Index

Development of Plutonium-Producing Reactors Detailed

Sleep of Nuclear Giants

Moscow ROSSIYSKAYA GAZETA, 8 Apr 97 p 3
by Vladimir Gubarev

The Ivans have come to replace Annushka. That's how it was, but the atomic first-born of Mayak had given its creators too much trouble. Besides, it was in mastering Annushka that Igor Vasilyevich Kurchatov and his closest coworkers, as well as most of the operators, were exposed to heavy doses of radiation; there were too many "sows" in the channels: uranium slugs swelled, materials caked up. All in all, there was sufficient unpleasantness of every kind, and for every step in getting to know the nature of reactor operation, a price had to be paid in exposure doses that had not been calculated and were not accounted for. But nevertheless, the creators of Annushka persistently continued toward the goal in whose name they had sacrificed both their health, and long years: producing plutonium for the first atomic bomb.

Joe-1 (as the Americans called our first bomb in honor of "Uncle Joe" Stalin) had been successfully detonated, and Annushka went in for routine repair. And it was already clear to everyone, and especially to the curator of the nuclear project, Beria, that Annushka could not be counted on, and that powerful industrial reactors were needed. A lot of plutonium was required, and therefore nuclear giants began to spring up like mushrooms at Chelyabinsk-40. These were the Ivans.

The first began operating in March on 15 May 1950 [sic].

The second -- a year later.

By December of 1951, five nuclear reactors were already in operation. And a year later a sixth went into construction, and then another, and... In 1978, Ruslan went into operation, the next nuclear champion, the like of which has not been seen to this day.

These were military reactors, and they provided the materials needed for making fission and fusion weapons.

On 16 June 1987, the first industrial reactor was shut down.

Veterans (some of whom had worked here for all 39 years) wept.

A moment from the past. On 11 December 1948, it was decided to build a powerful reactor. Its code name was "Building No 301"... And so it was, but all kinds of disasters came down on this construction site. And the worst was a fire in the summer of 1948, when it was very dry.

The reactor was going deep into the earth, into a pit more than 50 m deep. There on the bottom, concrete operations were in full swing, but no one had been working out any arrangements regarding the pace of construction -- things just had to be done faster... Right there and then, the directorate made a decision: when the zero elevation mark was reached, there would be a prize in the amount of quadruple pay. The pace of construction immediately picked up, concrete was placed in two shifts. However, during welding operations, a spark fell on a trash heap and it went up like gunpowder. The wooden decking caught, and from then on there was not anyone or anything that could stop the flames... Just as these things were supposed to be handled, an investigation was started right after the fire "to find the enemies of the people." An "experiment" had to be conducted: the situation at the construction site was partly reconstructed, a similar trash heap was piled up, and welding operations were started. The fire caught immediately, and that was the only thing that saved many from severe retribution... Well, the pace of construction increased even more, and equipment installation was started in the spring of 1949. And in the month of May the first Ivan began to generate plutonium.

...Vitaliy Ivanovich Sadovnikov's father had started working way back on Annushka, and here his son didn't even get to start his work on the first reactor. We went immediately to the control console of an Ivan. Then he climbed the service ladder, and finally reached the top, becoming director of the reactor plant.

On the pad of the reactor, i.e., right in the middle of the central hall, Vitaliy Ivanovich begins his talk about this nuclear giant:

"This was the first large industrial reactor for generating weapons-grade plutonium. The first installation, Anna, was small, and the technology was worked out on it, but the AV-1 was already a powerful installation. Then came the AV-2, AV-3,... These were identical reactors, and their tasks were the same... We are standing on a geodetic zero, and this is called a zero-point apparatus. All structural components of the reactor go down to a depth of 54 meters, and up to a height of 32 meters. Around us there are 2001 working cells. This is an enormous structure not just in size, but also in saturation with every kind of equipment, mechanisms, cables, units and instruments... The power levels for which they were designed increased by a factor of three and a half during service. In essence, the Ivan replaced three plutonium reactors. In my opinion, this shows the powerful scientific and engineering potential that was concentrated in the Ministry of Medium Machinery, now called the RF Ministry of Nuclear Power. I.e., the capabilities of the equipment were utilized to the fullest, and this saved enormous funds. In looking at the past and evaluating it, we are obliged to remember that... And this reactor with all structures operated for 39 years and was shut down by decision of the Government, even though it could have worked for a few more years. At one time, it was said that the Ivan would operate up to the year 2000. However, the world situation has changed, we have had our perestroyka, and besides there was so much plutonium in the nation that it was not clear how it could be used."

