Red atom [electronic resource] : Russia's nuclear power program from Stalin to today /
Paul R. Josephson.
Pittsburgh, Pa. : University of Pittsburgh Press, c2000, 2005.
x, 352 p. : ill., map ; 25 cm.
0822958813 (print), 9780822958819 (print)
More Details
Pittsburgh, Pa. : University of Pittsburgh Press, c2000, 2005.
0822958813 (print)
9780822958819 (print)
Licensed for access by U. of T. users.
catalogue key
Includes bibliographical references in "notes" (p. 310-337) and indexes.
A Look Inside
About the Author
Author Affiliation
A historian of science and technology, Paul R. Josephson, Ph.D. is currently a fellow at the Davis Center for Russian Studies at Harvard University.
First Chapter

Chapter One

The Reactor in the Garden

Communism equals Soviet power plus electrification of the entire country.

--A major slogan of early Bolshevik rule

An unspoiled river flows through a nature preserve. People have come down to the river for generations to fish, wash their clothes, wash themselves, and swim. The river has sufficient volume, in the minds of engineers, to provide cooling water for several nuclear reactors. The engineers plan to build four reactors, designing canals for the effluent from the reactors so that it cools and radioactive minerals settle into the silt before the water is discharged into the river. They finally decide to build six, then ten reactors, each at 1,000 megawatts. They build cooling towers to supplement the canals. The cooling towers are significantly more expensive than simple canals. So to keep budgets within projections and somewhat competitive with fossil fuel facilities, the reactors share equipment in common machine halls and employ standard industrial structures, pumps, compressors, conduit, corrugated steel roofs, and piping. In the engineers' minds, the reactors don't spoil the preserve; in fact, the planners refer to it as a "reactor park." And the canals create a "Venice" of nuclear power, where warm-water effluent in the canals attracts geese and ducks, who winter there rather than completing their southern migration.

    This is a reactor in the garden, both in the metaphorical sense of showing complete agreement between nature and human designs for huge machines to augment nature, and in the literal sense, because the nature preserve, the river, the reactor, and the park are real. Four reactors were built, and construction was well underway on units 5 and 6 when reactor unit 4 at Chernobyl exploded. On the morning after the explosion, because the authorities had yet to notify the residents of the nearby town of Pripiat about the seriousness of the accident, fishermen downstream from the reactors cast their lines in the river. At dozens of sites throughout the nation, the Ministry of the Fish Industry joined the Ministry of Electrification to seed fish into rivers made warmer by cooling effluent. It had mattered little to Soviet planners that the river, the Pripiat, was a tributary to the mighty Dnepr River, or that the Dnepr flows through the center of Kiev, the capital of Ukraine and a city with a population of four million. Some of the reactor parks employed pressurized-water reactors (PWRs); others a special Soviet design, the channel-graphite model, or RBMK reactor, which gained world attention in April 1986. But the roots of the Chernobyl disaster were to be found in a special mindset central to atomic-powered communism. This was a deep-seated belief dating to the first days of Soviet power in the perfectibility of technology and the ability to place it on any site.

    Large-scale technologies have always occupied a major place in Soviet history. Energy technologies, along with steel, concrete, and other heavy industry, occupied the first position. Lenin urged the Bolsheviks to support the modernization of Soviet industry, to take from capitalism its greatest achievements in technology and tie them to socialist "production relations." A technological utopian, Lenin believed that technology was the path to the glorious communist future. He saw electricity as the key to revolutionize backward Tsarist industry. Hence, the slogan of early Bolshevik power, the epigraph for this chapter, was a watchword for all future Soviet leaders. Similarly, the conscious use of such technologies as tractors, lightbulbs, and other machines in propaganda posters as the icons of a new age represented just how completely technology had become a panacea for the great economic, social, and political challenges facing the nation as it embarked on the path of modernization. Many peasants and workers embraced the new technology, naming their sons "Tractor" ( Traktor ), their daughters "Electrification" ( Elektrifikatsiia ) or "Forge" ( Domna ).

    Among scientists and engineers, too, great faith was placed in the potential of their work to solve the country's problems. No sooner had Lenin endorsed GOELRO, the State Electrification Plan, in 1920 than they embarked on research into Russia's great energy potential. Through the Academy of Sciences, the Commission for the Study of the Productive Forces (KEPS), the Scientific Technological Division of the Supreme Economic Council, and other organizations, they evaluated different ways of producing electrical energy, the contribution from fossil fuel reserves, even hydroelectric potential as far away from the country's population and industry as the Angara River in central Siberia. They established that fossil fuels--coal, oil, and gas--would power the Soviet Union's burgeoning industry for some time to come. It did not matter that little of the coal was anthracite; low-grade lignites with high sulfur content were easily accessible in the Don Basin (Donbas) of Ukraine and in Kazakhstan. Caspian Sea oil reserves near Baku, Azerbaidzhan were also sufficient for early Soviet industrialization plans.

    The Nazi invasion and rapid capture of the nation's industrial and agricultural heartland indicated the need to develop energy resources far to the east, perhaps beyond the Ural Mountains, themselves a natural barrier to potential marauders. During the war, KEPS scientists studied the hydroelectric potential of Siberian rivers. In the Khrushchev era, they prepared the way for building massive hydroelectric power stations on the Ob, Irtysh, Angara, and Enesei rivers, at the same time identifying the rich oil and gas reserves of Tiumen Province in northwest Siberia and preparing to harvest coal in the Kuznetsk Basin (Kuzbas) in south central Siberia. They deemed these projects necessary because one-third of Donbas reserves had been exhausted, and the rest were of poor quality and hard to extract.

