ATOMIC ENERGY.EARLY PROSPECTS
NUCLEAR POWER PROGRAMS
THE CONTEXT OF NUCLEAR POWER
The prospect of atomic energy became a matter for widespread speculation at the beginning of the twentieth century. The discovery of radioactivity in 1896 created opportunities for investigating the structure of the atom, giving rise to the possibility that the energy bound up in the atom might one day be released and put to practical use. This aroused great hopes for cheap electric power, as well as apprehension about the atomic bomb. A number of scientific centers, including Cambridge, Copenhagen, Paris, and Rome, contributed in the first decades of the century to rapid progress in atomic and nuclear physics.
It was the discovery of nuclear fission in uranium in Berlin in December 1938 that opened the door to the practical application of atomic (nuclear) energy. Physicists everywhere understood that nuclear fission chain reactions would make it possible to create explosives of enormous power and to build reactors to generate electricity. In 1939–1940 a number of centersin Europe and the United States did intensive research on the conditions under which a nuclear fission chain reaction—whether explosive or controlled—could take place in uranium.
The discovery of nuclear fission on the eve of World War II made it inevitable that attention would focus first on the military uses of atomic energy. Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union each decided during the war to make an atomic bomb, though only the United States succeeded in doing so before the war was over. Germany did not make a serious effort to build the bomb but focused instead on the construction of an experimental reactor.
The prospect of nuclear power was not forgotten during the war. A small number of scientists fled France to work in England and later in Canada on the development of a heavy water reactor. British interest in nuclear power was clearly indicated by the July 1941 Maud Report, which concluded that a nuclear reactor could be used as a substitute for coal or oil in the production of electric power. The Americans were sufficiently interested in nuclear power to insist, when Anglo-American nuclear cooperation was established by the Quebec Agreement of August 1943, that the British renounce the right to use, in the postwar industrial or commercial exploitation of atomic energy, any of the knowledge gained from wartime collaboration, except on terms specified by the U.S. president.
The military and civilian applications of atomic energy turned out to be more closely intertwined than was understood in 1939–1940, because reactors proved to have a key role in the production of nuclear weapons. It became clear that atomic bombs could use as the active material not only uranium-235, which had to be separated from natural uranium by complex and costly methods, but also the newly discovered element plutonium, which could be produced in reactors. The United States built several reactors during the war to produce plutonium.
The first nuclear power plants in Europe were outgrowths of the military programs. In 1954 the Soviet Union launched a small power reactor in Obninsk, which provided electricity to the local area. In the 1950s the Soviet Union built dual-purpose reactors at Tomsk to produce plutonium and generate electricity. Britain opened a power reactor at Calder Hall in 1956, and this generated electricity for the national grid. France's first power reactor went critical at Marcoule in 1958. Like the British reactor, it was designed to produce electricity as well as plutonium for weapons.
The mid-1950s were a crucial period for nuclear power. The United States had adopted a policy of strict nuclear secrecy after the war—even in relations with Britain, its partner in the Manhattan Project. Once the Soviet Union (1949) and Britain (1952) had tested the bomb, it was clear that secrecy would not prevent other states from developing nuclear weapons of their own. In a radical change of policy, President Dwight Eisenhower announced the Atoms for Peace program in December 1953 with the aim of redirecting atomic energy from military to peaceful applications. In August 1955 the first international conference on the peaceful uses of atomic energy took place in Geneva, with Soviet and East European participation. There was a significant reduction of secrecy in the nuclear field: information could now be published about most elements of the fuel cycle, including reactor design, and about the use of atomic energy in fields such as medicine. This was a period of enormous optimism, bordering on euphoria, about the future of atomic energy. Nuclear power was now a symbol of national status and a focus of technological pride. In February 1955 Britain announced a plan to build twelve nuclear power plants over the next ten years. Britain was not alone in its belief that nuclear power had a bright future. In March 1957 the six founding members of the European Economic Community (France, West Germany, Italy, Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands) signed a treaty setting up the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom) to create the conditions necessary for the speedy establishment and growth of nuclear industries. Eastern Europe too was swept by a wave of optimism. The Soviet Union had reacted with skepticism to the "Atoms for Peace" proposal, but it soon adopted a similar program for the socialist countries. It signed agreements in 1955 to help them set up nuclear research programs, and in the following year it opened an international nuclear physics institute at Dubna, where scientists from the socialist countries could collaborate.