A moment from the past. From the memoirs of V. Belyavskiy: "In the winter of 1949, there was a major accident during construction of a 150-meter stack on installation B. Everyone's attention was literally riveted on this structure. People were straining their necks, looking up at the sheltering enclosure that at times was hidden in the clouds. And all at once we saw that the enclosure was leaning threateningly to the side. It had all but collapsed. Several people fell off, and of course they were smashed to death. Only one hung by an arm squeezed in the ironwork. A surgeon was lifted up to him and at the risk of his own life cut off the arm, but did save the man's life..."

"We had very close contacts with scientists, especially with the Institute of Atomic Energy," continues Vitaliy Ivanovich Sadovnikov, "and this enabled us to maintain the reactor in a very good state. And first and foremost, in a safe state! There were no major or serious accidents on the Ivan throughout its entire life history. And not only on this reactor, but on any of the equipment operating at Mayak Combine. Moreover, not once did we even come close to the `Chernobyl scenario,' although, as I said, we were running uranium-graphite reactors at very high power. I won't go into any detailed analysis of the Chernobyl disaster, though I have my own viewpoint on that score; there's only one thing I have to say: that was a man-made accident! People started on our reactors who later went off to Tomsk and Krasnoyarsk. And, of course, that's because Chelyabinsk-40 is the first-born, where all facets of the nuclear industry are honed. But unfortunately this heritage has had a very high price, and has cost the lives of thousands, but pioneers have always paid the highest price, and will continue to do so..."

A moment from the past. From the memoirs of N. Korneyev: "When it's sketched out, filling the reactor with graphite might look like a rather simple job. First you put down a course of graphite bricks strictly by size. Then a meter higher comes a second course, then a third, and so on until the whole reactor is filled. Since the height of a brick is appropriate -- one meter -- it would seem that things would move along quickly. But in the first place, the bricks have to be ideally clean. God forbid there should be any space left between bricks. The tiniest barely visible speck of dust was considered impermissible.

Therefore, we were dressed from head to foot in white, and just about every day we changed our clothes. And each brick was carefully vacuumed before being set in place. Secondly, ideal precision was required. After all, the graphite blocks were not simple. Laid in a row, they formed an enormous plate with two thousand channels. And these channels had to go through the reactor from the top to the bottom row strictly plumb, there had to be no ledges at the joints, even of a millimeter. Can you imagine what it means to keep 2000 lines ideal when the reactor height is about 30 meters? Therefore, on the one hand efforts were made to lay the blocks as quickly as possible, and on the other hand never to forget about accuracy. The fear of doing it wrong was constantly with us."

"Each channel is closed by a cover. As you walk over the pad of the reactor, you are accompanied by the hollow sound of the covers. Your foot stands on two or three at once, and when you tap it on a hatch, the cover rings out. While I wouldn't recommend it, if you would run over the pad, you might get a little tune, and then demonstrate to those with you that it was a medley of known songs... Incidentally, it is only now that we can kid around on the reactor, with all two thousand channels empty and the fuel taken out of the core.

"And so, the order came to shut the Ivan down," says Sadovnikov. "The fuel was completely unloaded, and all fuel assemblies that had been lowered into the reactor were replaced. Two lines supplied water to the reactor. The Ivan had straight-flow cooling, i.e., water was brought in from industrial reservoir No 2, and then was returned to the same reservoir. This system has now been shut down, but another has been made for emergency aftercooling. It will begin operating if the so-called `graphite self-heating effect' should arise... Anyway, the reactor is under the continual observation of engineering services of both Mayak Combine and Gosatomnadzor. Control measurements are regularly made both on the reactor core and in all structural components lest any unforeseen situations should occur here."

A moment from the past. From the memoirs of I. Bugrimovich: "For me, building the reactor became not only an engineering school, but also a school of life. Here I learned aspects of human nature and human interactions such as I had never heretofore encountered. Working with convicts was especially instructive... In the first place, you can't get kid around with convicts, and secondly -- you can't cheat them. If you cheat, you've lost authority, and with it everything. They might even play cards. It is best to get rid of such a supervisor right away. Convicts themselves told me how they put a work supervisor into concrete on a hydraulic development project. It was not until a couple of years later when someone squealed that they chipped him out. They say he stood there as ugly as life. I eventually managed to get on the right terms with them. The head of the group never approached me himself. In box calf boots, in a brand new suit, he made a bed out of a big piece of felt and sat on the floor of the pit all day long. He had someone to play cards with and a grunt. I.e., he didn't work. But if he was approached and told that someone else didn't want to work, immediate measures were taken."