    The development of Siberian energy resources brought into full relief a significant issue for long-term investment policy in the nation. The vast majority of industry and population remained in the European USSR, whereas energy resources on which to base future industrial growth and consumer well-being were thousands of kilometers away. The cost of transporting them in their primary form in railroad coal cars or pipelines grew rapidly. Thirty to seventy percent of all freight transported in the Soviet Union was fossil fuel. One alternative, to build power-generating stations near fuel sources and to link those stations by power lines to the European energy grid, was also exceedingly costly; and year by year, open spaces were filled with unsightly towers carrying power lines that measured over 900,000 kilometers in total length (see Appendix, Tables 1-4).

    Nuclear energy appeared just at that time when there seemed to be no solution to the problem of geographical maldistribution of energy resources, population, and industry. One radical approach would have been to shift investment to Siberia for new industry and for housing, schools, and stores for the workers and their families. This approach had commenced with Brezhnev's "Siberia" investment program and the construction of a new trans-Siberian railroad known as BAM. But any approach drained scarce investment funds from other important areas such as housing, agriculture, and defense. There seemed to be no way to satisfy the competing demands for investment capital and at the same time ensure resource development. Although exceedingly expensive to build and technologically uncertain, nuclear energy might be the best way to solve the investment problem, for these stations could be built in the European part of the country on the outskirts of major cities. This solution would cut the need to build long power lines, transport fossil fuel, or relocate industry. At least, this was the argument used by nuclear physicists and engineers as they attempted to convince policy makers, economic planners, and fellow scientists of the viability of nuclear power.

    As a technology in its nascent stage of development, nuclear energetics could promise little. To be sure, the first military production reactors produced not only weapons material but also copious amounts of thermal energy. The example of a powerful steam engine was prominent in the minds of such physicists as Igor Kurchatov, Nikolai Dollezhal, and Anatolii Aleksandrov. Their ongoing projects to develop nuclear propulsion for submarines suggested that they could harness fission for civilian purposes in the near future. The political environment was propitious for the endeavor, given Khrushchev's rise to power, the revision of domestic and foreign policy, and his personal identification with modern technology.

    The problem was how to make nuclear power economically competitive with fossil fuel. Coal and oil were king. Reserves were extensive. New discoveries of gas and oil in Siberia seemed to make a decision to invest in nuclear energy more unlikely. And capital costs for nuclear power stations clearly were significantly higher than those for fossil fuel boilers. So Kurchatov and his associates not only decided to build huge commercial stations but also quickly selected two models to serve as the basis of the program; and they set out to build these stations in reactor parks throughout the European USSR. The first was the channel-graphite model of the Obninsk design, which appeared in two variants, one at Beloiarsk to produce superheated steam and the other the RBMK of Chernobyl infamy. The choice was logical because they rapidly accumulated operating experience with the design, and its multiplicity of channels enabled them to operate it during refueling or repair of individual channels. The second model was a pressurized-water reactor, known in Russian parlance by its initials VVER. This model was also a logical choice because the development of marine nuclear propulsion in both the USSR and the United States had led to the development of PWRs. Within thirty years of the twentieth Party congress, Soviet engineers had embarked on one of the world's most ambitious nuclear programs, constructing more than forty reactors, many 1,000 megawatts and larger, in the European USSR.

    The promotion of nuclear power required a well-oiled public relations campaign, because, no matter how diligently they strove to prove that reactors would soon compete with other boilers, physicists had no sound technical or economic basis for their conclusions. Estimates of capital costs of "no more than fifteen percent higher" than those of conventional power stations were based on the assumption that few significant innovations were needed to leapfrog from tiny first-generation reactors newly hatched from military programs to second-generation units of 440 megawatts electric and larger. To keep costs down, they created reactor parks. Like their counterparts in the West, their estimates about the early depletion of fossil fuel reserves and the rapid increase in electrical energy demand turned out to be exaggerated. By using the extensive financial and public relations resources available to them (such as the journal Atomic Energy , founded in 1956 and carrying a beautiful photo of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and atomic "Tsar" Igor Kurchatov on a visit to Harwell, England in the second issue), they succeeded in convincing policy makers and economic planners to provide them with adequate resources to commercialize nuclear power even as investments in oil, coal, hydropower, and Siberia increased.


Three political preconditions had to be met to achieve atomic-powered communism. The first was the ideological thaw that accompanied Nikita Khrushchev's rise to power. Khrushchev launched an attack on many aspects of Stalinism in his so-called secret speech at the twentieth Party congress in 1956. He criticized the arbitrary rule of Stalin's cult of personality; the terrible human costs of the Ukrainian famine, the purges of the 1930s, and World War II; the xenophobic basis of Soviet foreign policy; and the insistence that Russia was the world leader in all fields of culture and science. It was not enough that Khrushchev exposed Stalin's crimes, nor that he triggered a cultural thaw in art, music, and literature, including the publication of Boris Pasternak's passionate tale of the Russian revolution, Doctor Zhivago , and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's semifictional account of the labor camps, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich . Khrushchev promised that the nation would reach communism-that nebulous state of equality, plenty, and happiness for all--by 1980.

    To achieve communism, the nation needed the assistance of scientists, engineers, and other experts to bring about a technological revolution in the economy. The Soviet citizen had long heard that communism was just around the corner. But nearly every one had suffered grave personal losses at Stalin's hands and had little to show for this sacrifice. Nevertheless, Khrushchev's promises to improve the quality of life, the Thaw, and successes in science and technology led to the rebirth of constructivist visions of the communist future. Nuclear energetics was central among these visions and was indelibly tied to one of the most important slogans of Soviet life from the early 1920s, a slogan embraced by officials, philosophers, scientists, peasants, and workers alike: "Communism equals Soviet power plus electrification of the entire country."

