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Editor’s Note: Taken with permission from a Russian-published book, Russian Science for the Russian Navy (Rossiskaya Nauka Voenno Morskomu Flotu; Russian Academy of Science 1997; 398 pp); this book is a collection of articles devoted to the 300-year anniversary of the Russian Navy and its close ties with Russian science. 1he following article is an excerpt of N. S. Khlopkin ‘s contribution to the anniversary book.

The use of nuclear power to propel and energize ships and vessels truly revolutionized their characteristics. It brought about a radical change in their combat capabilities, their armament systems and the very nature of their use, as well as in the principles of shipbuilding and naval architecture. Nuclear power plants enabled submarines to make prolonged solo voyages without rising to the surface. As a matter of fact, they became true undersea ships, unlike their diving cousins powered by diesel engines. Surface naval ships, too, acquired a capability for protracted voyages at high speeds and could be used to accomplish combat missions without replenishing their fuel reserves.

Thanks to an all-out effort launched on a nation-wide scale, in which the government managed to mobilize the country’s scientific and industrial potential; notably, the Academy of Sciences, foremost scientific research institutions, design and development establishments, scientific organizations of the Navy, and some of the finest manufacturers in the defense, shipbuilding, nuclear power and other industries, the Soviet Union built the world’s largest fleet of nuclear-powered naval ships and a unique icebreaker fleet.

The first nuclear-powered submarine, Project #627 (Ed. note: this class designated November class SSN by NATO), and the first nuclear-powered icebreaker were put into operation just a few years after the design work in that field had commenced. A lot of the credit goes to A.P. Alexandrov, a full member of the Academy of Sciences, the scientific coordinator of the program for building the country’s nuclear-powered fleet and a scientist who possessed a unique gift for translating achievements of fundamental science into specific engineering solutions in naval shipbuilding. This is how it all began.

In view of press reports about possible uses of nuclear power to propel U.S. submarines and aircraft carriers, the First Governing Directorate (PGU) of the Council of Ministers of the USSR resolved, at its meeting on March 24, 1947, that it was essential to embark on scientific research and preparatory design work to develop power plants of that type, primarily for use in submarines.

In 1948 Alexandrov suggested commencing to implement the nuclear-powered submarine program. At that time, however, his suggestion was deemed poorly timed, as any such efforts were likely to distract resources from the development of the atomic bomb. But then in 1949 the first A-bomb was tested-a factor that made it possible to resume work in the sphere of nuclear power engineering.

Large-scale work on marine nuclear power plants began in November 1949 when three marine reactor design options were offered:

– The proposed StiG ‘Small Ball’ reactor was a graphite-moderated and helium-cooled facility, for which A.P. Alexandrov of the Institute of Physical Problems was scientific coordinator, and B.M. Sholkovich of the Gidro-press Experimental and Design Office (EDO Gidropress) was chief designer;

– The proposed VT reactor was a beryllium-moderated and helium-cooled system, for which A.I. Leipunsky of the Physical Energy Institute was scientific coordinator, and that same B.M. Sholkovich was chief designer;

– The proposed AM reactor was a graphite-moderated and water-cooled facility, for which I.V. Kurchatov of LIPAN was scientific coordinator, and N.A. Dollezhahl of the Scientific Research Institute of Chemical Machine Building (NIIKhimmash) was chief designer.

It was decided to build a complex comprising all of the above reactors, code-named V-10, at the site of the Physical Energy Institute and the three units were scheduled to be put into operation. Soon thereafter, however, the projects were put on the back burner because the necessary resources and funds were re-directed into the development of industrial reactors: Al and I facilities.

On September 9, 1952, on the suggestion of I.V. Kurchatov, A.P. Alexandrov and N.A. Dollezhahl supported by V.A. Malyshev, Vice-Chairman of the USSR Council of Ministers, a resolution was issued under the hand of Josef Stalin, ordering an all-out effort to build a nuclear-powered submarine.

In late 1952, a fourth design option was added to the previous three. Proposed by LIPAN, it was a vessel-type pressurized-water power reactor, code-named ERKT and soon renamed VM. The scientific coordinator for the project was A.P. AJexandrov of LIPAN and the Chief Designer N.A. Dollezhahl of NIIKhimmash. The VM version appeared as the logical consequence of the need to reduce the size of the proposed AM graphite-uranium reactor so that it might fit into a submarine compartment. What made it a possibility was a reduced volume of graphite, whose role as neutron moderator lost much of its significance, in fact, to such an extent that scientists and designers proposed removing all of it from the nuclear core. The proposal was implemented.

A panel chaired by A.P. Alexandrov was established and chose the VM reactor as the main option for the first nuclear-powered submarine. A pressurized-water reactor proved to be simpler to build, employed the heat exchange agent already tested by that time in power engineering and, as compared with other reactor options, carried a smaller load of uranium-235. The decision makers also recognized the merits of the VT version with liquid metal coolant.

The work on the ShG version was terminated in view of difficulties related to retention of fission products in an uncladded fuel element and the inability to fit such a reactor into a submarine.

