Soviet Union Completes Its First Nuclear Power Plant Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In 1954, the Soviet Union became the first country to construct a nuclear facility to produce electrical power.

Summary of Event

On June 27, 1954, the world’s first atomic power station began operation in the Soviet Union, in Obninsk. Using enriched uranium, the plant generated five thousand kilowatts (kw) and initiated peacetime nuclear power generation in the Soviet Union. Four years later, in 1958, the Siberian atomic power station in Novosibirsk opened with a capacity more than one hundred times that of the Obninsk station; the Leningrad atomic power facility, with a capacity of 2 million kilowatts, opened at approximately the same time. Nuclear energy;power plants Obninsk power plant Power plants [kw]Soviet Union Completes Its First Nuclear Power Plant (June 27, 1954) [kw]Nuclear Power Plant, Soviet Union Completes Its First (June 27, 1954) [kw]Power Plant, Soviet Union Completes Its First Nuclear (June 27, 1954) Nuclear energy;power plants Obninsk power plant Power plants [g]Europe;June 27, 1954: Soviet Union Completes Its First Nuclear Power Plant[04530] [g]Soviet Union;June 27, 1954: Soviet Union Completes Its First Nuclear Power Plant[04530] [c]Science and technology;June 27, 1954: Soviet Union Completes Its First Nuclear Power Plant[04530] [c]Energy;June 27, 1954: Soviet Union Completes Its First Nuclear Power Plant[04530] [c]Engineering;June 27, 1954: Soviet Union Completes Its First Nuclear Power Plant[04530] [c]Cold War;June 27, 1954: Soviet Union Completes Its First Nuclear Power Plant[04530] Khrushchev, Nikita S. [p]Khrushchev, Nikita S.;nuclear energy Stalin, Joseph [p]Stalin, Joseph;science and technology

Soviet research in nuclear energy originated in studies of atomic nuclei done by D. D. Ivanenko Ivanenko, D. D. in 1932 and was worked out in greater detail by I. Tamm Tamm, I. two years later. Based on that work, supplemented by work later in the 1930’s by Y. I. Frenkel Frenkel, Y. I. and others, a group of Soviet scientists developed several experimental nuclear reactors for scientific research and laid the groundwork for Soviet applied physics. Serious work started on the Obninsk reactor in 1949, shortly after the Soviets exploded their first atomic bomb. A poem, “Atoms for Peace,” written to commemorate the event, reflected a major purpose of the station, namely, to deflect attention from the Soviet Union’s military nuclear program.

On the basis of data gathered after the Obninsk plant went into operation, Soviet scientists were able to develop large quantities of artificial radioactive isotopes Radioisotopes in nuclear reactors. Those experiments led to atomic research in such fields as metallurgy, biology, medicine, and agriculture. The city of Obninsk emerged as an important research center, with institutes of medical radiology, physics and energetics, and meteorology.

After successfully generating power from the Obninsk station, the Soviet Union focused more seriously on nuclear engineering for civilian needs. Before that, virtually all nuclear engineering in the country had been done for military purposes. After Obninsk, a new trend began in power engineering, a trend that gained international approval at the First International Scientific and Technical Conference on the Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy First International Scientific and Technical Conference on the Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy (1955) in Geneva in August, 1955.

The Siberian atomic power plant (completed in 1958) was constructed next, but ambitious attempts to add other facilities waned in the late 1950’s as the economic realities of plant construction became clearer. In June, 1959, Deputy Premier Frol Kozlov Kozlov, Frol visited the United States and said that his country had decided to cut back its nuclear power program because of the costs. Not until 1964 did the Soviets resume construction of nuclear plants, with the Beloyarsk industrial atomic power plant. That system used direct superheating of steam in the nuclear reactor, which made it possible to use ordinary modern turbines with few alterations. This was followed by a series of different types of power plants, including a boiling-water type that was noted for its smooth layout.

The costs of operating the plants fell steadily. Subsequent plants, such as the Novovornezhskaia atomic plant that used cooled-water systems, were designed and constructed not only for the immediate power they generated but also as demonstration models for industrial use and the advantages of atomic power engineering. In 1969, the first fast-breeder reactor opened at Ulyanovsk, followed by the Shevchenko reactor in 1973. Despite the slowdown in construction on new reactors after the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, atomic power plant construction was not halted altogether. The Zaporozhye plant went into operation as early as December, 1986. By 1991, the Soviet Union had 114 nuclear power stations in operation with a total capacity of 37.4 million kilowatts. Work had stopped at sixty sites by 1991, however, because of safety concerns.

Generating cheap electrical energy through nuclear power was a long-held dream of the Soviet Communist Party and its leaders. Joseph Stalin, Communist Party leader and premier of the Soviet Union for more than thirty years, had been captivated by electrical power, and he had pushed the country into a massive electrical construction program in the 1930’s. The Soviet Union became the most electrified nation on earth (to the point that electric shock treatments were the preferred method of torture for the secret police, the KGB). When the Soviet Union exploded its first atomic bomb in 1949, at least three years before Western observers thought it possible, a new source of energy for electrical power generation emerged, although for the first five years the entire Soviet atomic energy effort went toward military requirements.

Even so, the Soviets preceded both Great Britain and the United States in applying nuclear power to the generation of electricity; Great Britain opened its first industrial atomic station in 1956, and the United States opened the Shippingport, Pennsylvania, atomic plant in 1957 (the Brookhaven, New York, plant, commissioned in 1947, was the first U.S. peacetime plant, but it was devoted to research). Although the incident at Chernobyl slowed the expansion of nonmilitary nuclear plants, the Soviet Union nevertheless joined Japan and several European countries in extensive construction of atomic energy stations. In some ways, that was unusual, given the vast resources in natural gas and oil within the country’s borders.

