Дата публикации: 21 ноября 2021
Автор(ы): Marina KHALIZEVA
Публикатор: Научная библиотека Порталус
Источник: (c) Science in Russia, №5, 2014, C.45-52
Номер публикации: №1637497628

Marina KHALIZEVA, (c)

by Marina KHALIZEVA, observer of the Science in Russia magazine


More than 60 years ago, on June 27, 1954, the Soviet physicists accomplished starting up of a nuclear power plant of 5 MW capacity at the Laboratory "V", today the Physics and Power Engineering Institute named after A. Leipunsky, situated in a small settlement of Obninskoye, Kaluga Region. It was the first in the world atomic power plant connected to external electric networks. The world got to know that nuclear reaction could not only destroy but also create thus changing radically the life of mankind. Since that date peaceful use of nuclear energy has started.




The idea of creation of an atomic power plant belonged to Acad. Igor Kurchatov*. According to documents from the archives, in the autumn of 1942, when Kurchatov headed the national uranium project, he drew attention of the government to prospects for introduction of atomic energy into national economy. Proceeding to implementing the basic task, i.e. creation of a bomb, he expressed himself definitely saying that it should be solved in organic unity with peaceful use of the energy of atom. Therefore early in 1946, i.e. well before the test of atomic weapons (August of 1949), he drew up a program of possible applications of nuclear technologies in sci-


See: Ye. Velikhov, "Pride of Russian Science"; V. Sidorenko, "Pioneer of Soviet Atomic Power Engineering"; Yu. Sivintsev, "A Few Unforgettable Meetings"; R. Kuznetsova, V. Popov, "Scientific Heritage of Academician Kurchatov", Science in Russia, No. 6, 2012.-Ed.


ence and modern branches of industry. He wrote: "No doubt that atomic energy and radioactive substances, which will be produced in atomic facilities, will find various applications in engineering, biology and medicine in the near future. Possibilities will probably arise for transformation of energy not only to thermal but also to other kinds of energy (electrical and chemical), and designs of uranium-based engines will be developed. It is already time now to start working in these directions."


In the spring of 1947, Kurchatov turned to Lavrenty Beria, who supervised national development of nuclear weapons and rocket technology, with a proposal to use power plants in aviation, navy and construction of electric power plants and also expressed readiness to start immediately design works.


By the autumn of 1949, a circumstantial memorandum "Atomic Energy for Industrial Purposes" was prepared in Kurchatov's Laboratory No. 2 (today the Research Center

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Plan of the work of the atomic electric power-station using two-circuit water-moderate water cooled power reactor.



"Kurchatov Institutc")* and submitted by Savely Feinberg, Dr. Sc. (Phys. & Math.), a leading specialist in nuclear reactor industry, to the First Main Department under the USSR Government. In particular, the memorandum laid down considerations of possible practical application of graphite reactor producing plutonium for electrical energy production. A year later Kurchatov and Nikolai Dollezhal, director of Research Institute of Chemical Engineering (NII Khimmash) reported the results of research studies and design works for different versions of atomic power


See: A. Gagarinsky, Ye. Yatsishina, "From a Secret Laboratory to a National Research Center", Science in Russia, No. 2, 2013.-Ed.


plant at a meeting at the First Main Department. Soon after a government regulation was released on creation of the first atomic power plant in our country. Kurchatov was appointed a research manager of the project, Savely Feinberg as estimator of physical parameters of the reactor, heating engineer Nikolai Dollezhal as chief designer of uranium reactor and the Leningrad All-Union Design and Research Institute of Complex Power Technology (director Alexander Gutov) as designer of atomic power plant. The Laboratory "V" established in May of 1946, 100 km from Moscow and 15 years later named "Physics and Power Engineering Institute" was chosen as a construction site. At

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that time it was headed by Dmitry Blokhintsev, a known specialist in quantum mechanics and nuclear physics and Corresponding Member of the USSR Academy of Sciences. In 1951 Kurchatov handed over to him scientific management of development, construction and startup of the first atomic power plant as he himself concentrated on problems of creation of a hydrogen bomb or a "superbomb". But Kurchatov did not forget the project and supervised it. He was interested in everything that was going on at the laboratory and the construction site. In the last months before the startup he stayed long in the village and inspected personally the main work places comparing them with drawings and on-site.




The planned capacity of the power plant (5,000 K.W) was determined casually in many ways. After writing off the completely efficient turbo-generator (5,000 KW capacity), first Moscow electric power-station named after Smidovich, transferred it to Obninsk. It was decided to tune up the experimental plant to the said turbo-generator.


