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Red Atom

Red Atom: Russias Nuclear Power Program From Stalin To Today

Paul R. Josephson
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    Red Atom
    Book Description:

    In the 1950s, Soviet nuclear scientists and leaders imagined a stunning future when giant reactors would generate energy quickly and cheaply, nuclear engines would power cars, ships, and airplanes, and peaceful nuclear explosions would transform the landscape. Driven by the energy of the atom, the dream of communism would become a powerful reality. Thirty years later, that dream died in Chernobyl. What went wrong? Based on exhaustive archival research and interviews,Red Atomtakes a behind-the-scenes look at the history of the Soviet Union's peaceful use of nuclear power. It explores both the projects and the technocratic and political elite who were dedicated to increasing state power through technology. And it describes the political, economic, and environmental fallout of Chernobyl.

    eISBN: 978-0-8229-7847-3
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. PROLOGUE: Atomic-Powered Communism
    (pp. 1-5)

    Like many Americans, I am a child of the nuclear age. My first memories are of fallout shelters, mushroom clouds, and rockets capable of carrying nuclear warheads as well as astronauts. I grew up in a nuclear family. My father was a nuclear physicist who worked on reactor design. I got my first scar in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, home of the United States’s effort to separate the fissile from nonfissile isotopes of uranium, when, as a three-year-old, I fell on a cinder block and cut my right knee. So I have been honored to visit nuclear facilities in Chernobyl, Obninsk,...

  2. 1 The Reactor in the Garden
    (pp. 6-46)

    An unspoiled river flows through a nature preserve. People have come down to the river for generations to fish, wash their clothes, wash themselves, and swim. The river has sufficient volume, in the minds of engineers, to provide cooling water for several nuclear reactors. The engineers plan to build four reactors, designing canals for the effluent from the reactors so that it cools and radioactive minerals settle into the silt before the water is discharged into the river. They finally decide to build six, then ten reactors, each at 1,000 megawatts. They build cooling towers to supplement the canals. The...

  3. 2 Nuclear Breeders: Technological Determinism
    (pp. 47-80)

    Emico Fermi proclaimed, “The country which first develops breeder reactors will have a competitive advantage in atomic energy.” Hans Bethe concurred: “Fast reactors are essential to future atomic power.” Neither anticipated the tremendous technical obstacles to commercialization of breeder reactors, nor the disaster that befell the namesake of one of these Nobel laureates, theEnrico Fermifast breeder reactor.¹ In October 1966, not far from the center of Detroit, theEnrico Fermimelted down. Most of the people living in the area were not aware that Detroit Edison had builtEnrico Fermi,let alone that the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC)...

  4. 3 Nuclear Concrete
    (pp. 81-108)

    The workers of the South Ural Construction Trust poured only 3,000 cubic meters of concrete in 1954. In 1958, they poured 82,000 cubic meters of the stuff, enough to fill a soccer stadium to a depth of fourteen meters. They used the concrete largely for the construction of plutonium production and experimental reactors for the military establishment, their primary customer. In the trust’s first days during the onset of the cold war, the Kremlin exerted direct control over concretepouring activities, with Secret Police Chief Lavrenty Beria constantly telephoning General Iakov Rapoport, the first head of the trust, with not too...

  5. 4 Nuclear Engines: Technology as Panacea
    (pp. 109-145)

    Vladimir Aleksandrovich Malykh never formally finished his higher education. He does not have a diploma. Yet the nuclear establishment saw to it that he was given candidate and doctor of science degrees for his work on nuclear reactors at Obninsk’s Physics Engineering Institute. He was there when the 5,000-kilowatt channel-graphite reactor came on line in 1954, and he followed this achievement with the design of the TES-3, a 1,500-kilowatt portable atomic electrical power station that could move around on railway flatbed cars or even on tank treads. The prototype of this “small-size, huge block transportable” reactor was first manufactured in...

  6. 5 Nuclear Chickens: Out of the Frying Pan, Into the Ionizing Radiation
    (pp. 146-166)

    Sergei Eisenstein, an early advocate of proletarian culture, immortalized one of the crucible events of the Russian Revolution—mutiny aboard a Tsarist naval vessel, thePotemkin—ina film by the same name (1925). The sailors turn against their officers when the captain insists that a hanging slab of maggot-infested meat is fit to eat. The Bolsheviks promised “Bread, Land and Peace!” The bread had religious significance for the orthodox believer, but it meant much more: Never again would Russia’s citizens go hungry or eat unfit food. Yuri Olesha’s Envy, while about many things, is about the building of a...

  7. 6 A Stellar Promise: The Display Value of Fusion Power
    (pp. 167-202)

    Soviet physicists were pioneers in fusion. In 1950, Andrei Sakharov and Igor Tamm proposed a model for magnetic confinement of a plasma under high temperature. Tamm and Sakharov were at Arzamas, the center of Soviet bomb design efforts from that year onward. They received a letter through Beria’s secretariat from Oleg Lavrentev, a young sailor in the Pacific fleet, who somehow conceived of the potential of fusion for energy production. Lavrentev proposed electrostatic confinement of plasma. But there was no way to keep the very hot plasma needed for a fusion reaction away from electrostatic grids around the reactor volume....

  8. 7 Reactors for the Republics
    (pp. 203-242)

    For atomic-powered communism to be more than a slogan, peaceful nuclear programs would have to spread throughout the fraternal republics of the Soviet Union. Not only Chukchi reindeer hunters of the far north, but nomadic and sedentary Turkic people of Central Asia would have to be supplied with nuclear reactors before rhetoric matched the reality of communist construction. Great Russian nationalism and military conquest during the civil war (1918–1920) and World War II had led to the reestablishment of an empire more extensive than that of the Tsarist era. In addition to the classics of Marxism-Leninism, tractors, and inexpensive...

  9. 8 Nuclear Explosions: Peaceful and Otherwise
    (pp. 243-271)

    The Soviet nuclear energy establishment intended the Lenin Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station to be the paragon for nuclear energetics. Four reactors opened by 1985, another two were under construction, and planners expected to use the construction brigades who lived in nearby Pripiat to erect four more. At 1,000 megawatts each, the fantastic complex would symbolize for Soviet leaders and physicists precisely the essence of atomic-powered communism: mighty concrete palaces, energy too cheap to meter, the freeing of citizens from manual labor by wondrous, electrically powered machines, mastery of modern science and technology indicating the superiority of the socialist system over...

  10. EPILOGUE Atomic-Powered Communism Reconsidered
    (pp. 272-296)

    The same engineering culture that existed in the peaceful nuclear industry also held sway in the military industry. Technological hubris, unnecessary risk, and technological momentum combined in a cold war world to create an ethos where issues of health, safety, and environment received inadequate attention. This dangerous situation grew worse because of the total secrecy that covered the nuclear industry. When citizens of any country in the world read that some nuclear program, institute, or industry exists “in the interests of national security” and that its activities must be kept secret from enemies at home and abroad, they should worry...