The first power reactors had their origins in military programs, but it was now understood that barriers were needed between the military and civilian uses of atomic energy. Euratom adopted measures to prevent the development of nuclear power from contributing to military purposes. So too did the Soviet Union in Eastern Europe (its nuclear relations with China were another matter). The International Atomic Energy Agency was established in Vienna in 1957 in order to accelerate and enlarge the contribution of atomic energy to peace, health, and prosperity throughout the world, while ensuring at the same time that such assistance was not diverted to any military uses.
The enthusiasm for nuclear power began to bear fruit in the 1960s, though slowly at first because of construction delays and cost overruns. The technological challenges and economic costs proved to be greater than had been estimated. The choice of reactors was also a difficult problem. Britain and France focused initially on natural uranium, graphite-moderated, gas-cooled reactors. The United States, which had built huge uranium enrichment capacity during the war, emphasized light-water reactors fueled with enriched uranium. The Soviet Union produced a graphite-moderated, light-water, enriched-uranium design, as well as a light water reactor. Gradually light-water reactors came to dominate the market. France adopted them in the late 1960s, and Britain followed suit twenty years later.
By 1964 there were fifteen power reactors in operation (twelve in Europe and three in the United States) and worldwide installed nuclear electrical capacity amounted to about 5,000 megawatts. The rate of growth increased rapidly in the 1970s, as new and more powerful nuclear plants came on line. In the late 1970s worldwide installed capacity passed the 100-gigawatt mark and ten years later it reached 300 gigawatts. Thereafter the rate of growth fell off sharply. By the end of 2003 worldwide installed capacity stood at 360 gigawatts. The modest growth after the late 1980s came from the construction of nuclear plants outside Europe, notably in Asia.
The stagnation in Europe was even greater than the worldwide figures suggest. Nuclear power grew rapidly in both parts of Europe in the 1970s and 1980s, with expansion in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe coming somewhat later than in Western Europe. After that there was little or no increase in generating capacity in Europe, although existing nuclear power plants produced more electricity as a result of more efficient operation. In 2004 Europe had 204 power reactors in operation (including a small number under construction).
Within this overall pattern, there has been considerable variation among European countries in the share of electricity generated by nuclear power. Britain, for example, obtained 10 percent of its electricity from nuclear power in 1970, a higher proportion than any other country at that time. Britain's nuclear share did not rise rapidly in the 1970s and 1980s, and in 2004 it was about 20 percent. The highest nuclear share was in France, which after starting more slowly than Britain invested heavily in nuclear power in the 1970s. By 1990 it was obtaining more than 70 percent of its electricity from nuclear power; in 2004 the proportion was almost 80 percent. Italy, to take a third example, was generating no electricity from nuclear power by 1990, even though it had imported power reactors from Britain and the United States in the 1960s and, in the 1970s, had had ambitious plans for nuclear power. A referendum in 1987 had led to the shutting down of Italy's nuclear power plants.
Several countries have adopted legislation to phase out nuclear power and to ban the construction of new plants. In 1980 the Swedish parliament decided, following a referendum, to eliminate nuclear power by 2010 if new energy resources were available and could be introduced without harming social welfare and employment. In 2000 the German government decided to phase out nuclear power in an orderly manner, with the result that by 2020 all nuclear power plants will be shut down. Belgium and the Netherlands have taken similar decisions. The ultimate significance of these decisions is uncertain, because new governments could reverse them in response to altered circumstances. Those decisions do nevertheless reflect the deep antipathy to nuclear power that emerged in Europe in the 1970s. The Finnish decision in 2002 to authorize construction of a new nuclear power plant is significant because it is the first such decision by a European government—other than a postcommunist government—in more than a decade.
