Blog: Cold war nukes but not as you know it…

My dad’s a Gurkha. He’s been serving in the British Army for 25 years now and growing up as the daughter of a Captain meant living in army camps since […]

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By Priyanka Shrestha

My dad’s a Gurkha.

He’s been serving in the British Army for 25 years now and growing up as the daughter of a Captain meant living in army camps since my move to Britain more than a decade ago.

Having to go past armed guns with my ID in hand every day when I went home or visited family friends across England has been the norm for me. So you’d think I could handle a bit of security.

But last week I had a real eye-opener, Russian-style security, as I was fortunate enough to visit the world’s oldest nuclear power station just outside Moscow.

We all know security and safety are crucial when it comes to nuclear energy. Nuclear power plants need tough security as they are vulnerable to terrorist attacks. But in Russia they have the added legacy of Cold War protocols so it’s even stricter.

After driving 60 miles from Moscow we arrived in the small town of Obninsk. This was a funny place, hardly a soul on the streets and even though it was a week day, hardly any traffic. Perhaps it was because the Obninsk nuclear power station is located away from all the hustle and bustle of the city as you’d expect.

With my certificate after the nuclear power station tour
With my certificate after the nuclear power station tour

We arrived at the place and were greeted by around six people who were going to tag along for the duration of the tour – to make sure we only filmed and entered the rooms we were allowed in. Old habits die hard in Russia!

Leaving our mobile phones and bags behind, apart from a pen and paper and our camera, we got into a mini bus towards the power station. After about a minute or two, we had to get off to go through even more security checks and prison-style gates following which we were back on the bus and finally driven to the power station.

And there it was, stood before me – an, err, unexpected structure! “The first nuclear power station” is what it said on a plaque on the exterior. In Russian of course, which was translated by my interpreter.

But it looked nothing like a power station. Well, nothing like I’d imagined. No industrial architecture – just another ordinary building. I was disappointed to be honest. I’ve been to the carbon capture testing facility in Mongstad, Norway and that was a spectacular feat of engineering. This looked like someone’s awful Communist era flat!

But thankfully, my disappointment didn’t last long. Because it all made sense when I was told the exterior of the nuclear power station was a façade, built to hide what lies within. A nuclear reactor was a top secret thing during the Cold War. Communist camouflage ….I was even more intrigued!

Russia has always been seen as a mysterious place and the recent spat with Ukraine over gas supplies has shown the faded super-power is still pretty confident in doing exactly what it pleases. It is still a pretty secretive state today, so just imagine what it was like in 1954 when this reactor was built!

Back then no one from the West would have been allowed into the complex. Today it’s a different story, you can get a tour and even a certificate to commemorate your visit.

So what’s it like? Well rusty buttons and dust were what I’d expected since it was shut down 12 years ago as part of the decommissioning process. Instead, inside was a museum marking it’s story. The walls were filled with photographs of those involved in the project – scientists from another time when the world thought nuclear power was the answer to all our needs.

In the control room with Kochetkov Lev Alexeevich
In the control room with Kochetkov Lev Alexeevich

Wearing white lab coats, we walked around various rooms and corridors till we arrived in the heart of the power station. The control room. A white wall filled with different sized yellow, black and white dials and a control desk with worn out buttons. It was surreal to think the world’s first nuclear power plant was controlled from the very room I was standing in.

I was also lucky enough to meet one of the participants who was involved in the start-up as well as the decommissioning of the power plant. Kochetkov Lev Alexeevich (pictured, above) was a legend, I was told, a piece of living history. A frail man with a great story to tell. Very passionate and definitely proud of the Soviet history of the place.

And I could feel that sense of pride among everyone else that surrounded me in the room. The Russians lead the world with nuclear power and even to this day they are proud of it.

Of course it was in the Soviet Union (Ukraine today) that the world’s worst nuclear disaster occurred back in 1986. Russia has never suspended its nuclear energy programme even after Chernobyl unlike other countries. Japan for example walked away from nuclear power after Fukushima.

Not the Russians. They’ve never deviated from their belief in nuclear energy. The Russians definitely don’t think it’s a dangerous power source, in fact they claim to be increasing the security standard for reactors. They are also currently in the process of developing fourth generation “fast” reactors as well as floating nuclear power plants, with the distance into the ocean expected to remove many risks.

Russia’s love affair with nuclear power is set to continue. So could the Russian way be the answer towards a low carbon energy future we all want?

Perhaps it’s time for Britain to catch up…