    The second precondition for a nuclear revolution was greater internationalism in science. Under Stalin, Soviet foreign policy was dominated by a belief in the inevitability of war between the socialist and capitalist worlds. When Khrushchev rose to the top of the Party hierarchy, he abandoned Stalinist autarky in the economy, politics, and culture. He promoted the foreign policy doctrine of "peaceful coexistence." This doctrine meant that, in competition with the West, and particularly with the United States, the Soviet Union would win, whether in economic development or in science, by virtue of its superior social and economic system. Under the circumstances, cooperation in expensive fields of big science such as fission, fusion, and high-energy physics was not excluded.

    Khrushchev's reforms in foreign policy enabled--indeed, required--Soviet physicists to compete openly with their foreign colleagues for primacy in scientific discovery. The Obninsk reactor and Sputnik demonstrated that the USSR was not only the equal of the United States but, in fact, the leader in a number of fields. But to compete with the West, scientists had to reenter the international arena after nearly two decades of isolation. Their renewed activities included sharing reprints through the mail, subscribing to a larger number of foreign journals, and, most important to them, establishing personal contacts. The contacts went both ways. Between 1954 and 1957, over 1,500 Soviet scientists (some 500 "delegations") traveled abroad, far exceeding in number the total of the previous thirty years.

    Of course, Khrushchevian internationalism did not mean openness like that which later existed in Russia under Gorbachev. Strict controls on the activities of scientists remained. Foreign journals were censored lest any anti-Soviet sentiment find its way into a research institute; this often delayed issues of Western journals from reaching them by a year. Scientists invited to conferences abroad often were denied permission to go, quite frequently at the last moment. The KGB exercised this control through the "first department," or foreign office, in each institute. In their stead, the Soviet government sent scientists notable more for their devotion to the Communist Party's ideological precepts than for their research interests. Shortly after Stalin died, however, research institutes began to report with pride increasing numbers of foreign contacts.

    While breaking sharply with Stalin in foreign policy, Khrushchev retained Stalin's personal identification with large-scale technologies as emblems of his own leadership and legitimacy within the system; and this stance helped the nuclear physicists. Khrushchev had come from a peasant family and had made his name as a Party boss in agriculturally rich Ukraine. His career was tied to the Moscow metro and a never-achieved technological revolution in agriculture. Khrushchev now showed himself to be a twentieth-century man whose visions extended beyond the city and the farm to space--the world's first Sputniks--and the atom. Khrushchev personally promoted nuclear power, recognizing its value both to modernize the Soviet economy and to secure his position as Party leader during the post-Stalin succession struggle--as his visit to Harwell, England, the major British nuclear research facility, showed.

    Last, modest reforms in domestic politics enabled scientists and engineers to take an active role in setting the policy agenda, or at least in publicly advancing their new projects. Such vocal lobbying in the Stalin era would have been mistaken for dangerous technocratic aspirations, and met with arrest. Scientists, especially those connected with the nuclear establishment, became near-mythic figures in the pantheon of Soviet heroes. They had access to the inner circles of the Kremlin, where they lobbied for resources and expansion of their programs. Igor Kurchatov was first among them. After speaking at the twentieth Party congress, Kurchatov was a constant visitor at the Kremlin on behalf of these lobbying efforts. How Kurchatov got to the twentieth Party congress and the Kremlin is a story of a great Soviet hero: the disinterested scientist, searching for the truth, in the service of humanity.


Igor Vasilievich Kurchatov stood at the head of the nuclear establishment, from his appointment in 1943 to head of the Soviet atomic bomb project until his early death in 1960. As director of the Institute of Atomic Energy in Moscow, he oversaw an enterprise of nuclear reactor construction and isotope application second to none in the world. Kurchatov was an excellent organizer, strong-willed, and self-assured. He had a penetrating mind and was devoted to causes other than self-promotion. These qualifies enabled him to avoid taking on the negative, self-serving qualities of many scientific administrators in his country and to battle the ministerial bureaucracies and Party hierarchy, of which he was a part, with great success.

    Kurchatov, the great grandson of a serf, the grandson of a metallurgical factory worker, the son of a land surveyor and school teacher, was born January 8, 1903; and during a life of less than six decades, he built nuclear weapons, reactors, submarines, and icebreakers. He grew up in a small industrial town in the southern Ural Mountains. Kurchatov's father moved in 1909 to Simbirsk, recognizing that, other than a church school, there was nowhere for his children to study in the Urals. Kurchatov attended the Young Men's Public Gymnasium, the school from which Lenin had graduated. He studied hard, displaying an excellent memory and a capacity for mathematics that set him apart from the other students. Soon after the move to Simbirsk, Kurchatov's sister contracted tuberculosis; and on the advice of their physician, the family moved again, to Simferopol in Crimea. Kurchatov entered the finest and oldest gymnasium there, an institution connected with the chemist Dmitrii Mendeleev and the surgeon Nikolai Pirogov. Kurchatov earned top grades in virtually every course except diligence, in which for some unknown reason he received an "unsatisfactory." He read detective stories and science fiction, especially the works of Jules Verne, whose fantasies provided Kurchatov with food for nuclear thought. In 1920, having finished the gymnasium with a gold medal (awarded only on paper because of the current economic conditions), the seventeen-year-old Kurchatov entered Crimea University to study physics and mathematics and become an engineer.

