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By Academician Yevgeni VELIKHOV, President of the Russian Research Center "Kurchatov Institute"
January 2003 is the birth centennial of the great physicist Igor Kurchatov, the mastermind and the first head of the Soviet atomic project. His multidimensional activities covered pioneering discoveries in nuclear physics, and the construction of experimental setups, and the institution of new research centers and schools.
Igor Vassilyevich Kurchatov made his first steps in science at the Leningrad Institute (College) of Physics and Technology headed by Academician Abram Joffe. Beginning with research in physics of dielectrics, he concentrated on such things as the electric properties of crystals, the mechanism of electrical breakdown and the development of innovative insulation materials. The discovery of ferroelectrics* was Kurchatov's first major achievement. An excellent head start for a budding scientist.
It was at that time (1932) that a galaxy of scientists (in the future, Nobel Prize winners) came up with their discoveries: James Chadwick of Britain discovered the neutron and predicted its beta decay; Carl Anderson of the United States discovered the positron and soon after, the muon; and another American, Harold Ury, made a discovery of deuterium. In an abrupt changeabout-something quite typical of him - Igor Kurchatov shifted to nuclear physics. He and his team gained renown rather soon, they were invited to many international conferences and made friends with the world's leading nuclear physicists, among them the famous Frederic Joliot-Curie, one of the pioneers in the discovery of artificial and positron radioactivity, and Sir Rudolph E. Peierls, a German-born physicist resident in Britain, who developed methods of computing nuclear fission reactions, who assessed the critical mass of uramum-239 and did many other things.
The Kurchatov team worked with abandon. In the latter half of the 1930s they carried out a series of studies with neutron sources on new radioactive nuclei, and then discovered the phenomenon of nuclear isomerism; Kurchatov and his men were the first to observe spontaneous fission of uranium nuclei.
The first national conference on the atomic nucleus held in this country in 1933 was attended by eminent physicists from other countries. One of them was Paul Dirac, the illustrious theoretician from Great Britain and Nobel Prize winner. He spoke highly of the conference as being first class both in the quality of reports and in
* Ferroelectrics-substances that, within a definite temperature range, exhibit spontaneous (i.e. in the absence of an electric field) dielectric polarization much dependent on external conditions.- Ed.
the top level of discussion. Paul Dirac said this was what he had anticipated-it was his fifth visit to the Soviet Union, and he planned to come again in the future because his experiences were so precious and interesting. Subsequently such conferences came to be held every year.
Four years after that, the Leningrad-based Radium Research Institute (Center) built Europe's first cyclotron (proton accelerator), and it was equipped in full by the end of 1940. Another setup of this kind was under construction, and a third one was in the gestation stage. Yet the outbreak of the Great Patriotic War in 1941, when Nazi Germany attacked the Soviet Union, dashed these plans. But even in blueprints these setups demonstrated a high level of ideas and experimental techniques: Soviet physicists were on the cutting edge of science and kept in step with their \\estern colleagues.
With war's outbreak Igor Kurchatov joined a team working for the Navy on degaussing (demagnetization) of ships. This work was directed by Anatoly Alexandrov, a brilliant mathematician, subsequently head of the Kurchatov Institute, member and
then President of the USSR Academy of Sciences. Kurchatov worked with much success for the Black Sea, Caspian and Northern Sea fleets. His former coworkers, however, happened to be engaged on different battle fronts and in different parts of our country.
Meanwhile came intelligence reports about the work on the uranium problem abroad. But such reports were received with mistrust-Lavrenti Beria blocked this information, and it did not reach Joseph Stalin.
More than a year had passed before world developments and an appeal of Kurchatov's pupil Georgi Flerov (who, together with Konstantin Petrzhak, in 1940 discovered spontaneous fission of heavy nuclei) compelled the country's leadership to adopt a decision on the uranium problem. In wartime this meant research into the possibility of an A-bomb. Abram Joffe entrusted this job to Kurchatov who, in February 1943, was appointed head of the project. For this purpose Laboratory No. 2 was set up under the auspices of the USSR Academy of Sciences, the future Institute of Atomic Energy, and today the Russian Research Center "Kurchatov Institute".