The United States did not, however, lag far behind the Soviet Union. This was in large part attributable to the efforts of Admiral Hyman G. Rickover Rickover, Hyman G. , who had learned of the potential of nuclear fission as a method of ship propulsion while visiting Oak Ridge, Tennessee, in 1946, and who pushed the U.S. Navy to adopt nuclear power for its submarine program in the early 1950’s. Rickover held a position unmatched in the Soviet Union because he maintained concurrent membership in the Navy (ultimately as assistant chief of nuclear propulsion) and the Atomic Energy Commission, and he intended the Navy to prove the feasibility and reliability of nuclear reactors for power generation in the civilian sector as well as for military uses. He oversaw production of the USS Nautilus, which was launched in 1954, and subsequent nuclear submarine programs (as well as nuclear surface ships) well into the 1970’s.

The Soviet Union, meanwhile, came to rely even more heavily on nuclear energy. Of the three major energy sources in the country—oil, coal, and gas—the first did not offer much cause for optimism at the time the first Soviet nuclear reactor was constructed. The second, coal resources, was once considered to hold out great hope for the Ukraine and, ultimately, the rest of the country. The output gradually fell, however, and safety problems increased. Over time, the Siberian production facilities started to replace the European coalfields, but overall production did not rise as predicted. Oil, on the other hand, promised tremendous rewards, especially as an export product in the 1970’s when prices rose. Labor problems, poor equipment, and the hostile Siberian environment resulted in less oil actually being pumped than predicted by the politicians. Only Soviet gas production came up to expectations, but that did not occur until the 1980’s and was insufficient to offset the shortfalls in oil and coal.

Although it was not explored as a major supplier of energy in the Soviet Union when first established in 1954, nuclear energy began to be seen as a way to plug the energy gap and at the same time furnish energy to Warsaw Pact nations without depleting the oil revenues from exports to Western countries. The chief engineer of the Belioarsk plan told U.S. vice president Richard M. Nixon in 1959 that the Soviet Union did not see nuclear power as the most important way of obtaining electrical energy. Others were not convinced; academician A. A. Blagonravov Blagonravov, A. A. , for example, in 1957 proposed a system of small atomic power plants on mobile caterpillar tracks for the far northern regions.


Technology in Stalin’s Russia always had a political purpose. In the 1930’s, for example, high-speed aircraft were viewed as the means by which the Soviet Union could demonstrate the superiority of communism to the rest of the world; the preoccupation with specific types of fast aircraft led scientists to ignore other important design characteristics in its aircraft, which resulted in their inferiority against German aircraft in World War II. In the case of nuclear power, the Soviet Union wanted to demonstrate that it could use atomic material not only for making weapons but also for improving the lives of its citizens.

State preoccupation with easily directed centralized projects made nuclear power plant construction an obvious choice for the Communist system. Unlike a small electric generating system that in a market country could be built and maintained by a few private entrepreneurs, a nuclear plant virtually demanded large-scale state support. Moreover, atomic energy would exacerbate the contradictions inherent in the capitalist system by expanding the Soviet economy and serving military interests. Atomic energy soon became subject to proletarian science, which placed nuclear energy in the service of socialism. Some scientists advocated peaceful nuclear explosions for such purposes as rapid strip mining, canal construction, or filling deserts with water; one plan called for an explosion to divert Siberian rivers.

Nuclear plants also symbolized the Soviet image of size and power—imposing facilities under the control of the state. In constructing many of those facilities, however, the state ignored safety and environmental issues. Western observers who eventually examined data from the Chernobyl accident discovered total disregard of some of the most common safety features found in Western nuclear reactors.

There were also problems in the Soviet Union with the storage of nuclear wastes. In 1957, when wastes at the Mayak nuclear complex in the Ural Mountains exploded, contamination extended for miles and necessitated the evacuation of several villages.

The many safety and environmental problems occurred mainly because the Soviet Union had originally not planned to use nuclear power extensively—relying instead on oil and coal—but then expanded the program too rapidly. There would be an increasing number of news articles advocating nuclear plant construction in the 1960’s. Nuclear energy;power plants Obninsk power plant Power plants

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Josephson, Paul R. Red Atom: Russia’s Nuclear Power Program from Stalin to Today. New York: W. H. Freeman, 2000. An excellent scholarly history of the Soviet nuclear program. Highly recommended.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kramish, Arnold. Atomic Energy in the Soviet Union. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1959. An early assessment of the first reactor program in the Soviet Union.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Marples, David R. Chernobyl and Nuclear Power in the USSR. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1986. Focuses on developments in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe since 1970. Notes the peculiar dynamics of the energy needs of the Ukraine, which led to rapid construction of reactors in that state with insufficient attention paid to safety.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pringle, Peter, and James Spigelman. The Nuclear Barons. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1981. Written before Chernobyl, this book reviews the history of the peacetime nuclear-power industry throughout the world.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wilpert, Bernhard, and Naosuke Itoigawa, eds. Safety Culture in Nuclear Power Operations. New York: Taylor & Francis, 2001. Examines the safety concerns and issues surrounding nuclear power plants. Discusses how employees deal with the safety concerns of the industry, and discusses the management of safe work environments.

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