The picture is different in the postcommunist world. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 it had forty-five nuclear power reactors in operation, twenty-eight of them on the territory of Russia, fifteen in Ukraine, and two in Lithuania. Soviet-designed power reactors had been built in East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Bulgaria, and were under construction in Romania. There was some contraction after the collapse of Communist rule: the four power reactors in East Germany were shut down after German reunification; Bulgaria shut down two of its six power reactors in 2002; one of the units at the nuclear power plant in Lithuania was shut down in 2004, and the other was due to close in 2009. Alongside this contraction, however, expansion has also been taking place. In 2003 Russia had three power reactors under construction, and Ukraine four, and both governments were planning to increase nuclear generating capacity still further. Slovakia completed two nuclear power reactors in the late 1990s. In the Czech Republic two new power reactors joined the grid in 2000 and 2002. In 2004 Romania was working to complete the second unit of its nuclear power plant at Cernavoda.
In 2004 the nuclear share in electricity generation in Russia was 16 percent; in the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Bulgaria it was more than 30 percent; and in Ukraine, Slovakia, and Lithuania it exceeded 50 percent. In spite of the Chernobyl accident in April 1986, there was at the end of the twentieth century a stronger commitment to nuclear power in the postcommunist world than in Western Europe. After the collapse of communism, Western governments worried about the safety of Soviet-designed reactors and took steps to have them either closed down or upgraded, thereby providing welcome work for the nuclear power industry.
As nuclear power expanded, so too did opposition to it. An antinuclear movement became active in Western Europe in the 1970s. The opposition took different forms in different countries; it was most active in France and West Germany, with demonstrations and clashes with the police at the sites of nuclear power plants. In Eastern Europe the conditions for protest did not exist.
The opposition focused on several features of nuclear power technology. First, the danger of low-level radiation in the areas surrounding nuclear plants was a cause of great anxiety—all the more so because radiation is invisible and its effects very hard to measure. The second focus of opposition was the danger of catastrophic accidents leading to widespread radioactive contamination. The Three Mile Island accident in the United States in 1979 and more especially the Chernobyl accident in the Soviet Union in 1986 reinforced the fear of such accidents. Third, the problem of long-term storage of high-level radioactive waste was a major public concern. Nuclear power produces radioactive wastes that will need to be stored carefully for thousands of years, and no long-term solution for this problem has yet been found. Fourth, in some cases, notably West Germany, the connection to nuclear weapons through the production of plutonium was an important issue for the opposition. Beyond these specific objections, opposition to nuclear power was, for many people, rooted in a broader critique of modern technological society.
The effects of the antinuclear movement varied from one country to another. In France, where the movement was strong, the state remained firmly committed to nuclear power and retained the support of public opinion. In West Germany, where the antinuclear movement was also strong, the government eventually decided to phase out nuclear power. Antinuclear opposition instilled in most European societies a measure of skepticism about nuclear power. Public opinion responded strongly, therefore, when the explosion at the Chernobyl power plant released a cloud of radioactive materials that spread across Europe. This accident had a considerable impact on the public debate about nuclear power in Italy, Germany, Sweden, the Netherlands, and other countries that decided to renounce nuclear power.
The actual consequences of Chernobyl for public health are still a matter of dispute, but the political impact was undeniably significant. Ironically, that impact may have been stronger in Western than in Eastern Europe. In the Soviet Union, Chernobyl gave a major boost to glasnost—the process of political reform initiated by Mikhail Gorbachev—and brought to light information about past nuclear accidents. Antinuclear movements emerged in different parts of the country, and work on new nuclear power plants was postponed or canceled. These were signs of a long-suppressed civil society seeking to gain control over unaccountable bureaucracies. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, however, attitudes to nuclear power changed. Movements that had once embraced the antinuclear cause in their struggle against Moscow abandoned it when they escaped from Moscow's control. The Ukrainian parliament voted in 1990 for a moratorium on new nuclear power plants; three years later, after Ukraine had become independent, the parliament rescinded the moratorium. For postcommunist states nuclear plants have sometimes served as symbols of independence, not least because they do in fact reduce dependence on energy supplies from other countries.