Kurchatov enlisted an illustrious cohort of talented and competent experts. He did his utmost, what with the slender resources of the war-ravaged country, in organizing theoretical and experimental research. Studying intelligence data, Kurchatov kept informing the government on the work being done and on the glaring mismatch between the goals and the means. While only 100 people were employed on the Soviet atomic project, there were as many as 50,000 in the United States. But Kurchatov believed that the moment of truth would come anyway, and he was getting ready. In August 1945 the Americans wiped out the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by dropping uranium and plutonium bombs with a TNT equivalent of about 15,000 tons.
Stalin acted promptly, he roused all of the country to the atomic effort. The government passed crucial decisions which, for many decades ahead, determined the future of physics, of nuclear weapons and nuclear industries. It was Igor Kurchatov and his team that prepared scientific ground for these decisions. Kurchatov received broadest powers on a par with a government minister's status. Lavrenti
Beria turned his instructions into practical government commissions. Never before and after in world history did scientists wield such enormous power at the help of government.
A foresighted scientist-such foresight was part and parcel of his nature-Kurchatov was single-minded in his search. A broad mind simultaneously, he imparted his breadth of vision to that search and relied on young physicists of the Joffe school, such as Anatoly Alexandrov (uranium-graphite reactors); Abram Alikhanov, the man who founded the Institute of Theoretical and Experimental Physics (heavy-water reactors); Lev Artsimovich who, at a later day, took up research in high-temperature plasma and controlled thermonuclear fusion (electromagnetic separation of uranium isotopes); Isaac Kikoin, involved with experimental studies of magnetic and electric properties of metals and semiconductors (isotope separation by diffusion). (All these men were later elected to the Academy of Sciences of the USSR.) But the A-bomb came first. Here Kurchatov had reliable support in Yuli Khariton and Yakov Zeldovich, both elected to the Academy of Sciences later. Before the outbreak of the war they calculated the chain reaction of uranium fission. And he drew support from Igor Tamm, who founded his own school in theoretical physics and merited a Nobel Prize. Andrei Sakharov, whose ideas were later materialized in the hydrogen bomb, was also in the cohort.
Kurchatov kept tabs on the scientific level of research works and drew in ever new scientific, engineering and production resources. He personally supervised the key- plutonium-line. In December 1946, assisted by a small group of coworkers, Kurchatov uses his own hands in assembling and launching a natural uranium reactor cum graphite moderator, he carries out a fission chain reaction and controls it. Ultrapure graphite and uranium metal were needed for that; and Kurchatov saw to the full-scale production of both. And the reactor "F", which he designed and built with his own hands, is still in operation without repairs and refueling, and it will keep on for many decades ahead. The first plutonium micrograms were obtained on the cyclotron and then on the "F" reactor. In just two or three years, the world's largest plutonium industry grew apace at Chelyabinsk in the Urals.
In August 1949 Kurchatov carried out tests of a plutonium atomic bomb, a copy of the American one. Such were Stalin's orders: no inventions and no innovations for the first test specimen! Yet already in 1951 Soviet-designed uranium and plutonium bombs were tested: our plants fully mastered the technologies of nuclear fuel production. In 1953 Kurchatov supervised the testing of the first thermonuclear bomb (designed by Yuli Khariton and conceptualized by Andrei Sakharov), a year ahead of the Americans. Next, Kurchatov turned to nuclear-powered submarines and icebreakers. He lived to see the launching of the first atomic submarine and the nuclear icebreaker Lenin. A new industry, the building of atomic submarines and surface ships, came into being. Which meant a new science, new grades of steel and technologies. And 200 thousand new jobs.
Early in 1948, that is before the testing of the first Soviet A-bomb, Kurchatov suggested designing an atomic power station. Feasibility studies began in 1949. But one got down to the job at hand only after the A-bomb
blast. The world's first nuclear station was commissioned at Obninsk in the summer of 1954, and it was followed soon by another nuclear station, at "Voronezh, the largest in those days. A nuclear power industry was born. This work was continued in full swing, with an eye to the future.
Controlled thermonuclear fusion was Igor Kurchatov's cherished dream. In the early 1950s, with much the same vigor as in his younger days, he plumped for a practical course of action both in this country and abroad. In 1956, accompanying the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev on a trip to Britain, Kurchatov made his famous report at Harwell in which he used declassified information from a research project carried out at the Nuclear Energy Institute on the possibility of thermonuclear reactions in a gaseous discharge; and he concluded by urging international cooperation. This report gave impetus to research in plasma physics and in thermonuclear fusion as well as to international cooperation in this field and ultimately to the project of an international experimental thermonuclear reactor and, consequently, to the current talks involving Europe, Canada, Japan and Russia which, I am hoping, are soon to end in an agreement on its construction. Thus the last stretch of the path will be traversed toward concerted efforts in thermonuclear energetics, a sun on earth.