Already at the project development stage the Technical Council of the Ministry of Medium Mechanical Engineering discussed options of a power plant and took a decision guided by principle, i.e. to construct a channel-type uranium-graphite water coolant reactor. It went down to history as the acronym AM (atom for peace).


To provide safe operation of the reactor block under possible emergency situations it was decided to use in Obninsk a two circuit heat transfer system by separating structurally a heat carrying agent (water) and a working body (vapor converting heat energy to electrical energy). An active zone in the form of ~170 cm high graphite stack pierced with channels was located in the middle of the reactor cylindrical shell of about 1.5 m diameter. Some channels were designed for nuclear fuel and others for rods absorbing excess neutrons which maintained reaction at the given level. The energy released during uranium nuclei fission was transferred to the heat carrying agent of the first contour. The circulating radioactive water heated there but did not boil twining into vapor as it was under pressure of ~100 atmospheres. Then it reached a heat exchanger (steam generator) where it heated water of the secondary contour, nonradioactive and safe for nearby environment to a temperature of about 260-270 °C. Steam formed during water boiling under pressure of 12.5 atmospheres got into a turbine with 5 MW electrical generator installed on its shaft. After this useful work, it cooled in a condenser and, turning into water headed again for the steam generator.


The designers maintained that application of a two circuit heat transfer system excluded possibility of radioactive water getting into the turbine and its supply lines. Thanks to this fact servicing of the equipment did not differ from service at thermal power stations and did not require creation of biological protection devices.




The operating principle of the reactor passed an operational trial on the first commercial boiler for production of plutonium for arms. It was just put at the rated capacity (in 1948) in the city of Chelyabinsk-40*. The NII Khimmash acted as the engineering design developer of


*See: M. Khalizeva, "No Hit-or-Miss Chance", Science in Russia, No. 4, 2008.-Ed.

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both plants, which undoubtedly reduced the risk of the origin of errors in construction of a new power plant.


But as compared with a commercial reactor the Obninsk prototype had at least two fundamental distinctions. In the former case water served only as a coolant. But in the second case it acted as energy carrier. Another important feature consists in using of fuel elements instead of uranium rods in the reactor core. They had a circular design formed by two pipes, inner (bearing) and outer (cover). Spacing between them was filled with uranium. Water ran along the internal channel (under such design it is easier to heat it to the required temperature). During the plant operation it was necessary to provide a relatively low temperature of nuclear fuel and restrict its "swelling".


The production process of a main structural component of the reactor core proved a very hard case. First of all, it was necessary to determine the fuel composition. It resulted not only in successful running of the chain reaction but also in favorable conditions for heat transfer to water running along the internal channel of the pipe.


The Ministry of Medium Mechanical Engineering enlisted the services of four groups of physicists for working out of fuel elements, namely: from the Instrumentation Laboratory of the USSR Academy of Sciences (today the Scientific Center "Kurchatov Institute"), Research Institute-9 (Bochvar High-Technology Research Institute of Inorganic Materials), Kharkov Institute of Physics and Technology, and Laboratory "V" where the reactor was under construction. For one and a half years the specialists developed 9 options of fuel elements. The designs suggested by the first three research teams failed to pass the benchmark and reactor trials. Only the fuel composition of a disperse type based on uranium-molybdenum alloy in a magnesium matrix created in Obninsk under guidance of the talented technologist Vladimir Malykh managed to meet the specifications. The experiments proved that the fuel elements with such "filling" were highly reliable and could provide high fuel rating under considerable thermal loads.


But not only was the nuclear component a stumbling block. The problem of fuel casing also was solved with difficulty. It had to face strict requirements to strength, anticorrosion resistance and ability to maintain properties under long action of radiation. At that time metallurgists could suggest only stainless steel (zirconium alloys with properties fit for operation at a temperature of ~300 °C did not exist yet). But though it deeply absorbed neutrons, which required increased enrichment of uranium fuel, there was nothing left but to work with this metal.


The internal pipe of a fuel element was to be thicker than the external one in order to hold hot water under the pressure of 100 atmospheres. The basic service properties of fuel elements depended on pipe welding. Taking into account that there were a total of 128 fuel elements in a reactor, many hundreds of seams had to be welded. Moreover, science imposed uncompromising requirements on seal tightness. A contact of even a water drop not only with uranium but also with graphite was excluded. But at that time our industry could not boast of skill in welding of stainless steel. As always, cooperation with the national research institutes helped out, due to which specialists managed to master this process and develop a test method for seal tightness.


