunctive mood. But we can say with confidence that in any case it would be a position of a wise man concerned with maximum utilization of scientific achievements for the welfare of man, and efficient and stable provision of energy requirements of the whole humankind.


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© Viktor SIDORENKO () Источник: Science in Russia, №6, 2012, C.54-62

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