    Crimea University was organized in 1917 on the coattails of the intellectual excitement celebrating the end of the Tsarist era and its stultifying educational policies. Kiev professors were the initiators of the endeavor, first establishing the facility as a branch of Kiev University. The noted biogeophysicist Vladimir Vernadskii, then president of the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences, was instrumental in securing resources and convincing other faculty to organize the university. Vernadskii was the rector during Kurchatov's matriculation; N. M. Krylov taught mathematics; senior Leningrad theoretician Iakov Frenkel and future Nobel laureate Igor Tamm taught physics. There were no scholarships, so only a dozen students attended the lectures. Publishing had virtually ceased, so there were no textbooks. After the end of the civil war (1919-1920), economic and political instability persisted through 1923. Some students nearly starved on the ration of 400 grams of bread and watery soup. To make ends meet, Kurchatov found a series of odd jobs. But his time at Crimea University was not all difficult, because there Kurchatov met Kirill Sinelnikov, who became his life-long friend and associate.

    In Simferopol, Kurchatov fell in love with the sea. He watched the ships and dreamed of becoming a shipbuilding engineer, a dream he saw fulfilled in the Lenin nuclear icebreaker. Although aware of the famine and disorder that gripped Petrograd, Kurchatov nevertheless transferred into the junior class of the shipbuilding department of Petrograd Polytechnical Institute. He worked as an observer in the meteorological observatory in Pavlovsk, where he often spent the night, sleeping on a table under a sheepskin coat. In the winter of 1923-1924, one of his professors gave him the task of measuring the alpha radioactivity of snow, an experience that turned him from engineering to atomic science.

    Even though he would have passed the final exams in the shipbuilding department in only two more semesters, Kurchatov threw himself into science. He read everything he could on atomic physics, especially the work of the experimentalists Frederick Soddy and Ernest Rutherford. To earn money, he returned to Crimea at the beginning of the summer of 1924, where he worked in a hydrometeorological station of the Black and Azov seas, carrying out experiments on tides. In the fall, he traveled to Baku, where he worked until the following summer as an assistant in Azerbaidzhan Polytechnical Institute, when he was called to the Leningrad Physical Technical Institute (hereafter, LFTI). The twenty-two-year-old man had entered the center of Soviet physics. Abram Ioffe, the dean of Soviet physics, founded the institute in 1918 with the dream of rejuvenating the Russian experimental tradition and gaining an international reputation for his staff. Ioffe nearly single-handedly reestablished contacts with Western physicists after the Revolution. And he resurretted the practice of publication; physicists at his institution published between one-quarter and three-fifths of all physics articles in the major Soviet journals every year between 1919 and 1939. LFTI gave rise to fifteen other institutes, many at the center of the nuclear enterprise, and trained over six dozen future academicians and corresponding members of the Academy. Nearby, scientists at the Radium Institute under V. G. Khlopin worked on the physics of radioactive elements, nuclear physics, and cosmic rays; and, in 1922, they oversaw the establishment of a factory to produce small quantities of the heavy elements. Leningrad was the place to be for a young physicist.

    In 1922, Kurchatov had met Marina Dmitrievna Sinelnikova, the daughter of a country physician and the sister of his best friend, Kirill, who would later preside over the nuclear enterprise in cold war Ukraine. In 1925, Igor and Marina met again in Leningrad. Two years later, they married. They enjoyed listening to music, especially Rachmaninov, Tchaikovsky, and Mussorgsky. Although the couple had no children of their own, they often donated time and money from Kurchatov's books, articles, and prize honoraria to kindergartens and adoption agencies. They also had a network of friends with whom they socialized regularly, gathering at a friend's apartment or in their own to eat, drink, and sing.

    Through the 1930s, Kurchatov conducted research primarily in solid state physics, studying dielectrics, semiconductors, insulators, and piezoelectricity with Anton Valter and Sinelnikov. His doctorate, finished in 1934, focused on solid state physics, although he had already embarked on nuclear physics. Some of his colleagues thought his achievements merited membership in the Academy of Sciences; but, as on several subsequent occasions, the Academy leadership did not see fit to admit him, most likely because of his youth. They finally voted him in only on the government's insistence in 1943, after Kurchatov became head of the atomic bomb project.

    In Berkeley, Chicago, Berlin, Copenhagen, Kharkiv, and Leningrad, 1932 was the annus mirabilis of nuclear physics: James Chadwick, E. T S. Walton, and John Cockcroft established atomic structure, Anderson discovered the positron, the Joliot-Curies worked on artificial radioactivity, and the Fermi group used slow neutrons to create artificial elements. All these discoveries had a significant impact on the work of Soviet physicists, especially in Kurchatov's laboratory, the Radium Institute, and the Ukrainian Physical Technical Institute, where Leningrad physicists Sinelnikov, Leipunskii, and others had been sent to create a mirror image of the Ioffe institute. By the end of 1932, the physicists had established a nuclear group at LFTI under Ioffe. The real leader of the group, however, was Kurchatov, who gained approval to create a department of nuclear physics and secured 100,000 rubles from Narkomtiazhprom (the Commissariat of Heavy Industry) to purchase material and equipment.

    Kurchatov conducted a nuclear seminar whose activities where known throughout the country and beyond. This group convened the first all-union nuclear conference in 1933; Kurchatov was the chairman of the organizing committee. The 1933 conference and the soon-to-be convened second and third conferences were attended by physicists from around the world. The papers presented indicated how quickly Soviet physicists had moved from the accumulation of data to an experimental attack of the nucleus. Between 1933 and 1935, the Soviet physicists published more than 100 articles in the leading Soviet journals ( Uspekhi fizicheskikh nauk, Zhurnal prikladnoi fiziki , and Zhurnal experimental 'noi i teoreticheskoi fiziki ). They built cyclotrons and other experimental devices like those in Europe and America.