Important though antinuclear sentiment has been, the history of nuclear power in Europe cannot be understood merely as a clash between its supporters and its opponents. In the first place, countries differ in the energy options they have available to them and in the strategies they adopt. Britain's nuclear power policy in the 1970s and its response to the oil crisis of 1973 cannot be understood without taking North Sea oil and gas into account. Similarly, one reason for the popularity of nuclear power in Ukraine is that it lessens dependence on Russia for oil and gas. Second, the policy choice is not always between one form of energy and another. One response to the 1973 oil crisis was to build nuclear power plants; another was to let prices rise, thereby enabling the market to encourage efficiency and lower demand. In the 1990s the stagnation of the nuclear power industry was not only a response to the antinuclear movement; it was also a consequence of changes in the electricity market in Europe. Deregulation uncovered excess capacity, pushed prices lower, lessened the utilities' revenue, and made investments in nuclear plants more risky. Popular opposition to nuclear power was one of the factors inhibiting investment, but not the only one.
The history of nuclear power in Europe has proved to be more complex than its advocates expected in the mid-1950s. The technological euphoria of the time led to the neglect of issues that would later prove to be important for the future of nuclear power: cost, safety, and the storage of radioactive waste. Antinuclear sentiment, sometimes expressed in violent protest, became widespread. The rapid growth of nuclear power in the 1970s and 1980s was followed by stagnation. There was, however, considerable variation among the different countries in their reliance on nuclear energy, and Western Europe and postcommunist countries differed in their attitude to nuclear power.
In the coming years European governments will have to decide whether or not to replace aging nuclear power plants. Some have decided not to do so, but those decisions are not irreversible. Other governments remain committed to nuclear power, and still others plan to increase their reliance on it. There are three factors that may improve the prospects of nuclear power in Europe. The first is climate change. European governments are committed, under the Kyoto Protocol, to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Nuclear power plants could make a contribution to that goal because, unlike fossil-fuel power plants, they do not produce such emissions. (Nor of course do alternative energy sources.) Concern about climate change has grown significantly since the 1990s, and this might increase the attractiveness of nuclear power. Second, if the worldwide demand for energy—especially from China and India—drives up gas and oil prices, then nuclear power will come to look more attractive from an economic point of view. If China and India adopt nuclear power on a large scale, that too might influence policies in Europe. Third, if European states grow more concerned about energy security and seek to reduce their dependence on other countries and regions for energy, that might change the context for nuclear power and make it appear a more attractive option. A return to the euphoria of the 1950s and 1960s is most unlikely, however, and if nuclear power is to expand in Europe it will need to overcome the legacy of skepticism and distrust that has built up since then.
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The Soviet Union had an extensive atomic energy program. The program included the use of isotopes as tracers for agricultural research and as ionizing sources for food irradiation, extensive applications in medicine, so-called peaceful nuclear explosions, and an ambitious effort to build scores of reactors to produce electrical energy. Under the regime of Josef Stalin, the military side of atomic energy was significantly more developed than its civilian application. Scientists and workers were gathered into closed cities to build the first Soviet atomic bomb, detonated in 1949, and to design and assemble tens of thousands of nuclear warheads. It is not certain what percentage of the nuclear program was civilian and what percentage was military, but it is clear that the military needs predominated during the Cold War. It is also difficult to draw a line between military and civilian programs. Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev made the peaceful atom a centerpiece of their economic development programs. The peaceful atom found expression in art and music, on stamps and lapel pins, and even in literary works. For instance, the Exhibition of the Achievements of the Socialist Economy (VDNKh) had a large hall devoted to atomic energy. However, even when the technology was ostensibly dedicated to peaceful goals, there were often military interests at stake as well. For example, Soviet scientists conducted 120 peaceful nuclear explosions (PNEs) for excavation, dam construction, and other purposes that were connected with the 1963 ban against atmospheric testing of nuclear devices.
cold war developments
Atomic energy was a prominent fixture of the Cold War, as part of competition with the United States for military superiority and for economic and ideological influence. In a propaganda coup in 1954, Soviet officials announced the opening of the Obninsk five-thousand kilowatt reactor, the first station to provide electrical energy for peaceful purposes (it remained open and operational until 2002). Over the next three decades, each subsequent Soviet achievement received extensive media coverage. Soviet scientists actively participated in the Geneva Conferences on the Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy. The first, in 1956, enabled Soviet physicists to appear as equals of their American and European counterparts.