The full-scale test of the whole assembly was carried out at the Instrumentation Laboratory on a research

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reactor MR. The results were encouraging: the fuel elements were slightly subjected to deformation and "swelling" under irradiation at rather deep burnup of nuclear fuel. At the end of 1953 the commercial-scale production of fuel elements started at the Mechanical Engineering Works in the city of Elektrostal (Moscow Region). The first batch of fuel assemblies was delivered to the Obninsk atomic power plant early in 1954




By the end of 1953 the specialists had already executed the main scope of construction and assembly works, i.e. they built up a reactor casing and a turbogenerator building, installed metal structures of the reactor, steam generators, pipework and a turbine. The construction project achieved status of prime importance at the Ministry of Medium Mechanical Engineering, and was supervised by the Minister Yefim Slavsky.


The personnel was recruited and trained actively at the atomic power plant. A large group of engineers and technicians came to Obninsk from Chelyabinsk-40 early in the startup period, including the power engineer Nikolai Nikolayev, director of a commercial reactor, who was later appointed head of the First Atomic Power Plant.

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Maintenance of the new equipment required good academic training, engineering intuition and ability to make prompt decisions. Therefore, highly skilled specialists were sent to Obninsk. By the way, many of those who were trained at the reactor school received later major posts in engineering, scientific and management structures of the atomic power plant.


By the completion time of installation works, on March 3, 1954, compliance of the physical characteristics of the reactor with the estimated data were checked on a physical test bench (full-scale assembly of the reactor core). As a matter of fact, it was then that the Russian specialists accomplished for the first time a chain reaction of uranium fission at a minimally controlled, the so-called "zero" power, which was not accompanied by isolating of radioactivity.


It is symbolical that loading of the active region of the object AM started on May 9, 1954. By coincidence the first physical starting of the atomic power plant was scheduled just on that day. The State Commission members came to Obninsk including such founders of the atomic sector as Acad. Igor Kurchatov, Anatoly Alexandres* and Albert Alikhanov. The startup team of Laboratory "V" specialists was headed by Boris Dubovsky, a disciple of Kurchatov with whom he participated in the startup of the first in our country experimental reactor F-1** in 1946. By the evening of that day, after about 60 fuel assemblies were charged into the active region, the reactor reached a critical state. Nikolai Dollezhal described the situation: "The chain reaction started! Operators checked the reactor operation at a low power. Then they started increasing it steadily. At last near the generator building there appeared hissing clouds of steam-yet too weak to rotate the turbine rotor but still it was steam produced by atomic energy for the first time in the history of mankind. We were overcome by delightful feelings. It has come off! The event is not so effective as a nuclear explosion but by its significance it is quite comparable with it. And by its size of contribution to the money-box of human progress it is much superior."


Only several weeks later, on June 26, 1954, the energy startup took place after inspection of manual and automatic control of the reactor, studies of the plant units in conditions close to the operational and elimination of the first production problems. Laboratory "V" head Dmitry Blokhintsev wrote in the summary log: "The time is 5.45 p.m. Steam is delivered to the turbine." Kurchatov and Alexandrov congratulated the event participants by Russian custom: "Enjoy good steam!". On June 27, the first in the world atomic power plant was


See: N. Ponomarev-Stepnoi, "At the Head of the Nuclear Branch", Science in Russia, No. 2, 2003; Ye. Velikhov, "Unable to Live Otherwise"; M. Mokulsky, "Rebirth of the Nation's Genetics"; V. Popov, "Scientific Works of Academician Alexandrov", Science in Russia, No. 1, 2013.-Ed.


** See: N. Chernoplekov, "At the Dawn of Atomic Energetics", Science in Russia, No. 6, 2006-Ed.


synchronized with the Mosenergo electric system. In several days the Pravda newspaper published the TASS statement: "The atomic electric power-station is put into operation and produced electric power for industry and agriculture of the adjacent areas."


After the energy startup, weekdays seemed filled with anxious and sometimes dramatic events. The main difficulties of the first months were: low quality of fuel channels and numerous leaks of water to the reactor graphite laying red-hot to 700 °C causing a sharp increase in the content of radiolytic gas (mixture of oxygen and hydrogen), which created an explosion danger of the latter. The control instrumentation sometimes failed too. As a consequence, the numerous "false" stops took place. It took about four months for finalizing and improvements, which resulted in stabilizing all reactor functions. By October of 1954 the atomic power plant was up and running at full capacity. Its electric power was sufficient to satisfy requirements of a city with a population of 30-40 thous. people.