    Then Stalinism reared its ugly head. The Party moved the Academy of Sciences to Moscow, purged Leningrad's intellectual and political elite, and attacked LFTI for its "divorce from practice" and failure to meet the "needs of industry." Party officials condemned what they perceived as ideological deviations in science and sought to limit the extent of this wandering by closing the nation's borders. Until after Stalin's death, Soviet scientists were denied regular international contacts, as the correspondence between Sinelnikov and Kurchatov, between Cambridge, in England, and Kharkiv, in Ukraine, reveals. Sinelnikov was recalled from England in 1930, even before he had defended his dissertation before Rutherford. Physicist Peter Kapitsa faced house arrest. Biologist Nikolai Timofeeff-Ressovsky, physicist George Gamow, chemist Vladimir Ipatieff, and others managed to escape to the West. Somehow, through it all, Ioffe and his colleagues managed to protect nuclear physics.

    During the Great Terror of the 1930s, Kurchatov managed to keep his nose clean and write another dozen articles, two monographs, and two university textbooks with future Nobel chemistry laureate Nikolai Semenov and Khariton, who later headed the Soviet bomb design institute at Arzamas. He worked on the Radium Institute cyclotron, and nine of his students defended dissertations. Just at this time, Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann proved nuclear fission, an experiment soon repeated by Khariton and Iakov Zeldovich and suggesting the possibility of a chain reaction bomb. Ioffe recognized within all these achievements the practical potential of atomic energy, previously the subject only of science fiction. Unlike Western journals--perhaps because Soviet physicists did not immediately recognize its military applications--Soviet journals continued to publish articles about nuclear physics until 1940.

    In July 1940, the presidium of the Academy passed a resolution urging the creation of a uranium commission to tackle this "central problem of contemporary physics." Khlopin was its chairman, Vernadskii and Ioffe his deputies, and Kurchatov, Kapitsa, and Khariton its members. Along with Khlopin, who favored his institute as the center of research, Kurchatov, Khariton, and Georgii Flerov advocated a redoubling of nuclear efforts. But the government hesitated to act on these proposals. In November 1940, the physicists convened in Moscow the last all-union conference on nuclear physics. Basing his conclusions solely on the works of Soviet physicists, Kurchatov presented a paper on the possibility of nuclear chain reactions.

    Under the direction of Kurchatov and Alikhanov, LFTI physicists set out to build a cyclotron. Kurchatov knew the technology well because he had conducted experiments in the Radium Institute--literally a fifteen-minute walk away. But the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union on the very day the physicists intended to start up the cyclotron. Overnight, academy researchers ceased all work on nuclear physics, including the uranium problem, focusing instead on more immediate defense problems and their own survival. They evacuated the institutes to cities in the east. Senior staff and equipment from LFTI migrated to Kazan. Kurchatov and his laboratory moved "voluntarily" to the Black Sea fleet and participated in the effort to protect Soviet ships from fascist mines. Most of the early scientific defense work had little direct application, for the USSR needed tanks and planes more than path-breaking research.

    Kurchatov's family was unlucky. In July 1941, Kurchatov's father was gravely wounded. He died at the end of August, and Kurchatov's mother was left alone in Leningrad for several months during the blockade. Although Kurchatov enlisted the help of Ioffe and other Academy leaders to secure her rescue by December, she was so weakened by malnutrition that she died in Vologda in April, en route to Kazan. Sinelnikov and his Kharkiv Institute also had been evacuated--in his case, to Alma Ata. Sinelnikov settled into depression. His family was cold and hungry.

    In December 1941, as the Germans reached the outskirts of Moscow, a twenty-eight-year-old student in the air force, Georgii Flerov, speaking at a specially organized Academy seminar attended by representatives of the many institutes that had been evacuated to Kazan, argued that the uranium problem required special attention. Many thought Flerov's ideas were pure fantasy. Ioffe and Kapitsa listened attentively, but the Academy leadership thought in terms of years, not months. So Flerov wrote to Kurchatov, in his capacity as the representative on the State Defense Committee for science; to the chairman of the council of ministers; and finally, in April 1942, to Stalin himself to push the bomb project. In the same way that Albert Einstein's letter to President Franklin Roosevelt gave impetus to the Manhattan project, Flerov's letter convinced Stalin to pursue an atomic bomb. In the spring of 1943, Kurchatov, Khariton, Zeldovich, Isaak Kikoin, Alikhanov, and Flerov gathered in a room of the Moscow Hotel and outlined the research program for the bomb. This meeting led to the creation of laboratories 1, 2, and 3 (later the Ukrainian Physical Technical Institute, the Kurchatov Institute for Atomic Energy, and the Institute of Theoretical and Experimental Physics, respectively). In the fall of 1942, Kurchatov moved to Kazan, and then in early 1943, to Moscow, to head the "uranium" project in laboratory 2.

    Until the laboratory 2 facilities were completed in the summer of 1944, some of the physicists worked in a building of the Seismology Institute; others occupied several rooms at the Institute of General and Inorganic Chemistry. Kurchatov requisitioned a number of physicists to the task of the bomb, most of whom were, like himself, "graduates" from LFTI: experimentalists Lev Artsimovich and Flerov, and theoreticians Khariton, Zeldovich, and Isaak Pomeranchuk. Once the building was finally up, they had to equip it--a challenge even in a centrally planned economy because of the ruination of the war. They brought equipment, instruments, and material to the vacant field on the outskirts of Moscow--October Field. The F-1, the first Soviet reactor, was built on this spot and still operates there, on a site between two subway stops.