"At first glance, taking a reactor out of service might seem to be a simple thing, you might say nothing out of the ordinary," says Vitaliy Ivanovich Sadovnikov. "But this process gives me plenty of headaches as a specialist and as plant director. And it wouldn't be any great secret if I were to tell you that an operating reactor gives me much less trouble than a `frozen' one. The fact is that there is no experience as yet in working with decommissioned reactors. And they have to be watched constantly... And once more, Mayak Combined is among the leaders, as again we are doing what no one has done! We have a concept for retiring a reactor, and it is in agreement with leading world specialists, especially in France and England. Only a few stages of work are being proposed. For the first five years, we go over the entire system thoroughly, checking to see that there are no changes. And then we maintain for thirty years more, which is the second period. During this time, radioactivity drops, and after that we will decide what to do next with the reactor... I believe that we will leave it as is without touching it, removing any structural components or changing anything, as is most often proposed by non--specialists. After thirty years, the reactor will present no environmental hazard, and it would be best not to touch it... Right now is the most crucial stage. The reactor is deep underground, and therefore all waste and underground waters may interact somehow with the vessel, and we must carefully keep track of all processes of this kind. I can now say with all responsibility that there are no harmful or dangerous changes or escape of radioactivity. As I said, monitoring is being done very thoroughly, and therefore we are fully aware how important it is to understand and predict everything occurring in and around the Ivans."

A moment from the past. There are lots of legends at Mayak about Yefim Pavlovich Slavskiy. And there are several reasons for this. First of all, he has been here from the very beginning, became the director, and then was demoted to chief engineer. Secondly, he has worked side by side with eminent scientists and the founding fathers of the combine. And in the third place, Slavskiy has done his best to be on hand everywhere, personally checking any job, and in emergency situations he has always been first among those cleaning up. God knows how many roentgens he has accumulated over his lifetime, but he liked to say "several fatal doses, that's for sure!" Yefim Pavlovich was a large and corpulent fellow, and his build once got him into trouble. A minor fault occurred, and a valve had to be closed. It was in rather a tight spot. Since no one was around, and time was running out, Slavskiy himself squeezed in, got to the valve, shut it off, and... got stuck! Help had to be called from other sections, and all together, working hard, they managed to pull Yefim Pavlovich out. He looked around, cleared his throat, let loose with a few obscenities as was his wont, and right then and there gave the order to double the width of the passage... For a long time after that, Igor Vasilyevich Kurchatov made fun of Slavskiy, seeing as they were good friends. And incidentally, Kurchatov was the one who started the Ivan. And by his side were Slavskiy, Aleksandrov and Muzrukov...

"In the central hall of the Ivan, right here at the pad, is the Katerina, which is what the nuclear engineers call the facility that has been made for irradiating various materials. But we need to talk about that separately, as quite possibly for many specialists their second life begins. A new one at least -- that's for sure! "Around the reactor are many different rooms.

Equipment is being brought out of these -- it is needed for other plant purposes or at other combine enterprises, and the great halls are being emptied. Even the former main console has been dismantled, and now the `brain' of the reactor looks like a big empty warehouse..." The plant director led us to one of the defense conversion shops. The place was empty...

"This is our pain, or one might even say our grief," says Vitaliy Ivanovich Sadovnikov. "This is a facility for producing special film that is used as raw material for miniature power source. Watch batteries, for example. We have established contacts with a precision jewel plant. Production there was 30-35 percent, the rest was rejects. And without any change of technology, our films on the same equipment first brought quality output to 80 percent, and then to 98-99 percent! Naturally, they started sending us orders right away. A total of 600 kilograms of this film was needed per year. That's quite a bit, as the film is only 20-25 microns thick. However, the volume of orders gradually decreased, and now has dropped to zero, as our partners have all but stopped producing their goods -- the Japanese have completely pushed them out of the market. And incidentally, they've even blocked all our paths to Western partners, as they have long dominated this field on the world market, and in my opinion it is practically impossible to depose them... The problem is that what we are dealing with is not defense conversion, but rather convulsion, because we are living on a leftover principle.

"Perhaps the Ivan tour should end on the 13-meter depth mark. This is where today's control console is, or rather the console for monitoring the shutdown reactor."

Here we found a lone watchman.

"All's well," he said briefly in answer to our question. "What else could it be?!"

And there was nothing else to ask, because the atomic Hercules is sleeping peacefully, and that's the main thing, because we must not forget that a reactor decommissioning experiment is under way. And the future of nuclear power not only of Russia, but of the entire world, depends on the success of that experiment.


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