Research in the field of nuclear physics in the USSR dates back to the first half of the 20th century. In 1921, the Radium Laboratory (now the Khlopin Radium Institute) was established under the Academy of Sciences. In 1933, the 1st Nationwide Conference on Nuclear Physics was held in Leningrad. In 1939, Yakov Zeldovich, Yuliy Khariton and Alexander Leypunsky proved that a nuclear fission chain reaction in uranium was possible. In 1940, Konstantin Petrzhak and Georgiy Flyorov, researchers at the Radium Institute, discovered spontaneous fission of heavy nuclei (without neutron bombardment), as exemplified by uranium.
In the 1940s, the military ‘nuclear project’ gave powerful impetus to the development of the industry. On September 28, 1942, the State Defence Committee adopted a classified decree No. 2352ss on the Organization of Work on Uranium. In 1943, Laboratory of Measuring Instruments No. 2 of the USSR Academy of Sciences (now the National Research Centre Kurchatov Institute) was established; Igor Kurchatov was appointed its director. On August 20, 1945, a decree was signed on establishing a governing body responsible for managing the work on uranium: the Special Committee under the State Defence Committee of the USSR. It is considered that this date marked the emergence of the nuclear industry.
In 1946, a self-sustained nuclear chain reaction in uranium was achieved in the F-1 reactor in Laboratory No. 2. F-1 was the first nuclear reactor in the USSR and in Europe. In 1949, the USSR conducted its first successful nuclear weapon test, followed by the test of the first Soviet thermonuclear bomb in 1953. In 1958, the first Soviet nuclear submarine, Leninsky Komsomol, was built. The country’s ‘nuclear shield’ helped accomplish a global objective: historians believe that the nuclear parity between the USSR and the US helped to avoid the third world war, while nuclear weapons became a means of peaceful containment. Apart from the defence capability, another focus area was the use of nuclear energy in the civilian sector of the Soviet economy. In 1953, the Ministry of Medium Machine-Building was established. In 1957, the Ministry was headed by Efim Slavsky. Academicians Igor Kurchatov and Anatoly Alexandrov led the development of a programme to develop the nuclear power industry in the USSR, which involved a wide use of nuclear energy in power generation, transportation and other areas of the national economy.
In 1954, the world’s first nuclear power plant, Obninsk NPP, was put into operation. In 1959, the world’s first nuclear icebreaker, Lenin, was put into operation. In 1964, the first VVER reactor with a capacity of 210 MW was put into operation at Novovoronezh NPP. In 1974, the first RBMK reactor with a capacity of 1,000 MW was put into operation at Leningrad NPP. By the end of the 1980s, the total NPP capacity in the USSR reached 37 GW. Soviet atomic scientists laid the groundwork for the future: they built incredibly powerful particle accelerators, nuclear fusion facilities for research on plasma compression and numerous other facilities.
The Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986 hindered the development of the nuclear power industry. But at the same time, this tragic accident encouraged a fundamental review of approaches to safety, including the development of a safety culture. The 1990s, which were a challenging period for Russia, also marked a period of stagnation in the industry. But the nuclear industry survived and retained its unique research and production capabilities and, most importantly, its human resources. In the 2000s, the commissioning of new NPP power units was resumed, with power unit No. 1 of Rostov NPP and power unit No. 3 of Kalinin NPP put into operation in 2001 and 2004 respectively.
2007 saw the establishment of State Atomic Energy Corporation Rosatom (ROSATOM). The Corporation was assigned the powers of the now defunct Federal Agency on Atomic Energy (the successor to the Soviet Ministry of Medium Machine-Building). ROSATOM started to work painstakingly to consolidate disparate nuclear enterprises and industry institutes into an integrated and efficient mechanism. The establishment of the Corporation opened up new opportunities for the development of nuclear power and science and for a considerable expansion of its overseas footprint. Today, ROSATOM is a diversified corporation, one of Russia’s largest companies and a global leader in the sphere of nuclear technology.
For more information on ROSATOM’s performance and achievements, see the public annual reports.