In late June, Rosatom and its guests from all over the world celebrated the 65th anniversary of the Obninsk Nuclear Power Plant, an important event both for Russia and the entire world. Obninsk NPP was the first to prove the feasibility of using nuclear power for peaceful purposes such as heat and electricity generation for industry and communities.
The celebration of the Obninsk NPP’s anniversary lasted several days. On June 25, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev congratulated former and current employees of the nuclear power plant. On the next day, the Obninsk NPP hosted a scientific and technical conference entitled Nuclear Industry’s History, Traditions, Experience, Knowledge and Employees as Sources of Development in the 21st Century. The event brought together top managers of Russian and international nuclear power organizations and agencies. Mikhail Chudakov, IAEA Deputy Director General, Tom Mitchell, Chairman of the World Association of Nuclear Operators, and Fernando Naredo, Secretary General of the European Nuclear Society were among the guests.
“Back in 1949 when the entire world viewed nuclear technology only as a military one, Russian scientists were the first to suggest a peaceful use of nuclear power … The first nuclear power plant operated for 48 years, which is 18 years longer than initially planned. There was no single accident throughout its operation time, and this is truly remarkable for the technology that had never been used before,” Alexey Likhachev said when speaking at the conference.
In February 1950, scientists suggested constructing an experimental reactor in the Moscow Region to generate 30,000 kW of heat and 5,000 kW of electric power. The USSR Council of Ministers approved the project in May 1950; the construction began in July 1951. Igor Kurchatov was appointed Research Director of the project. Nikolay Dollezhal became Chief Designer as his design of an uranium-graphite reactor was selected for the yet to be constructed nuclear power plant.
The first concrete was poured in March 1952. Pipes, channels and cables laid inside the thick cast-in-situ reactor walls allowed for potential changes in the design. Changes were thought to be inevitable since designers were facing complicated calculations. In order to take missing measurements and make adjustments, a test reactor assembly was constructed and brought critical in early March 1954. Tests (achieving a self-sustained chain reaction) were held on March 3, 1954 proving that the initial calculations were essentially correct, but continued to be adjusted and verified until the reactor reached criticality.
The most important task was to develop fuel rods capable of remaining operational throughout long refueling cycles. After several failures, a team led by Vladimir Malykh created an acceptable prototype. Uranium and molybdenum grits were encased in a stainless steel tube and separated by a magnesium layer. Pouring magnesium into fuel rods turned out to be a difficult process that required designing and manufacturing a dedicated machine.
The reactor went critical on May 9, 1954. After all 61 fuel rods were loaded into the reactor, the self-sustaining chain reaction of uranium fission started at 7:40 pm. “The reactor’s power was steadily growing. And finally, we saw a jet of steam coming out of the valve with a loud hiss somewhere near the thermal power plant to which the reactor steam was supplied. A little white cloud of ordinary steam, which was not even hot enough to run the turbine, seemed a miracle because it was the first steam ever generated by nuclear power,” Dmitry Blokhintsev, who was in charge of the criticality phase, wrote in his memoirs. Research Director Igor Kurchatov congratulated his colleagues.
Despite difficulties with the equipment, the first nuclear power plant was connected to the Moscow regional grid as early as June 1954 and reached the rated capacity in October same year.
The role of Obninsk NPP in promoting peaceful uses of nuclear power is not limited to power generation alone. It became a platform for training nuclear submarine crews, experimenting with new reactor designs, studying neutron flux and fuel elements, and fabricating isotopes. Although the Soviet nuclear industry could hardly be called open to foreigners, Obninsk NPP welcomed visitors from the abroad since the very first year of its operation. The trust in nuclear technology was growing.
The Obninsk NPP was shut down in April 2002, but potential uses of nuclear technology are still studied in Obninsk. “The role of nuclear for mankind is a centerpiece of discussions today. It is not just power generation, but also the use of nuclear technology in medicine, agriculture and manufacturing. Obninsk will be a place where future employees will be taught to use nuclear in different industries. Young people will have great educational prospects and opportunities for getting an interesting, well-paid job,” Russian MP Gennady Sklyar said in his speech at the anniversary conference.
In the interview to the Energy Expert Center (EEC), Luis Echavarri, former OECD NEA Director General invited to the conference, expressed his confidence that civil nuclear technology could provide the planet’s growing population with access to green power, “Taking into account that fighting the climate change is the priority now in the energy sector, I think the nuclear has a future because it can contribute to it. I think the future of electricity in the world for some years to come will be fundamentally a combination of nuclear power for baseload electricity and renewables for peak hours. This is going to be more and more important in the future, because all the societies including emerging countries have aspiration to having a better quality of life. And I think nuclear power can contribute significantly to that”.