The new perspective line in power engineering was highly appreciated at the First International Scientific and Technical Conference on Peaceful Use of Atomic Energy (Geneva, 1955). The report by Dmitry Blokhintsev created a real furore. The Europeans usually reserved during business events burst into stormy applause after the report. It was a triumph and recognition of our country's priority in peaceful use of atomic energy. In 1957 Dmitry Blokhintsev, Nikolai Dollezhal, Andrei Krasin (director of Laboratory "V" in 1956-1959) and Vladimir Malykh were awarded Lenin Prize for participation in development, startup and mastery of the first atomic power plant. A large group of developers and operating engineers were awarded the USSR orders and medals.




Since 1956 the atomic plant operation was oriented not so much to production of energy but to science. Slavsky believed that it was required to power industry for creation of following generations of reactor plants. Indeed, the First Atomic Power Plant became a laboratory for testing of materials and equipment and also operating modes of future power plants. Here were tested engineering solutions which were used as substantiation for the projects of Beloyarsk and Novovoronezh atomic power plants and Bilibino nuclear cogeneration plant, reactors for transportation, space facilities Topaz first guided into orbit on February 2, 1987 as a part of the experimental apparatus Plazma-A,


From the first days the reactor produced isotope products for medical purposes. Apart from experimental plants envisaged by the project, 17 special devices or reactor loops* were put into operation here, which expanded the range of the considered problems in the fields of


* Reactor loop is an independent flow circuit of the reactor designed for experimental purposes and consisting of one or several channels.-Ed.

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nuclear physics, physics of reactors and radiation protection, thermal physics and hydraulics, corrosion of structural materials, radiation materials science, technology of liquid-metal coolants, chemistry and radiochemistry.


The atomic power plant became a kind of a training school of personnel for emerging atomic industry. A majority of specialists of the first industrial giants made use of it as a natural simulator. It was important for the history of the national atomic fleet. Here not only ship-borne nuclear power plants were upgraded but also nuclear submarine crews were trained. Specialists from the GDR, China, Romania and Czechoslovakia came to Obninsk for a period of probation.


In the 1950s the first atomic power plant in Obninsk was followed by experimental power plants in Great Britain, the USA and France. As the experience was accumulating in the USSR and Western Europe, their governments adopted programs for construction of prototype models of commercial atomic power plants.


According to the data of the International Atomic Energy Agency today 437 nuclear units operate in the world, which produce ~373.3 hectowatt of electric power. In Russia alone 33 blocks operate at 10 atomic power plants. They produce ~16 percent of all generated electric power.




The Obninsk atomic power plant operated for 48 years including 18 years in excess of the design lifetime. On April 29, 2002, an emergency protection button on the control board worked, which announced the reactor shutdown. In September of the same year the last fuel assembly was unloaded from the reactor. After that the nuclear facility should be brought to a safe state. The procedure is time-and cost-consuming but compulsory. Both the national and foreign experience in this field is very limited. Therefore, operation of the Obninsk atomic power plant is considered an important stage in formation of standard procedures which will be used later in putting out of action of other research and nuclear power reactors.


Nevertheless, the legendary first-born of peaceful nuclear industry gets along as a memorial complex. The complex displays an exposition of curious chapters in the history of development of atomic industry and the power plant proper. Some time ago, especially in the first years, the atomic power plant was a place of pilgrimage. Hundreds of well-known scientists and outstanding statesmen from all over the world rushed to the small town near Moscow. For the first 20 years its main point of interest was visited by ~60 thous. men from 2,200 thous. delegations, including 6,770 foreigners from 85 countries. In due time scientists of world repute visited this place, namely, Frederic Joliot-Curie and Francis Perrin (France), Glenn Seaborg (USA), great military leader marshal Georgy Zhukov, the first cosmonaut of the planet Yuri Gagarin, foreign political and public figures such as the leader of the Indian National Liberation Movement Jawaharlal Nehru and Prime-Minister of India Indira Gandhi, President of Indonesia Dr. Soekarno, "the last king of the Balkans" Josip Broz Tito and dozens of other known personalities. The plant is open for the public even today.

Опубликовано на Порталусе 21 ноября 2021 года

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