While not denying Kurchatov's outstanding role, Western colleagues say nonetheless- that in the Harwell report he declassified data on direct discharges which did not appear to hold promise even then. That's true, and Kurchatov did not conceal this fact. But Harwell was a way station to Geneva, to the conference of 1958, where nearly all the ideas of the present day were discussed. Still and all, direct discharges are attracting both Russian and American experimenters, and their works are producing useful results.
Igor Kurchatov, who built the Soviet Union's first cyclotrons, was perfectly aware of the significance of accelerators and related technology. Supporting this trend, he had a synchrophasotron, then the world's largest, built at Dubna; and in 1954 he masterminded the construction of high-energy accelerators at Kharkov, Gatchina and Protvino. In his own research institute Kurchatov set up an
experimental laboratory involved with new methods of acceleration and headed by Gersch Budker, later elected to the national Academy of Sciences, the man who suggested an original method for obtaining stabilized electron beams. Few would believe in the daring ideas of the theoretician of the first water. But Kurchatov did. In 1958 the laboratory turned into a nuclear physics research center at the reinstituted Siberian Branch of the USSR Academy of Sciences, with Budker as its director creating the world's first double clashing-beam accelerators. In time Academician Budker reared his school of physicists, which is among the world's leaders in physics of accelerators and high energies. The present base of accelerator physics actually owes its birth to Kurchatov.
Kurchatov sees to research reactors being built in Russia and in constituent Soviet republics. In 1956 he establishes an international Joint Institute for Nuclear Research at Dubna and gives it the largest synchrophasotron of the day. And then, in support of the ideas of his pupil Georgi Flerov on synthesis of transuranium elements, has a unique
setup built for him, the multicharge ion accelerator U-300 for obtaining elements with the atomic number above 100. And Flerov did obtain elements 102, 103, 104 and 105 on it. Developed on the basis of U-300 is an upgraded accelerator complex on which Yuri Oganesyan, a pupil of Flerov's, is discovering ever new superheavy elements.
This is what Kurchatov told Anatoly Alexandrov after the testing of a megaton hydrogen bomb: "I see what a terrible thing we have made. Our sole concern now is to ban all that and rule out nuclear war..." With the Ural nuclear disaster of 1957 came an awareness of the ecological threat posed by nuclear tests, nuclear arms race and radiation hazards of the industry. In 1958 Andrei Sakharov, at Kurchatov's suggestion, assesses the consequences of nuclear tests and shortly afterwards, proposes concluding a nuclear test ban treaty in the three media.
Kurchatov also did a great deal for the progress of science and education. At his initiative research centers were set up at Arzamas, Obninsk, Dubna, Dimitrovgrad and Snezhinsk as well as a string of industrial and nuclear research centers in the Urals and Siberia. He was behind the birth of such world-level colleges as the Moscow Physicotechnical Institute and the Moscow Institute of Physics and Engineering, and effected a cardinal restructuring of many other schools. After the Geneva Conference of 1958 Kurchatov pressed for much broader participation of our scientists in international forums and research programs, well aware as he was that science is international and can thrive only in mutual cooperation among the world scientific community.
His single-mindedness, simple ways and sense of humor were a major attraction. He could be even jovial and impish now and then. Kurchatov met all sorts of people- government ministers, academicians, generals and heads of research institutes and plants. He met physicists and engineers. All that was making heavy inroads on his time. But quick on the uptake, he always coped with an enormous workload. His enthusiasm infected those around him.
The Russian Research Center "Kurchatov Institute" was all set to mark the jubilee of its founder. Joining hands with the RF Ministry for Nuclear Power, Academy of Sciences and other ministries and departments, it sponsored an international scientific conference on the implications of the nuclear age for science and society, among other jubilee conferences. A standing exhibition features the accomplishments of the .Kurchatov Institute. One of the exhibits displays the portraits of Science Academy members associated with nuclear physics. Documentary films, telecasts and publications-all that deals with the achievements of nuclear science and engineering. Just off the press are two remarkable publications: /. V. Kurchatov in Reminiscences and Documents, and the book contributed by Raissa Kuznetsova, director of the Kurchatov Museum opened on the grounds of the Kurchatov Institute: Kurchatov As He Was: Letters, Documents and Reminiscences.
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