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Author(s) of the publication: Nikolai PONOMAREV-STEPNOI

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By Academician Nikolai PONOMAREV-STEPNOI, Vice-President, Kurchatovsky Institute R&D Center

The 20th century has been an epoch of some truly revolutionary scientific discoveries and technical breakthroughs, associated with the names of truly outstanding men of science of our time. One of them was Academician Anatoly Alexandrov, one of the founding fathers of nuclear research and development in this country. This year we mark his centenary.

His life in science sets a rare example, even on a world scale, of years of dedicated and fruitful creative activities. The extraordinary range of scientific interests of Academician Alexandrov, his titanic work, natural simplicity in relations with his associates and sense of humor are some of the facets of this truly bright and remarkable personality.

It was back in 1929 that Anatoly Alexandrov published his first scientific work on physics of dielectrics. It immediately attracted the attention of Academician Abram Joffe who invited the author to the Leningrad Physical-Technical Institute. And within a short time the new member of the Institute staff achieved some truly significant results. The studies of dielectrics conducted by members of his team provided the basis of the statistical theory of friability strength, which retains its importance for the modern theory of durability of materials.

In the mid-1930s the young researcher turned his attention to what was then a new branch of knowledge-polymer physics. Studies of their mechanical properties were, apart from scientific, of considerable practical interest. Anticipating a great future for high-molecular compounds, Dr. Alexandrov and his team embarked on a program of comprehensive research and their findings made it possible to establish some general physical regularities for all polymers. Studies of this cycle, performed in 1933 - 1941, helped to produce frost-resistant rubbers on the basis of synthetic rubber and promoted a range of technical applications of polystyrene.

At the same time Dr. Alexandrov was engaged in studies for the Soviet Navy, and his lab, among other things, developed a method of warships' protection from magnetic mines. When the Great Patriotic War broke out, these studies were put to practical use on the warships of the Baltic, Black Sea and Northern Sea fleets and also on the Volga. The new protective measures saved the lives of thousands of Russian sailors and promoted the successful operations of the Soviet Navy.

But the true summit of the scientific and organizational activities of Professor Alexandrov was associated with his studies in the nuclear field. Working together with Kurchatov* he laid the foundation for the development of all branches of this country's reactor engineering for both defense and civil applications. It was back in 1948 that Professor Alexandrov came up with the idea of building an atomic submarine as one of the basic means of boosting the Soviet naval potential. At that time, however, his initiative was rejected as premature. It was only in 1952 that the Soviet leadership signed the appropriate decree after which a government commission examined eight versions of submarine reactors. The list included what is known as the water-moderated reactor


See: Ye. Velikhov, "He Dreamt of a Sun on Earth", Science in Russia, No. 1, 2003.- Ed.

Pages. 5


submitted by the Laboratory of Measuring Instruments of the USSR Academy of Sciences-the former name of the Institute of Atomic Energy (now the Kurchatovsky Institute R&D Center). The proposal was formally accepted in early 1953, and Professor Alexandrov, as a leading expert in the field, was put in charge of the project*.

With the view to promoting the operation of Russia' Northern Sea Route, and gaining experience in the uses of marine reactors, Kurchatov and Alexandrov came up with the proposal of building a nuclear-powered icebreaker. The proposal was accepted, and engineers started work on the design and construction of the icebreaker Lenin. Work on the first Soviet nuclear submarine was, however, given priority. The technical project was launched in November 1953 and finished in July 1954.

Russia's first nuclear sub was launched on August 9,1957. Those who attended the ceremony of "the hoisting of colors" on July 1,1958 later said they saw tears in the eyes of Professor Alexandrov. When he was given as a souvenir a Red Rag of the Shipyard which produced the sub he said: "For me this is the most precious gift in my life. On my death-bed I shall ask my family to put this flag into my grave."

Shortly after a total of eight atomic icebreakers were launched by this country's shipyards putting into practical reality voyages from Murmansk to the Bering Strait, Work went on at the same time on building up our nuclear submarines' fleet, which matched the US potential in this field.

In 1949 Kurchatov and Alexandrov started work on a reactor of a new type-a materials-testing reactor of 10 MWt with hot loops. It was commissioned in 1952 and that was the first practical step to the development of reactors for atomic power stations. The next one was the EI-2 reactor-a twin-purpose units which they started to build in Tomsk in 1953 under the scientific direction of Professor Alexandrov. A set of such units which produced, together with bomb-grade plutonium, electricity and heat for urban needs, came to be known as the Sibirskaya Atomic Power Station.

Work also went on reactors of other types for nuclear power stations. Approved in May 1955 were four more such stations with the capacity from 50 to 150 thous. kWt. Launched after the first-Novovoronezhskaya Station with the WWER-200 power reactor, was the Beloyarskaya Atomic Power Station. With an active participation of Professor Alexandrov studies continued on high-temperature reactors for aircraft and ground power plants. Developed in the late 1960s was the concept of what was called atomic-hydrogen power engineering aimed at producing of not only electricity, but also hydrogen.

The above achievements provided a tangible base for an ambitious idea of building and putting into operation in this country from 1966 to 1975 of several atomic power stations with a total capacity of 11.6 mln kWt. Also taken into consideration was the earlier started development work on uranium-graphite channel reactors RBMK-1000.

Since 1960 Professor Alexandrov headed the Institute of Atomic Energy. At the same time he remained, for nearly 30 years, the scientific director of the key R&D programs for different types of reactors: for big atomic power stations, small R&D centers of Russia and several other countries, industrial units for chemical and metallurgical industries, units for use in space, etc.**


See: G. Gladkov, "Four Generations of Nuclear Submarines", Science in Russia, No. 3, 1999.- Ed.