    The physicists' first task was to build an experimental reactor to study fission and establish constants. From this basic knowledge, they could then move to the design of bombs and to plutonium production and power-generating reactors. Containing 50 tons of uranium and 500 tons of pure graphite, the F-1 was no small device. In 1943, Kurchatov convinced the government to organize uranium prospecting on a national scale under the Ministry of Nonferrous Metallurgy. The prospectors found uranium in the most inhospitable regions, in ice-covered mountains accessible with great difficulty, making mining and removal challenging. The reactor came on line, in the usual heroic fashion, on December 25, 1946; the personnel had worked long hours, put up with constant secret police scrutiny, and never complained. The Russians are justifiably proud of several facts concerning F-l: the time required to bring their first reactor on line was a few months shorter than the time the Americans required; F-1 produced 4,000 kilowatts, whereas the American reactor produced only 200 watts; and the plutonium production reactor also was built faster. Without detracting from the significant accomplishment of the Russians, I might defend the skill of the American scientists by noting that it was significantly easier to bring a reactor on line in Moscow because Soviet scientists already knew how to build it on the basis of American engineering experience accessible through open sources and espionage.

    As soon as Soviet troops had secured eastern Germany, Kurchatov and Lavrenty Beria deployed scientific commandos, including Igor Golovin, Kurchatov's future deputy director and later fusion specialist, to search through the rubble of the towns, institutes, and universities of Berlin, Leipzig, Halle, and Jena for things of interest to Soviet science, in particular the residue of Germany's bomb and rocket projects. The absence of trucks and automobiles made these scientists' comings and goings difficult. But they returned with 100 tons of uranium, small quantities of radium, spectrographs, pumps, scales, galvanometers, various measuring instruments, hundreds of books, and back editions of such journals as Die Naturwissenschaften (1927-1945) and Physikalische Zeitschrift (1908-1945), which found their way into the libraries of Soviet institutes. Although the Americans had already taken the choice pickings, the Soviets took the rest, down to professors, docents, assistants, glass and machine shop workers.

    The publication of the so-called Smyth report on Atomic Energy for Military Purposes in 1946, even more than the actual dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, sent laboratory personnel into turmoil, for this document outlined both the power of atomic weapons and the scale of the effort required. Stalin and Beria realized that time was of the essence. They ordered a rapid increase in the number of personnel in the laboratory and the resources available to them. By 1946, Kurchatov's institute had grown to 650 employees, of whom 110 were Party members. Even though there was a shortage of construction materials, the Party organization managed to command sufficient resources to build forty houses for the scientific elite. Stalin and Beria realized that well-fed, well-housed, and well-coerced scientists worked better than merely coerced scientists. These palatial two-story houses, on a tree-lined street only three blocks from the institute, signaled elitist status in the self-avowed classless Soviet society. In fact, scientists and engineers were the country's elite, and they shared the Party's enthusiasm for science. The houses enabled them to live quietly next door to one another, away from the cramped squalor of communal apartments that were the norm in postwar Moscow. But within the institute itself and for the rest of the employees, problems of adequate heating, repair, storage facilities, construction, and apartments remained.

    The cold war years were years of rapid institutional growth and employment of an increasingly well-educated staff. In May 1947, there were 1,500 employees in laboratory 2, with 255 Party members (seventeen percent of employees); by 1956, of roughly 4,000 employees, 1,078 (twenty-seven percent) were Party members (including 169 scientists, 256 technical engineering specialists, 284 white-collar workers, 14 doctors, 2 corresponding members of the Academy, 2 academicians, and 367 persons with higher education). This rapid growth masked the serious problems of finding and recruiting suitable young minds for nuclear research. Many able-bodied men had perished at the front in World War II; and despite specially organized courses in a series of universities and new training centers specifically organized for the nuclear enterprise, there was a significant lag in writing and defending candidate and doctor of science dissertations. This was indeed a serious problem, for the nuclear industry lurched from one program to another, and from one project to another, with inadequate personnel. They always needed more specialists but had no fine-tuned way to train them. In the United States, both electrical and chemical engineers retooled quickly as nuclear engineers. In the Soviet Union, something similar happened as physicists and chemists from the Academy of Sciences joined chemists and metallurgists from the Commissariats of Heavy Industry, Chemical Industry, Ferrous Metallurgy, and Nonferrous Metallurgy to staff the project and train young specialists.

    An important gathering in the life of the institute was its second Party conference in August 1952. This meeting was held, like hundreds of other meetings throughout the nation, in preparation for the Party's nineteenth congress, the first national meeting held since 1939. In the intervening years, the Great Terror had ended, World War II had passed, and the cold war had begun. But, in violation of the Party's charter, Stalin failed to call any congress, preferring to act on his own caprices. Some individuals voiced hope in private that the upcoming nineteenth congress meant that Stalinism had a human face; they were unaware that another murderous purge was afoot. The so-called Doctors' Plot had been hatched. According to the secret police, high-level Kremlin doctors, most of whom were Jewish, had tried to poison Stalin and other leaders. A number had already been arrested and shot. The terror machine was gearing up to crush Jews (including a number at the Kurchatov Institute), intellectuals, and long-time Party functionaries, when Stalin, to the good fortune of the nation, died.

    Institute physicists tried to ignore the persistence of Stalinism. At the institute's second Party conference, the physicists celebrated significant achievements, the recent award of state prizes to thirty scientists, progress on the hydrogen bomb, the construction of a second research reactor, and the development of an industrial diffusion method of isotope separation. Kurchatov delivered an address referring to the five year plan (1951-1955) and announcing grand plans for the peaceful atom in industry, agriculture, trade, and communications, all uses intended to raise the material well-being, health, and cultural level of the masses. The three major tasks that stood before his scientists were fusion, nuclear power stations, and the construction of the Lenin icebreaker. But, he concluded, armed with "progressive Leninist scientific method," talented staff, and nearly unlimited materiel, they would succeed.