The conferences were crucial in allowing Soviet physicists to participate in the broader scientific community, an opportunity that had been denied them during the Stalin era because of its extreme commitment to secrecy. At conferences, scientists from the USSR could enter into serious discussions with their international colleagues, and these interactions often eased Cold War tensions. For instance, Igor Kurchatov, the head of the atomic bomb project, spent the last years of his life promoting peaceful nuclear programs and sought a test ban treaty of some sort.
development of nuclear reactors
Soviet engineers developed five major kinds of nuclear reactors. One design focused on compactness, and was intended to be used for propulsion, especially for submarines. The USSR also employed compact reactors on aircraft carriers, container ships, freighters, and icebreakers, such as the icebreaker Lenin, which was launched in 1959. Scientists also worked on reactor propulsion for rockets and jets, and nuclear power packs for satellites. There were several prototype land-based models, including the TES-3, built in Obninsk, that could be moved on railroad flatbed cars or on tank treads. In the 1990s, Russian nuclear engineers designed a barge-based, floating nuclear unit for use in the Far North and Far East.
There was also an extensive breeder reactor program. The most common type was the liquid metal fast breeder reactor (LMFBR). Breeder reactors are so called because they use "fast" neutrons from fissile uranium (U235) to transmute non-fissile U238 into plutonium (Pu239). The plutonium can then be used to power other breeder reactors, or as fuel for nuclear weapons. Breeder reactors are highly complex. They have a liquid metal, usually sodium, coolant, which must be kept separate from the water used for power generation, because the sodium will burst into flame when mixed with water.
The physicists A. I. Leipunsky and O. D. Kazachkovsky established the LMFBR program in 1949, over the years building a series of increasingly powerful experimental reactors. In the late 1960s, they built the BOR-60 with the hope that it would double (or breed) plutonium every eight years. Like its predecessors and subsequent models, the BR-60 had an extended operational lifespan, but also required long periods of repair time because of pump breakdowns, ruptured fuel assemblies, sodium leaks, and fires.
Leipunsky and Kazachko were determined to build industrial prototype reactors as well. In 1979 they built the BN-350 on the Mangyshlak Peninsula on the shore of the Caspian Sea. The reactor provided both electrical energy and desalinated 120,000 cubic meters of water daily for the burgeoning petrochemical industry. At Beloiarsk they built a 600 megawatt model (the BN-600), followed by an 800 megawatt model (the BN-800), and aimed to create a network of 1,600 megawatt LMFBRs that would be capable of producing plutonium sufficient for all military and civilian ends. Cost overruns and accidents left the program weakened, however.
other achievements and problems
The mainstay of the Soviet (and Russian) atomic energy effort has been the development of 440 and 1,000 megawatt pressurized water reactors, known by the Russian designation as VVER reactors. Also important were the channel-graphite reactors (RMBK in Russian), such as the one built at Chernobyl. The USSR supported the diffusion of VVERs beyond its borders, especially into Eastern Europe (Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Bulgaria), and two 1,500 MW RMBKs in Lithuania. The VVERs have been largely reliable by Soviet standards, although the first generation facilities lack any containment buildings or other safety equipment that has become standard in the West.
Reactors had to include more expensive containment design features if they were to be competitive in Western markets, as when the USSR sold its VVER-440s to Finland. In an effort to reduce costs, speed construction, and limit chances for worker error in the field, the nuclear industry built the Atommash Factory in Volgodonsk on the lower Volga River. Atommash was intended to construct eight reactor pressure vessels and associated equipment annually by 1983. The massive factory required the investment of millions of rubles and employed tens of thousands of workers. Yet it never operated as intended, producing only three vessels in all before one wall of the main foundry collapsed.
