History of Russian Nuclear IndustryRussian research into nuclear physics goes back to 1918 when a special office (Department Number One) was set up with the Academy of Sciences Committee for natural and production resources. The new department was to organize exploration of rare and radioactive materials. Two years later – in 1920 an atomic committee met for the first session that was attended by several outstanding scientists, including famous physicist Abram Ioffe. The next year, the State Scientific Council with Commissariat (ministry) of Education founded Radium laboratory (later Radium Institute) under the Academy of Sciences, and put Vitaly Khlopyn at its head.
The first Soviet conference on nuclear physics was held in Leningrad in 1933. It gave a strong impetus to further investigations. A year later, Alexander Brodsky produced the first heavy water in the USSR. In 1935, Igor Kurchatov and his team discovered nuclear isomerism. Within two years, the first accelerated proton beam was produced at Radium Institute cyclotron, the only one in Europe at that time. In 1939, Yakov Zeldovich, Yuly Khariton and Alexander Leipunsky proved feasibility of uranium fission chain reaction. On September 28, 1940, the Presidium of the Soviet Academy of Sciences approved the program of the first Soviet uranium project.
In the midst of World War II, the State Defense Committee decided to resume the nuclear physics studies suspended because of the war. Secret government order № 2352ss on organizing uranium-related activities was signed on August 28, 1942. The Academy of Sciences was instructed to ‘continue studies into the feasibility of using the nuclear energy produced as a result of splitting uranium nucleus and report by April 1, 1943 on the possibility of creating a uranium bomb or uranium fuel’.
An ad hoc committee was set up to take an overall charge of uranium mining and A-bomb development. On April 12, 1943, Instrumentation Laboratory No. 2 (currently known as Russian Research Center Kurchatov Institute) was established with the Academy of Sciences. In February 1943, the State Defense Committee issued order № 2872ss to move the Laboratory to Moscow and appoint Professor Igor Kurchatov as the scientific leader of all uranium research. The routine management of this work was vested to Mikhail Pervukhin, Deputy Chairman of the Council of People’s Commissars, and to Sergey Kaftanov, the State Defense Committee Commissioner for Science. Vyatcheslav Molotov, the First Deputy Chairman of the Council of People’s Commissars, deputy chairman of the State Defense Committee, looked after uranium activities on behalf of Soviet leaders.
The activities performed at that time included review of the prospecting and geological survey data, investigations into uranium fission physics and isotope separation, studies on radiochemistry and uranium metallurgy. In 1944, Igor Kurchatov obtained, for the first time, a detectable amount of plutonium at cyclotron M-1, which allowed studying chemical properties of this element. At the same time, Department Number Nine was set up at the People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs (NKVD) to superintend uranium mining and processing. Yet, that was the war time and every effort went to the front, so the attention given to uranium venture was insufficient.
The nuclear bomb tests conducted by the USA in July 1945 changed the status quo. The Soviet leaders were set to mobilize the nation to meet the new challenge. By its order № 9887ss of August 20, 1945, the State Defense Committee established a special committee that included statesmen and prominent physicists. The top-level oversight of the activities was transferred from V. Molotov to Lavrentiy Beria. First General Directorate (PGU) was set up with the Council of People’s Commissars to steer organizations and facilities involved in the studies on the intra-atomic energy of uranium and A-bomb production. Boris Vannikov who headed the new Directorate was in fact the first leader of the Soviet nuclear industry.
The First General Directorate took over from the People’s Commissariat of Ammunition Plant No. 12 (currently Mashinostroitelny Zavod in Electrostal, Moscow region - MSZ) which re-directed its operations to uranium ore and concentrate processing. Later, the Directorate took Plant No. 48 (now Moscow machine engineering plant Molniya), Moscow mechanical institute of ammunition (now Moscow Physics and Engineering Institute) and several other enterprises.
Thanks to the painstaking effort of scientists the work was progressing fast. In 1946, the scientists led by Igor Kurchatov attained self-sustained uranium chain reaction for the first time in Eurasia. Two years later, this achievement was translated into commissioning of the first 100 MW production Reactor A. It was put into operation at industrial facility № 817 (now PA Mayak in Ozersk, Chelyabinsk Region).
The first Soviet nuclear charge (RDS-1) was successfully tested in Semipalatinsk on August 9, 1949. Thus, the four-year heroic effort of Soviet scientists and engineers allowed the Soviet Union to come on a par with the United States of America.
In 1953, the Special Committee, the First, Second and Third General Directorates were reorganized into the Ministry of Medium Machine Engineering (Minsredmash or Sredmash) with Vyatcheslav Malyshev as Minister, who also chaired the State Commission for the first domestic testing of an H-bomb (RDS-6s), which was conducted in Semipalatinsk in 1953.