In view of its large size, the AM reactor, too, could not be used in a submarine. Nonetheless, it was redesigned and put into use in the world’s first industrial-scale nuclear power plant, which, by the way, served the Navy for a long time as the main facility for on-the-job training of electrical-engineering department (BCh-5) staff for submarine complements, and specialists for the LENIN icebreaker.

The design of the first nuclear-powered submarine with a water moderated reactor, for which the chief designer was V.N. Peregudov, was ready in June 1954. The Ministry of the Ship-Building Industry (Minsudprom) then reviewed it and submitted the design to the Government for approval.

During preparations for discussing the submitted documentation, the Government realized the need to involve scientific research organizations and specialists of the Navy in design work (previously they had not taken part in designing the submarine). As a matter of fact, the assignment formulating the required tactical characteristics and specifications had been prepared without any consultations with the Navy. In accordance with this scientific design document, the submarine was to be used to attack naval bases and ports by launching nuclear-tipped torpedoes with a diameter of about two meters.

After a naval panel headed by Rear-Admiral A.Y. Oryol presented its expert opinion on the matter, operational and tactical requirements made for the proposed submarine were altered. Henceforth, it was intended for torpedo attacks on fighting ships and transport convoys of the enemy on the high seas. For such a purpose, it was proposed to fit out the sub with eight, rather than one, torpedo launchers and give it 20 torpedoes. The submarine’s fore-body was redesigned and the entire design, after being agreed upon with the Navy, was approved by the Government.

In 1954, an experimental reactor was put into operation at LIPAN to study the possibility of attenuating neutron fluxes by various materials and shields in between the core and the reactor vessel. Two objectives were pursued, namely, to reduce the reactor dimensions through reducing the number of the shields, which was a demand of the factories involved, and to reduce thermal stresses arising in the vessel because of the heat releasing as a result of neutron and y-quanta absorption in vessel walls, which was considered a very dangerous effect by some specialists. Fortunately, these concerns were not realized.

To elaborate the basic equipment of the reactor facilities, a good many stands were built at OKBM,NIK.IET, EDO Gidropress, etc. Main coolant pumps, steam generators, fittings, drives of regulating bodies, etc., underwent thorough bench tests prior to being mounted at the facilities.

Finally, prototype stands of full-submarine scale were constructed, including the entire power facility, turbogenerators, and the line of the shaft with a hydraulic brake.

The first of them, 27 NM, was commissioned in the town of Obninslc in 1956. A reactor stand with liquid metal coolant, 27/VT, was put into operation in 1957 (in Obninsk as well). After that, prototypes of various facilities were put into service in towns of Paldiski and Sosnovy Bor. Those stands allowed not only complex checking of the working capacity of the equipment and elaboration of all operating regimes, but also training of the field staff.

The construction of the first nuclear submarine was entrusted to the Severnoye Mashinostroitelnoye Predpriyatiye (Sevmash) plant #4(12 (Director Ye.P. Egorov) where the submarine was laid down on the stocks in 1955.

The submarine reactors were built in September 1956. In August 1957, the submarine was launched. In the first quarter of 1958, the work was completed and factory tests were carried out.

The activities to bring the reactors to power were started on April 17, 1958. That night, by the order of A.P. Alexandrov, the on-duty officer wrote down a historical phrase in the log book, “For the first time in the Soviet Union, steam was produced on a submarine without coal or masut.”

By the end of June 1958, mooring tests of the nuclear reactor facility and all other systems of the ship had been completed. The flag of the Navy was hoisted on July 1, 1958 in the presence of S.G. Gorshkov, Commander in Chief of the Navy.

In July 1958, the K-3 submarine put out for state tests in the White and Barents Seas that lasted until December 1, 1958. In December 1958, the decision was made to pass on the submarine to the Navy for experimental operation. The submarine was to be kept at the plant while the shortcomings revealed during trials were eliminated.

The first generation of nuclear submarines proved the feasibility of high-power small-scale reactor facilities, their sufficient safety and reliability. The achieved underwater speeds opened the possibility of lasting cruises. The submarines exhibited satisfactory habitability with acceptable climatic conditions while staying underwater for a long time.

About the Author: Academician Nikolai Sidorovich Khlopkin is the Director of the Transpot Nuclear Reactors Branch of the Institute for Nuclear Reactors at the Russian Research Center KURCHATOV INS1TIUIF. in Moscow, where he has worked since 1949. He was born on August 9, 1923. He is a veteran of the Great Patriotic War. In I 950, he graduated from the Moscow Institute of Power Engineering where he specialized in thermal physics.

In addition to being Full Member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, he is Laureate of the Lenin Prize, Soviet State Prize, and Hero of Socialist Labor.

Editor’s Note: A more personal account of the development of the Soviet Union ‘s first class of nuclear submarines has been written by Captain I Rank George Sviarov and it will appear in the January 2000 issue of THE SUBMARINE REVIEW.


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As in the past, the deadline for completed applications and supporting documentation to arrive on premises is April 15.

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