RMBKs have been even more problematic. Anatoly Alexandrov, later the president of the Academy of Sciences and Kurchatov's successor, pushed the RMBK reactor. Their advantages are that they continue to operate during constant refueling, theoretically could be built in sizes up to 2,400 megawatts (forecast, not built), and produce plutonium, which is coveted by military planners. Yet they use ordinary factory structures and have no containment whatsoever. On the other hand, they have suffered from premature aging. Worse still, the RBMK is highly unstable at low power, an inherent fault that contributed to the Chernobyl disaster. The flagship of the RBMK is the Leningrad station, with four units built between 1973 and 1984. In 2002 the Ministry of Atomic Energy (MinAtom) announced plans to attempt to prolong the operational lives of these four reactors and to build another two units on the site. This continues the Soviet practice of building reactors in close proximity to populated areas and industrial centers in so-called parks that have been designed to share equipment and thus to keep costs down.
Initially, the public enthusiastically embraced atomic energy as a symbol of Soviet scientific prowess and cultural achievement. However, the inherent weaknesses of the RBMK and the dangers of the mindset of Soviet engineers who believed in the perfectibility of their technology and the desirability of unlimited reactor construction became painfully clear at Chernobyl in April 1986. As a result of an experiment that was poorly designed and even more poorly carried out, the Chernobyl facility's unit four (of four operating, with six others planned) exploded, spewing roughly 120 million curies of radioactivity into the atmosphere. This led to a fire that killed thirty-one firefighters outright, and required the evacuation of all people within a thirty-kilometer radius of the station. Soviet officials hesitated to announce the extent of the crisis at Chernobyl for several days after the event. This hesitation revealed that Mikhail Gorbachev himself was unsure how far to pursue his policy of glasnost ("openness") and seriously damaged the public image of the atomic energy program.
A major research program centered on controlled thermonuclear synthesis, or fusion. Andrei Sakharov and Igor Tamm developed the idea for the electromagnetic containment of a plasma in a toroid-shaped reactor at millions of degrees temperature. The plasma would fuse two lighter elements into a heavier one, releasing tremendous amounts of energy that could then be used to generate electricity. This model has come to be known throughout the world by its Russian name, tokamak, and has been the most successful fusion device developed by the end of the twentieth century. Soviet scientists remained world leaders in this field, with programs at institutes in Leningrad, Kharkiv, Akademgorodok, Moscow, and elsewhere. Cost efficiency has been a problem however. Since the program commenced in the early 1950s, it has yet to achieve the break-even point where the cost tooperate fusion devices has been offset by the returns gained through energy production. In 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev suggested a Soviet-American alliance in fusion research to President Ronald Reagan at their Geneva summit.
One of the legacies of atomic energy in the USSR has been the production of thousands of tons and millions of gallons of high- and low-level radioactive waste. The waste has been stored haphazardly, often in open areas, and for a number of years the Soviets dumped waste, including spent reactor vessels, into the world's oceans. The waste has been spreading throughout the world's ecosystems for decades. There have been a series of disasters connected with waste disposal, including the explosion of a waste dump at Kyshtym in 1957, a disaster at Lake Karachai in 1953, and several others. As of 2002, Russia faced financial and technical difficulties in complying with international agreements regarding the disposal of radioactive waste and in destroying obsolete military equipment such as decommissioned nuclear submarines. The human and environmental costs of the Soviet atomic energy program thus remain extremely high. In spite of this, the Russian Ministry of Atomic Energy has established plans to expand the nuclear enterprise significantly by the year 2020, with the construction of up to forty additional reactors and the diffusion of floating nuclear power stations.
See also: chernobyl; cold war
Josephson, Paul. (1999). Red Atom. New York: Freeman.
Medvedev, Zhores. The Legacy of Chernobyl. New York: Norton.
Paul R. Josephson