    Even with their command of resources, physicists grappled with a weak experimental basis for scientific work, especially with regard to research reactors, which had hitherto been used nearly exclusively for military ends, and such modern equipment as computers, of which there was only one plodding first-generation M-20. So tight had funding been for peaceful purposes, that the scientists rarely anticipated the expansion of research that discoveries stimulated. So even though the Soviet scientists were always building new laboratories, many projects had to be scaled back. As soon as a new facility opened, the new space and support services were found to be inadequate to the task at hand. Soviet physicists invited colleagues from Eastern Europe to spend time studying with them in connection with plans to build experimental reactors in the socialist countries. But there wasn't enough room for "fraternal" research either, and they ended up lecturing in noisy corridors.

    Stalin's death on March 6, 1953 shook the country. Millions wept openly. Tens of thousands of citizens stood in line to glimpse the leader as he lay in state. The installation of Stalin in the mausoleum that now carried the granite banner "Lenin-Stalin" suggested there would be few changes in policy. His successors worried about how the citizens might react to any sign of instability, and no one wished to offend the evolving collective leadership, especially with Beria still around. Scientists and engineers suffered no less than any other group. But reforms commenced within six months. In July 1953, just after a plenary session of the Central Committee, Beria was arrested, largely because he was feared by the other leaders, but also because he was a murderer and rapist. In the Kurchatov Institute, the Party committee endorsed the arrest without dissent. They had more reason to endorse Central Committee actions than most, for they knew Beria intimately as the overseer of their institute.

    In the first days of the Khrushchev era, when success piled upon achievement, when military interest ensured comfortable financing, and when the Party leadership almost unquestioningly supported big science and technology, scientists had no reason to doubt their ability to use nuclear power to solve a variety of problems. One goal was to redress the trick that geography had played on the nation in locating people and fossil fuels so far apart. So when Igor Kurchatov addressed the twentieth Party congress in February 1956, he confidently outlined a long-range program for civilian nuclear energetics. His appearance at the congress was a shock, for Kurchatov had been shrouded in atomic secrecy since 1943; nevertheless, the Party hierarchy permitted this scientist to make bold policy pronouncements. In his address, Kurchatov offered fantastic visions of nuclear locomotives and automobiles that would never appear. But nuclear-powered icebreakers and other ocean-going craft did come to fruition.

    Of greatest interest to the assembled delegates were Kurchatov's projections for two million kilowatts of nuclear power capacity within the next four years--even though only one 5,000-kilowatt plant was in operation as he spoke. Construction on other facilities hadn't even begun. Kurchatov promised that two one million-kilowatt stations would be built by 1960 in the Ural region. The size of the projected power plants rivaled that of the Kuibyshev hydropower station, itself the largest power station in the world. Closer to Moscow, a 400,000-kilowatt station would be built. The larger the reactor, the cheaper the electricity per unit, so Kurchatov called for the design of facilities larger than any envisaged in the West. In both reactor size and time of construction, Kurchatov may have been well off the mark. But his speech was important for its daring glimpse of the future, which had already opened at a reactor research institute in the city of Obninsk.


Civilian nuclear power engineering began in Obninsk, until recently a closed military establishment. At Obninsk, physicists developed breeder reactors, nuclear generators for satellites, liquid metal submarine propulsion reactors, and the forerunner of Chernobyl, a 5,000-kilowatt channel-graphite reactor. There wasn't much left of the village of Piatkino after the war, just scarred carcasses of buildings, basements, and a few huts. In 1951, the physicists decided to build an atomic reactor there--and the bulldozers came. Where there had been Piatkino now was Obninsk, which quickly turned into a mecca of atomic physics, nuclear energetics, medical radiology, experimental meteorology, radiation chemistry--a city of international reputation after the Geneva conferences of 1955 and 1958 on peaceful nuclear energetics. When Obninsk came into being in 1949, there were three different worlds that existed in the "zone" and, officially, were entirely separate: a narrow circle of German specialists, Soviet specialists, and prisoners from Soviet camps. But after 1951, the authorities had to get rid of the Germans and the prisoners so that they could put the town on the map.

    Like any other city, Obninsk grew, despite remaining closed. The authorities ordered an instrument-making factory, kindergartens, schools, libraries, and sports facilities to be built. Young specialists, who had been struggling with the infamous discomfort of dormitories, gained individual, if cramped apartments. Leading physicists made their homes here: Dmitrii Blokhintsev, A. I. Leipunskii, I. I. Bondarenko, Vladimir Malykh, Nikolai Timofeeff-Ressovsky, Andronets Petrosiants, Oleg Kazachkovskii. They begat other nuclear cities: Bilibino, Shevchenko, Zarechnyi (Beloiarsk), and Melekess. As they had in Akademgorodok in Siberia, scientists assumed they could do no wrong. They used their Scientists' Club to debate philosophy and music--even politics during the Thaw of the Khrushchev era. They contemplated the lyrics of the folksingers Bulat Okudzhave and Vladimir Vysotsky, and they considered the optimism of the novelist Vladimir Dudintsev. Then a young physicist, Valerii Pavlinchuk, spoke too openly, and even wrote to the Central Committee about his belief that there should be no Soviet tanks in Czechoslovakia. The KGB arrested him. He committed suicide. This incident invigorated the City Party Committee to be more vigilant, carrying out a purge of any suspected person. They came down on all perceived dissidents and especially on the internationally renowned radiation biologist Timofeeff-Ressovsky.