** See: V. Subbotin, "Atomic Power Industry: Look into the Future Across the Past", Science in Russia, No. 6, 1996 and No. 1, 1997.- Ed.

Pages. 6


While paying considerable attention to the prospects of development of our nuclear power industry, Professor Alexandrov supported research on high-temperature plasma physics, controlled thermonuclear synthesis, low-temperature physics and technical applications of superconductivity. In the late 1950s he and Academician Kurchatov sponsored the establishment of a new department at the Institute of Atomic Energy for studies in radiobiology and genetics. The objective was the development of new methods of radiation protection for living organisms and cures from radiation exposures.

One should note at this point that members of our scientific community at that time started getting information about major breakthroughs in genetics (which was practically neglected). And the newly-established Department launched active studies in this field with the use of radioactive emissions. As a result the Institute of Molecular Genetics of the USSR Academy of Sciences was set up in 1970s on the basis of that Department.

Academician Alexandrov paid particular attention to the development of fundamental, or basic research. He possessed remarkable intuition knowing exactly the time when the results of these studies had to be translated into technological applications, and also when a technical breakthrough could give a powerful momentum to theoretical studies.

His ultimate prestige with the scientific community, profound understanding of scientific and technological problems, an attitude of sincere benevolence to people irrespective of rank and position-all of these qualities, combined with persistence and a sense of demanding responsibility-this set of personal qualities and merits helped Academician Alexandrov to cope with some of the most challenging and responsible problems over the years. These personal qualities and talents helped him to combine the management of the Institute of Atomic Energy with fruitful activities in the USSR Academy of Sciences. Linked with the Academy was practically the whole scientific carrier of Academician Alexandrov, beginning with his work at the Leningrad Physical-Technical Institute (1930). In 1943 he was elected Corresponding Member, and in 1953- full Member of the Soviet Academy, the title which he retained until 1986.

The 1980s saw an upsurge of the Soviet atomic power industry, and an indisputable leader of this boom was Academician Alexandrov. That made the Chernobyl tragedy an even more severe blow for the scientist. He felt himself painfully responsible for the disaster, for letting some of the atomic stations to be put under the control of another ministry and for putting up with certain flaws of the reactor. Academician Alexandrov mobilized a team of Kurchatov Center specialists for dealing with the aftermath of the accident and took an active part in this work even despite his advanced age.

His office turned into headquarters which coordinated the efforts of country's researchers for dealing with the problems caused by the accident. And these problems were many: first, it was necessary to localize the disaster, stop the escape of radioactivity, prevent the possibility of the reactor core melting down, the collapse of walls and the foundation of the reactor building. After that it was necessary to conduct a comprehensive analysis of the accident, produce a concept of long-time conservation of the damaged reactor building and put these measures into practice within the shortest possible time, to develop and put into practice improved security measures for reactors of different types, etc. The Center collected all incoming reports which were immedi-

Pages. 7


ately translated into technical assignments, methods of measurement, technical projects, plans for improvements, etc. The Center issued recommendations based on the results of calculations and assessments. All of this work was submitted to only one objective-to prevent a repetition of any such tragedy in the future.

Academician Alexandrov was against putting behind a veil of secrecy the facts about Chernobyl and the scale of the resulting environmental pollution. He was of the opinion that all of this data should be made public and be accompanied by an obligatory scientific assessments of the impact of the radiation pollution on human health.

Academician Alexandrov's views on the Chernobyl disaster are outlined in his foreword to the book "Two Tragedies of the Century" (Dve Tragedii Veka) by General N. Tarakanov who himself worked on the scene: "... Let me repeat the following as a lesson to the descendants. Atomic power industry is an incentive for industrial progress in general. It cannot be shut down, as some suggest, for 15 or 20 years. That would be tantamount to an ultimate loss of specialists, and then embarking on the old road all over again... It is necessary to keep up and substantially improve work on atomic power stations."

And there is no denying the fact that Russian nuclear experts are doing a lot to translate the legacy of the outstanding scientists into reality. Despite numerous protests against uses of atomic power industry which followed Chernobyl, there is also no denying indisputable arguments in industry's favour. First, this is the possibility of meeting mankind's demands for electricity for the foreseeable future. Second, the absence of practically any harmful discharges during normal operation of reactors. Third, a vast energy content of nuclear fuels and, consequently, considerable savings of organic resources.

Needless to say that the key condition for the preservation and development of the atomic power industry is ensuring the priority of its safety and of the responsibility for it. The Chernobyl tragedy was followed in our country by a lot of work on the analysis of other grave breakdowns on the basis of the available world databank on that problem. As a result abundant information has been accumulated which permits for an up-to-date assessment of any such processes and management thereof, starting from the initial event.

The experimental database accumulated over the past 15 years, modern computer technologies and a clear picture of priority objectives have made it possible to embark on the development of national programs of analysis of serious breakdowns. And this is an indispensable condition for the proper assessment of security provisions for atomic power stations of the future. In the views of Academician Alexandrov this has been the main criterium for the existence of atomic power industry.


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Nikolai PONOMAREV-STEPNOI, AT THE HEAD OF THE NUCLEAR BRANCH // London: Libmonster (LIBMONSTER.COM). Updated: 10.09.2018. URL: https://libmonster.com/m/articles/view/AT-THE-HEAD-OF-THE-NUCLEAR-BRANCH (date of access: 28.11.2021).

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