    Even before the Soviet scientists detonated an atomic bomb in August 1949, Kurchatov and his colleagues decided to build an electric power-producing reactor at Obninsk, two hours southwest of Moscow. Physicists were confident that they could handle all the complexities involved in the search for, mining of, and processing of uranium ore; the various methods for separating the isotopes of uranium; the production of plutonium in reactors from nonfissile uranium; and the design of construction materials needed to build reactors and different apparatuses. No sooner had they successfully detonated an atomic bomb than they set out to show that they were peaceful to the core--unlike the militarist capitalists--and would build a reactor to produce electrical energy. The channel-graphite design selected for Obninsk was the suggestion of one of Kurchatov's close associates, Nikolai Dollezhal. The 5,000- kilowatt reactor played a crucial role in building the scientists' confidence in the belief that the Soviet Union had a nuclear future, for the reactor was seen to operate as intended and tested critical technologies such as fuel rods. It was also crucial for its role in building Soviet identity in the post-Stalin world. Reports on the reactor at the first Geneva conference in 1955 astounded Western physicists, who had assumed that their Soviet colleagues were as backward as the peasants in the collective farms.

Copyright © 2000 Paul R. Josephson. All rights reserved.

Review Quotes
"Could there be another Chernobyl? . . . Red Atomis both a history and a warning-and a bitter indictment of an industry that was once thought to be the 'radiant' path to the future." --Bulletin of Atomic Scientists
"Could there be another Chernobyl? . . . Red Atomis both a history and a warning-and a bitter indictment of an industry that was once thought to be the ‘radiant’ path to the future." --Bulletin of Atomic Scientists
"Could there be another Chernobyl? . . . Red Atom is both a history and a warning-and a bitter indictment of an industry that was once thought to be the 'radiant' path to the future." --Bulletin of Atomic Scientists
"Based on an extensive review of Soviet-era archives, [Red Atom] shows that nonmilitary use of nuclear power was like many areas of cold war competition: an avenue for the participants to go to illogical extremes. . . . Impressive in its sweep, and it provides essential details about an industry that has outlived its creators yet." --New York Times
"Based on an extensive review of Soviet-era archives, ["Red Atom"] shows that nonmilitary use of nuclear power was like many areas of cold war competition: an avenue for the participants to go to illogical extremes. . . . Impressive in its sweep, and it provides essential details about an industry that has outlived its creators yet." "--New York Times"
"Based on an extensive review of Soviet-era archives, Ý"Red Atom"¨ shows that nonmilitary use of nuclear power was like many areas of cold war competition: an avenue for the participants to go to illogical extremes. . . . Impressive in its sweep, and it provides essential details about an industry that has outlived its creators yet." "--New York Times"
"Based on an extensive review of Soviet-era archives, [ Red Atom] shows that nonmilitary use of nuclear power was like many areas of cold war competition: an avenue for the participants to go to illogical extremes. . . . Impressive in its sweep, and it provides essential details about an industry that has outlived its creators yet." --New York Times
"Could there be another Chernobyl? . . .Red Atomis both a history and a warning-and a bitter indictment of an industry that was once thought to be the ls"radiantrs" path to the future." --Bulletin of Atomic Scientists
"Could there be another Chernobyl? . . . "Red Atom" is both a history and a warning--and a bitter indictment of an industry that was once thought to be the 'radiant' path to the future." "--Bulletin of Atomic Scientists"
To find out how to look for other reviews, please see our guides to finding book reviews in the Sciences or Social Sciences and Humanities.
Unpaid Annotation
In the 50s, Soviet nuclear scientists and leaders imagined giant reactors generating energy quickly and cheaply, nuclear engines to power cars, ships, and airplanes, and peaceful nuclear explosions to transform the landscape. Driven by the atom, the dream of communism would become a reality. Thirty years later, that dream died in Chernobyl.
Short Annotation
In the 50s, Soviet nuclear scientists and leaders imagined giant reactors generating energy quickly and cheaply, nuclear engines to power cars, ships, and airplanes, and peaceful nuclear explosions totransform the landscape.
Main Description
In the 1950s, Soviet nuclear scientists and leaders imagined a stunning future when giant reactors would generate energy quickly and cheaply, nuclear engines would power cars, ships, and airplanes, and peaceful nuclear explosions would transform the landscape. Driven by the energy of the atom, the dream of communism would become a powerful reality. Thirty years later, that dream died in Chernobyl. What went wrong? Based on exhaustive archival research and interviews, Red Atomtakes a behind-the-scenes look at the history of the Soviet Union's peaceful use of nuclear power. It explores both the projects and the technocratic and political elite who were dedicated to increasing state power through technology. And it describes the political, economic, and environmental fallout of Chernobyl.
Long Description
In the 1950s, Soviet nuclear scientists and leaders imagined a stunning future when giant reactors would generate energy quickly and cheaply, nuclear engines would power cars, ships, and airplanes, and peaceful nuclear explosions would transform the landscape. Driven by the energy of the atom, the dream of communism would become a powerful reality. Thirty years later, that dream died in Chernobyl. What went wrong? Based on exhaustive archival research and interviews, "Red Atom" takes a behind-the-scenes look at the history of the Soviet Union's peaceful use of nuclear power. It explores both the projects and the technocratic and political elite who were dedicated to increasing state power through technology. And it describes the political, economic, and environmental fallout of Chernobyl.
Table of Contents
Chronologyp. viii
Acknowledgmentsp. ix
Prologue: Atomic-Powered Communismp. 1
The Reactor in the Gardenp. 6
Nuclear Breeders: Technological Determinismp. 47
Nuclear Concretep. 81
Nuclear Engines: Technology as Panaceap. 109
Nuclear Chickens: Out of the Frying Pan, Into the Ionizing Radiationp. 146
A Stellar Promise: The Display Value of Fusion Powerp. 167
Reactors for the Republicsp. 203
Nuclear Explosions: Peaceful and Otherwisep. 243
Epilogue: Atomic-Powered Communism Reconsideredp. 272
Tables 1-24p. 297
About the Sourcesp. 309
Notesp. 310
Indexp. 338
Table of Contents provided by Syndetics. All Rights Reserved.

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